Three Tear-Jerkers, and How to Do It Yourself!

Massenet wrote a bunch of operas, and he liked leitmotifs a lot, so much so that his fans say he out-Wagnered Wagner.  Despite all this hard work in long forms, his most famous (and beloved) composition is this pretty intermezzo from Thaïs:

There’s a melodic moment at about 0:45 in that video, and I recommend you try it for yourself:

  1. Establish the tonic major chord.
  2. Let the melody footle about a bit, in a rising fashion, until it hits the fifth degree of the scale.
  3. Drop an octave. You’re still on the fifth degree, but an octave lower.
  4. Go up a tone, to the sixth degree of the scale, and shift the chord underneath to the subdominant.

In Massenet’s case (D major, two sharps), it looks like this:

If I’m right to recommend this little melodic trick, there should be other examples from other composers who have tugged the heartstrings by this method, and raked in the cash. Ladies and gentlemen, Roger Whittaker’s The Last Farewell (1971, although it didn’t chart until 1975). Whittaker does it around the 0:32 mark, and even more clearly at 0:53

Furthermore, Stephen Sondheim’s only bona fide chart hit, as performed by Judy Collins, also happened in the Spring of 1975.  The two composers composed independently, but the hits occurred at the same time.  Mere coincidence?  The instrumental intro does the trick at 0:26, and the vocal version is at 0:54

Now that I see the timings on these videos, I have one more recommendation:

        5.  Do it early in the tune.  The end of bar 3 seems to be the sweet spot.


5 thoughts on “Three Tear-Jerkers, and How to Do It Yourself!

  1. That’s tops.

    Reminds me of a doco I saw on synaesthesia. A neuroscientist claimed that everyone has synaesthesia at a deep level – it’s the cognitive basis for metaphor – but that only a minority of people actually notice it very much.

    They also talked about musical metaphors (“high” and “low” notes, which map vertical space onto frequency) and how these aren’t just cultural constructs: we’re hard-wired to perceive them that way, and the way the human body resonates when singing probably helps too.

    So in theory, more complicated musical patterns could correlate to emotional states.

    To me, the tear-jerk melody/progression sounds like a fluttering of hope, which almost rises to happiness (at the high note) but then goes melancholy again.

    Although for some reason I always perceive the dominant-to-subdominant cadence as sad, or at least nostalgic, so my own synaesthesia may be getting in the way.

    • I’m with you on the rise to happiness followed by melancholy, and the I-IV progression often sounding sadder than it’s supposed to. And I don’t have a bit of synaesthesia – at least, not that I’ve noticed.

      You’d be the right person to advise me: if the harmonic series is a physical constant, and if our musical metaphors might be hard-wired into us, why do makers of sci-fi always depict aliens species playing mixolydian faux-Arabic stuff?

      I mean, Martians might not have equal temperament, but there’s a good chance they’d enjoy a major triad just as much as we do.

  2. Peter, I’ve only just stumbled across your sensational blog – Love It!

    Not all cultures *do* use high/low to distinguish pitch, I’ve been reliably informed, but I’m not the ethnomusicological expert we would need to turn to in such a discussion (I can’t point you in the direction of the cultures with other metaphors for the sonic experience). Needless to say, the mixolydian faux-Arabic stuff is clearly Orientalism in its most extreme form of representing ‘other’.

    And can I suggest that the subdominant chord is not so much ‘sad’ as it is a release chord – a modulation to the subdominant feels as if you’re now sitting a little lower in your chair, a little more subdued, a little less likely to take on the world. Modulating to the dominant, on the other hand, is like a spark to a fire. And I would further suggest it’s explicable by thinking about these modulations through the prism of the Mixolydian mode (as one falls to the subdominant) and the Lydian mode (as one rises to the dominant) – both major/happy modes, but with wildly differing energy levels.

    Love what you do with the song analyses – I’ll be back!

    • Elissa, we are clearly kindred scale-geeks. Welcome and thank you.

      My ears are hopelessly 20th century, I’ve decided. I’ve read, in any number of places, precisely what you describe here, and yet I can’t join the party. I know that a modulation to the subdominant is supposed to feel subdued and relaxing, but I can think of two (very kitsch) occasions when my ears refused to perceive it as such. They were:

      Mull of Kintyre – Wings
      Unexpected Song – from Tell Me on a Sunday

      Vulgar, brutal, unsubtle key changes these. Both of ’em, and yet in my teens they sounded to me like a revelation, like a spark, like the very arrival of Prometheus, torch in hand.

      These days my reponse is a little more measured.

      As for modulations to the dominant, I always hear them as incomplete, as if the old tonic is just waiting to re-assert itself. It makes the second subjects in Haydn symphonies very difficult to enjoy properly.

  3. Unexpected Song is a really, really interesting example! Right on the surface the modulation *rises* to the subdominant, rather than falling, but even that doesn’t explain the genuine feeling of revelation that that modulation creates.

    I think that this revelatory feeling in this instance is because it was actually a surprise in the bar(s) prior to actually arrive back at the tonic – the 7th hand been flattened, and we experience that 7th being raised back up just prior to the modulation to the subdominant (which of course flattens the 7th again, but the modulation is not achieved *through* that flattening). I honestly think it’s the feeling of mystery and meandering prior to the modulation that makes it seem like such a positive development…. But what a great example of the subdominant being anything but subdued!!!

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