OK, hear me out.
I know, I know, this is probably going to ruffle some feathers.
And the thing is, I really do love Beethoven! Really truly!
And, not only that – but I even agree with the weight of pedagogical tradition that the opening of Beethoven's 1st Piano Sonata is a GREAT example for teaching music theory students about the concept of melodic foreshortening.
But here's the thing:
I've got a 4-year-old son who is OBSESSED with a Disney Junior TV show called The PJ Masks. And not only is he obsessed with the show – he's obsessed with singing the theme song!
The PJ Masks theme song is catchy; it's fun; it's raucous; it's mysterious and spylike in the grand musical tradition of James Bond, Mission Impossible, and The Incredibles.
But let me tell you... from the moment I first heard the opening BUM BUM BA BA BUM, all I can think about is melodic foreshortening.
Every time my kid turns on the TV, that's all I'm thinking: melodic foreshortening!
Geeky, I know. (But that's a compliment, right?)
Anyway, WHAT IS MELODIC FORESHORTENING?
Melodic foreshortening, simply put, is when you repeat a musical phrase several times in a row, but each time you chop part of it off, so that it gets progressively shorter.
Have a look at the opening of the PJ Masks theme. The basic pattern is: two quarter notes on the tonic (green), a leap of a third from the dominant to the 7th (blue), and then again the two quarter notes on the tonic (green).
But look what happens each time it's repeated. First, we hear the entire phrase (all 6 notes). Then, we hear it again, but one of the quarter notes at the end is chopped off. (So we only hear 5 notes). Then, we hear it again, but the first two quarter notes are chopped off as well. (So we only get 3 notes.)
So what does this all mean?
Well, what happens when the melody gets foreshortened like this is that it builds up a lot of energy and forward momentum. Every time the melodic phrase repeats, we expected it to be repeated exactly, but it's like our breath is being cut short... again, and again. So in addition to building energy and momentum, it also builds up suspense and even anxiety, drawing the listener closer and closer into the music.
So next time you're binge-watching Disney Junior shows on Netflix, and the PJ Masks comes on, listen to the theme song with foreshortening in mind. I guarantee, you'll feel EXTREMELY NERDY, and it will also make the music SO MUCH MORE FUN and INTERESTING to listen to!
Samantha Zerin has a PhD in historical musicology from New York University, and has taught music theory at NYU, Brown University, and the Borough of Manhattan Community College. She is also a composer and poet, and teaches private students. To learn more about Dr. Zerin and her work, you can visit her main website, www.CreativeShuli.com