Bolero, Blurred Lines, and the never-ending genius of the tonic-dominant relationship

If Maurice Ravel were alive, a pop singer, and significantly douchier...

If Maurice Ravel were alive, American, a pop singer, and significantly douchier…

“Blurred Lines” is, depending on how you feel about that one Daft Punk song, the feel-good hit of the summer. Featuring the uncharismatic but presumably handsome Robin Thicke, the witty and mushmouthed T.I., and uber-producer Pharrell Williams (who is also in on that Daft Punk song, so add him to the list of people having a better summer than me), it’s invaded pop culture with its catchy hook, infectious drumbeat, and the fact that it has pretty glorious titties everywhere in its music video. The song’s success can be attributed to any number of things, not the least of which is the infamous chew-it-up-and-spit-it-out entertainment machine that momma bird’s us whatever they damn well please. But musically the reason it’s popular is incredibly simple. It relies on the easiest and oldest trick in the book to make your auditory pleasure sensors perk up: the tonic-dominant relationship.

Whoever chose those words as the descriptors for their particular musical identities deserves a prize of some kind, because they are incredibly descriptive of the sensations they ultimately invoke. Quoth the dictionary:

Tonic: giving a feeling of vigor or well-being
Dominant: most important, powerful, influential

I mean, that’s fucking awesome. And exactly right, too. Musically, the tonic is home, the reminder of where we came from and where we’re ultimately headed. The dominant drives everything – it ultimately lets us know exactly what the tonic is, and it’s the ultimate modulatory tool that lets music wander easily and comfortably while constantly maintaining that magical relationship that we love. Our ears crave this relationship, and once it’s established in a given song or work, we immediately recognize it and want it more. So many of the greatest moments in all of music involve the simple invocation of these two vital elements in some capacity or other: the raucous end of Mahler 1, the bass line from “Under Pressure” (not the same as “Ice Ice Baby!”), every time Cee Lo says “fuck you” in the brilliant “Fuck You,” when Bob Dylan tells us that “everybody must get stoned,” C Jam Blues, and on and on and on. It’s everywhere. It will continue to be everywhere, because it works. As long as there’s music, the relationship between these two pitches will be the foundation on which a great deal of it builds.

Perhaps no work of art better demonstrates the appeal of tonic-dominant better than Ravel’s masterpiece Bolero, a 15-minute orgasm of repetitiveness that is never even remotely boring (on a related note, Maurice Ravel is a superhuman genius). Ravel keeps things interesting with his use of Phrygian mode on the ‘B’ theme, but that quarter-note bass line never falters: I-V-V I-V-V I-V-V to eternity. It never gets old. We never tire of hearing it. We could hear it forever in a theoretical Platonic universe. This, of course, is why it’s such a world-shattering moment when he finally modulates, but as “Blurred Lines” and a thousand other pop songs prove, it’s not necessary for success (let’s not get it twisted though…in the musical universe which all great artists inhabit, Maurice Ravel sits comfortably amongst the Gods).

It’s a lesson as old as time or Mitch McConnell’s turtle ancestors, but the simple things are always the best. I remember on Top Chef a few years ago one of the challenges was to cook the desired “last meal” for a handful of famous chefs. Lidia Bastianich, the queen of Friuli cooking (whatup Grampa!), chose a roasted chicken. Not with some kind of fancy sauce, not paired with a caramelized Brussels sprout gratin, just a fucking chicken that was cooked well. Tonic and dominant are music’s roasted chicken or Sunday afternoon nap or beer with a good friend, the simplest and most effective way to feel good. And a pop song, hot chicks, and mass marketing have proven it yet again, even if they had no idea that’s what they were doing.


One thought on “Bolero, Blurred Lines, and the never-ending genius of the tonic-dominant relationship

  1. “As old as time or Mitch McConnell’s turtle ancestors.” Best line ever. Also I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who sees him as a sad turtle.

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