Friday, October 17, 2014

Answer: A few musical questions

These questions weren't that hard, but they're definitely interesting.  Let's answer them one-by-one, then wrap up with an observation.  

1.  What's a plagal cadence?  What does it sound like?  Where might I have heard one before?   

That's a funny phrase, "plagal cadence," so the obvious thing to do is first get the definition and work from there.  

     [ define plagal cadence ] 

 quickly tells us that:  "...A Plagal Cadence refers to the chord progression of IV to I or Subdominant to Tonic. As such, it is the cadence most often used at the end of hymns for the final "A-MEN."  

Ah.  It's at the end of many hymns--that's where you might have heard it before.  In the key of C, it's a shift from an F chord to a C chord.  Interestingly, as the "Amen" tag, it's really a separate kind of little "coda" to the main body of the hymn.  You know, you sing the entire hymn, and then you sing, "Amen."  

As the Wikipedia article points out (correctly) in quoting William Caplin's text [1], "...Most examples of plagal cadences given in textbooks actually represent a postcadential codetta function: that is, the IV-I progression follows an authentic cadence but does not itself create genuine cadential closure."

Yeah.  What I said, except clearer.  

If you scroll down a bit in the SERP for [ define plagal cadence ] you'll see a YouTube video.  That suggests checking out YouTube for examples.  Sure enough, if you do a search on YouTube for [ plagal cadence ] you can find a LOT of examples.  Depending on how much music theory you know, you might want to click around in that list until you find an example that makes sense to you.  (Unfortunately, there's not a good way to find "beginner" vs. "expert" videos.  I happen to like the video by Duane Shinn that illustrates different cadences in their musical context.  (A surprising number of short videos are purely chalk talks, which is great if you already know a lot!)  

2.  What's a Steely Dan chord?  Can you find an example of one that I can hear?  (That is, in isolation.  I know I can find lots of Steely Dan music online.)  

Following along in the same pattern, I did a: 

     [ define "Steely Dan chord" ] 

 Which leads directly to a nice page by Howard Wright all about the "Steely Dan chord," aka "mu major chord."  (Turns out that Howard Wright is a major Steely Dan / Joni Mitchell fan who has a nice collection of transcriptions and analysis of their sounds.)  

On that page is an MP3 collage of "mu major" samples from various Steely Dan tunes.   You can hear the chord there.  

As many of you pointed out in the comments, it's just a regular major chord with an added second.  (A regular C major triad would be C-E-G.  If you add a D in there, it's Steely Dan.)  This chord is characteristic of Steely Dan recordings.  As is true with many other musicians, they often adopt particular chords, chord voicings (the order of the notes in the chord top-to-bottom), or little idiomatic phrases to define their "sound."   (If you have a couple of minutes, you might listen to this class by James Taylor where he talks about some of his idiomatic licks that make his guitar-playing sound so much like "James Taylor.")   

3.  Is there any connection between trumpet playing and getting hemorrhoids? There are lots of anecdotes, but can you find reliable data on this?  

To tell you the truth, this is a common thing you hear musicians say.  (As are comments about the intelligence of viola players...)  So I was curious what we could find out.  

To quickly scan the published scholarly literature I turned to with the query: 

     [ trumpet player OR playing hemorrhoids ] 

and fairly quickly found the Master's thesis of M.R. Dyk (1991) about the physical and psychological disabilities of professional musicians.  In that thesis she repeats the association of hernias and hemorrhoids with trumpet performance, but gives no citations or data. 

I then went to PubMed (the medical literature search service of the National Library of Medicine) and did a simpler search,  just [ trumpet hemorrhoids ] and found... nothing.  

As Debbie G pointed out, there IS a Google Group that started as a support group for trumpet players with this issue, but it only went for 10 messages before petering out.  

After chasing a few other leads like this (which all ended up without any citations), I'm going to conclude that this is a musical urban legend (unless someone finds a study or a longer set of discussions about this).  FWIW, people have been saying this about oboe players as well... 

4.  I love listening to the music of folk singer Jez Lowe.  In his lyrics he keeps mentioning Durham (such as "Back in the Durham Jail").  Problem is there're a lot of Durhams in the world.  Which Durham is he talking about?  
This sounds like another question for YouTube.  A search for [ Jez Lowe ] to get an overview.  The SERP shows "Back in Durham Jail"  (also, "Back in Durham Gaol").  That's interesting and great.  Lots of great songs, but little biographical information.  But a simple web search tells me that Jez Lowe was born in County Durham in the northeast of the UK.  When I go back and look at the lyrics, it's pretty clear Durham County, not far from Northumbria and Scotland, the former coal mining region, is the place he's referring to.  (And it explains his accent. Example of County Durham accent. Notice the way she says "water.")   

Search Lesson:  As I said, these weren't that difficult, but I wanted to highlight the value of YouTube as a resource (for plagal cadences and "Steely Dan chord" examples).  
On the other hand, finding a lack of resources suggests an urban myth or a fable.  I wasn't able to find anything definitive about the hypothetical trumpet-playing/hemorrhoids connection. While this doesn't rule it out, it definitely suggests a non-connection... 

Hope you enjoyed the searches and what we discovered in the process! 

[1] Caplin, William E. (1998). Classical Form: A Theory of Formal Functions for the Instrumental Music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Oxford University Press. pp. 43–45. ISBN 0-19-510480-3.


  1. Loved these set of challenges and especially appreciate the search tips! Anne and I always learn from both the challenges and the lessons!

  2. I really enjoyed this Challenge as I do each week. It was great to know about music and new tools. Also, reconnecting with my past was great.

    I didn't use YouTube as a resource until the end of the challenge. However, it is a great tool that have helped me a lot.

    [ trumpet player OR playing hemorrhoids ] is a query that never thought about.

    In addition to PubMed, Allmusic -which I found this morning- are new tools that I added to my list.

    Remmij I liked all your links. Lots of similarities with them and Electric Dreams. Zöe Keating music, I liked it too, besides, she has nest to her a computer. Nice connection. Thanks!

    1. Hello Dr. Russell. Just to tell you that I am reading The Trumpet book preview on Google books. It has so many things that I didn't know about. This instrument has been with us since centuries ago in multiple countries. And discovering that those first models are still in use is amazing.

      Now, thanks to you, I learn more about history and music.