“What I Learned from Lonnie” pt. V: three times 2, and 7 and 4

[This post concludes the series about Dylan’s idea of “mathematical music” in Chronicles]

When Dylan talks freely, he can be very eloquent, and one feels one is snapping at the heels of pure genius. But once he starts giving examples, it all sounds quote mundane, and very banal, and one is left thinking “Was that it?!”
And of course it wasn’t — one realizes that some people are better poets than teachers.

Let this be the introduction to this last installment in the Lonnie-series, where the shroud of doubt is lifted and everything is explained:

* * *

Today’s lesson is from I Chronicles, Ch. 4

In a diatonic scale there are eight notes, in a pentatonic there are five. If you’re using the first scale, and you hit 2, 5 and 7 to the phrase and then repeat it, a melody forms. Or you can use 2 three times. Or you can use 4 once and 7 twice. It’s indefinite what you can do, and each time would create a different melody.

Now, what is he talking about?!
In a way, it’s very simple. In a scale there are certain tones, and if you pick some of them and put them together in a sequence, “a melody forms”.
I doubt it, however, that his point is as trivial as that. He’s not describing just any melody, but rather a way of creating counter-melodies that — for some mysterious reason, which in Dylan’s version of it is connected with the symbolic force of numbers (or with the force of numbers tout court) — will always yield good results.

2, 5, 7, 4, 2, 7, … whaat?!

And this melody – just what is it? First of all, I severely doubt that the exact tones he mentions has anything to do with it; most likely, they are whatever numbers popped into his mind at the time of writing it (the passage in the book resembles the kind of vague ramblings that he occasionally gets himself into during interviews). But for the sake of completeness, let’s take his example at face value and see what the result becomes. In the key of G, we get the following:

  Chord    Scale                       alternatively:
||--3--||-----------------0--2--3--||  --1--3---||
||--0--||--------0--1--3-----------||  ---------||
||--0--||--0--2--------------------||  ---------||
||--0--||--------------------------||  ---------||
||--2--||--------------------------||  ---------||
||--3--||--------------------------||  ---------||
           1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8        7  8
    2  5  7  2  5  7      2  2  2      4  7  7      

The first thing we notice is that the steps 2, 5, and 7 incidentally form a chord: D major (or D minor, if we use the minor seventh for the ‘7’). This might be a clue to a solution, but I don’t think it is, for several reasons. The main reason is that the tones and the melodic fragment that is mentioned here, a broken D major chord against (or even ‘in’) the key of G, is not something I recognize from Dylan’s music making. The dominant is not very important in Dylan’s music — one might say: other than by being absent (in which capacity it draws some attention to itself).
The other reason is that the D major chord emerges out of the numbers 2, 5, 7 only on the assumption that Dylan uses the traditional numbering of the tones in the scale, but this is not necessarily so. We know from the terminology of blues musicians that there are many ways to refer to chords and scales. I don’t know if Lonnie Johnson is known to have used any particular terminology in this respect, but at least one alternative is worth mentioning before we abandon the search for a meaning in those particular numbers: If we shift the relation between numbers and scale one step, so that ‘1’ denotes the first step up from the keynote, we get the following:

  Chord    Scale                       alternatively:
||--3--||-----------------0--2--3--||  --1--3---||
||--0--||--------0--1--3-----------||  ---------||
||--0--||--0--2--------------------||  ---------||
||--0--||--------------------------||  ---------||
||--2--||--------------------------||  ---------||
||--3--||--------------------------||  ---------||
           0  1  2  3  4  5  6  7        6  7 
    2  5  7  2  5  7      2  2  2      4  7  7      

This makes far more sense: a playing around with the main steps in the chord, with a sixth thrown in for good measure. This accomodates both the ‘sing-song’ style of singing that we all love so well, and many of Dylan’s trademark licks.

Another take

In a more thorough study than this, I would have gone through a number of tapes and searched out examples to corroborate this interpretation. Here, I’ll let it remain as a vague suggestion. The main reason for this is not laziness (although that is part of it), but the strong suspicion that the search would be futile; one might find such examples, but they would not prove anything. A more fruitful path is, I believe, to take Dylan’s statement more as an indication of a general principle than as an exact example.
This principle would consist in

  • a selection of some scale steps, either within the chord or, for that matter, outside of it,
  • which are combined to simple patterns
  • which are repeated or combined as building blocks.

This not only makes sense in relation to Dylan’s music making since 1988, it also makes sense as a description of an improvisational system. In order to be usable in practice — not the least as a ‘learned’ system — such a system should be simple, and it should be based on or related to a wider musical system (in this case, e.g. the musical grammar of the blues and its descendents).

A little music theory (has never hurt anyone)

A tonal system means a system out of which meaning can be gleaned from conjunctions of tones. Fundamentally, musical meaning does not lie in the connection between certain tones and something in the outside world (i.e. a piece of music cannot in itself mean love, rain, brick walls, etc.), but is founded on connections between certain combinations of sounds and certain experiences and expectations, and this must be learned, through repeated exposure to the connection and to the regularity by which the sound is accompanied by the experience. This is what we know when we know a musical style: we know that in a blues tune an E is followed by an A, and we expect a turnaround at the end. In this way, and only in this way, can the tones of “Another Brick In The Wall” mean meat grinder, inhumanity, and bricks.
Musical meaning thus lies in a habitual fulfillment of the expectation of this kind of connection to take place — and the constant adjustment of expectations against the experienced fulfillments.

