The Musical Number Seven Plus or Minus Two

The title for this article did not come from a Dr. Seuss book (although it easily could have). It came from a play on the title (The Magical Number Seven Plus or Minus Two) of a dense academic article written in 1956 by George Miller. If you get interested and go and read the article, you are a confirmed geek (just like me). Also, another very interesting, more general book is The Information by James Gleick (published 2012).

Miller was writing about the seemingly nefarious limitations hard-wired into the human brain to limit our attention span. Miller discusses various experiments. Typically, they found the limiting factor to be-you guessed it; seven, plus or minus two. In one experiment they showed subjects anywhere from 1 to 200 dots for 1/5 of a second. The subjects had to tell the number of dots they had seen. The experimenters found that with 5 dots or less, the subjects were always correct. They coined a word for this phenomenon – ‘subitizing’. Any more than that, and the subjects were guessing, or a more scientifically, ‘estimating’. In one experiment, they played random music notes to subjects. They found that people could generally only remember six notes.

Now, I don’t want to try to say the ‘Magical Number Seven’ article, or the associated experiments scientifically prove the points I will make later. However, to me this material is fascinating. I think the article makes some very strong inferences. By the way, I find all of these topics rich for exploration; man vs. machine, computer processing vs. the human brain, artificial intelligence vs. human consciousness, divine vs. human, and science vs. art. I could go on. You could replace vs. with intersecting, or intermingling. Here the quote ‘stirring does not separate’ seems appropriate (that’s from the Gleick book). I think we can learn from thinking on this intermixing, but in the end, it’s like we are just taken to the edge of the lake. We can’t ‘prove’ our particular point. For example, science can’t ‘prove’ who the greatest guitar or composer has been.

Comedy often shows us the truth by being absurd. The IT Crowd was a British comedy series about some misfits who were banished to the basement of their office building. Anyway, one episode the British emergency services were changing their emergency number from ‘999’ to a 19-digit emergency number. One of the characters saw the television ad for the new number. He was happily singing the song for the new number the whole episode. That is until the end of the show when he actually had to call the number. He couldn’t remember it.

Okay, I want to bring these threads together. Whether you are a player or a listener, hopefully this will help you to have a better appreciation of melody in music. (And if you write, to compose better melodies.)

Point #1) Most great music, or melody, is composed of very short ideas. When I say idea, I could have also used the word motif. Motif sounds more sophisticated. I consider an idea, or motif, to be the smallest group of notes where the song or melody can still be recognized. How short are we talking here? Well, consider the Beatles song Hey Jude. I think most people familiar with the song would recognize it by hearing the first two notes of the verse, ‘Hey Jude’. Those two notes are an independent motif or idea. Those two notes can identify that song.

Consider the iconic song ‘Layla’. It opens with a classic high guitar riff. (Duane Allman came up with the Layla guitar part from an Albert King vocal part on the song As the Years Go Passing By. Allman and Eric Clapton played their guitars through Fender Champ amps with the volume turned all the way up.) The opening guitar part for ‘Layla’ has two different motifs, or ideas. At first just one part is played. Then it is silent while a rhythm guitar part fills in (with short musical ideas). Before too long, the second high guitar part starts. Musical ideas often occur in pairs. There is a pause, or break between the ideas. These pairs of musical ideas are sometimes called ‘question’ and ‘answer’. That brings me to my next point.

Point #2) Most great music, is really a collection of short musical ideas. Let’s go again to the song Hey Jude. Here’s how I would divide the first verse into musical ideas.

Hey Jude/don’t make it bad/you were made to/go out and get her/

Remember/to let her into your heart/then you can start/to make it/better

Now somebody could disagree with the way I categorized the musical ideas for the first verse of ‘Hey Jude’. That’s okay. That is not the point. The point is we want to learn from what the Beatles did so we can appreciate music more, and maybe we can create better music. I don’t think anyone can argue with the fact that there is a ton of musical ideas crammed into that one verse of music.

Okay, your takeaway from this is to start listening for and be aware of the short musical ideas that make up the music that you hear. As I mentioned about the guitar parts in Layla, musical ideas are often separated by pauses, or breaks. This is similar to commas, or periods in sentences. Using the same analogy, these musical ideas are combined to form sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and even books. The notes are the words. But that is a whole different article on musical structure.

In the meantime, why don’t you go listen to The Seventh Sojourn by The Moody Blues, or Seven Bridges Road by The Eagles, or Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes, or 7 by Prince, or…