A complex system at the base allows for a wide array of possible meanings within the system. In the classical music tradition, harmony has been the central field of development since the fourteenth century, culminating in the invention of the twelve-tone technique in the early twentieth century. Thereby, the range of possible connections between tones was stretched to the extreme (some would say: beyond that): everything is accounted for (or accountable) within the system.
But that is not the only option. Expectations can be established temporarily. Play an ever-changing series of tones, and nobody knows what to expect for the next tone — play 2, 5, 7, 2, 5, 7, and you have already established a pattern with certain inherent rules, and play that against a song which follows another set of rules, and you already have a quite complex field of potential meaning, created with very simple means.

Against this background, Dylan’s description can be rephrased in more general terms:

  • Make patterns out of any selection of tones, and repeat and combine them;
    by repeating the patterns, you thereby temporarily establish a new tonal system, exploiting the field of tension between the musical backbone of the song and the new pattern;
  • this meaning is brought out in the interplay between expectations and experience — between the cultural knowledge that the listeners and the musicians have, and the newly established tonal system;
  • in order for this to be recognized as a new tonal system, however ephemeral, in the short time that is at the musician’s disposal, the patterns must be simple;
  • but if they are, and a balance is struck betw een redundancy and inventiveness (there is a limit to how long you can play 2,5,7,2,5,7), it will always work, with these very simple means.

A translation

This is, I believe, the core of Dylan’s technique, which he has explored — with varying degrees of success, but mostly ending up with a huge surplus in the balance — during the 90s and the 00s. It also explains some of his other statements where he explains his system in more general terms:

A song executes itself on several fronts and you can ignore musical customs. All you need is a drummer and a bass player, and all shortcomings become irrelevant as long as you stick to the system.
. . .
The method works on higher or lower degrees depending on different patterns and the syncopation of a piece.
Very few would be converted to it because it had nothing to do with technique and musicians work their whole lives to be technically superior players.

This can be translated fairly exactly, if not word for word, then at least concept by concept, into the following:

A song can exploit several different meaning systems at the same time, and you are not limited to the rules set by one such set of musical customs. Since I play rock, I need a drummer and a bass player, but all shortcomings become irrelevant as long as you stick to the system, since this system is based on a conscious play with ‘inventive redundancy’ and not on the intricacy of the base system and the technical prowess of the musician.
. . .
Since the system works in the interplay beween the song and the newly established fields of meaning, the concrete way of playing or singing will have to be adjusted to the different patterns already present in the song. Very few would be converted to it because it had nothing to do with technique and musicians work their whole lives to be technically superior players.

8 thoughts on ““What I Learned from Lonnie” pt. V: three times 2, and 7 and 4

  1. Thank you very much for showing and explaining this very interesting passage from Chronicles. It really puts thing in perspective.

  2. Yes and no. I also think that’s part of it, at least where the terminology comes from, but he also talks about melodies and not just chord tones, and he also mixes it with talk about rhythm and about the mystical symbolism of specific numbers.

  3. I find a great many interesting ideas on this site. I have read many of them and now feel ready to comment on some. As a musician myself (and I do think Dylan Chords is a monumental work, although not strictly correct on some songs, still it does give a very good base for working out versions), I feel that you are maybe taking Bob’s words too literally. He likes to play with peoples minds and get them thinking, rightly or wrongly. I believe he originally worked from tried and trusted chord proggressions and has modified his music writing, after taking in input from the many various artists he has worked with, over the years. Infidels is a good example of this, as it has a Mark Knoffler feel to it.

    If Bob does have a secret and I think all agree he has. It is surely in his phraseology and use of words. Musically his songs are well structured, but is the structure based around a numeric formula, or does it follow the lyrical thrust. If Dylan does use a numeric formula, it is probably based on the melody, which he himself has said, can’t be written on guitar.

    They say that Mozart could hold a whole symphony in his head and play it to himself while writing it. I think Bob does something similar. The songs are whole. The mood of the music matches the mood of the lyrics and they say different things to different people. This is an incredible thing to be able to do, to create feelings and images in our minds, that literally take your breath away. Shakespeare could take and ancient (and quite mundane) story, say ‘Troilus and Creseyde’ and turn it into a beautiful flowing story, full of intrigue and insights into the human psyche. Surely this is what Dylan does. It’s not the chord proggresions, they are used. It is the way he uses them, the metre, the careful choice of words. Dylan sees the way we think and he uses it to attack our senses.

    I’m sorry I have rambled on a bit and I don’t see myself as any kind of spokesman for anyone. At the end of the day,’ I think of myself more as a song and dance man.’

  4. Thanks for the comment. I agree with most of what you’re saying, I think. You think I’m “maybe taking Bob’s words too literally”. The whole point of the analysis was precisely to take it as seriously and literally as possible (if that’s too literally, is another question), and see what would come out of that. And to me, what came out is that Dylan is right in his description of what he’s doing, but wrong in his explanation of why it works that way. Sth like that.

  5. Very very late to the party, but wanted to suggest a second way of looking at the 2-5-7 2-5-7 example – though like you, I doubt Dylan was referencing a particular precedent when he lobbed out those numbers – if you pick up a guitar to start writing a song in G, you totally could play 2-5-7 2-5-7 as your opening phrase without dissonance – just use D as the first chord of the song. (Kinda like how the verses of Idiot Wind, in G, begin on Cm.)

    Reimagining something as familiar as the major scale, especially forty years into your career, as a terra incognita of total freedom (he emphasizes the randomness of the numbers he’s throwing out) is exciting and to me a deeply Dylanesque trait – using “mathematics” to ditch assumptions and get lost in the commonplace, then using instincts to get back out with a song in hand.

    The shifting-the-scale-one-note-up thing is a cool idea, though, and a reminder of how colloquial music theory can be, especially pre-internet – though we are all immensely greatful for unifying references like Dylanchords.

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