Mysterious Bob Dylan musical theory
December 29, 2005 2:04 PM   Subscribe

In Bob Dylan's book Chronicles, Vol. 1 he describes an esoteric numerological scheme for playing guitar, saying most melodies are based on the number 2, but that he's taken it to the next level by choosing what to play based on the number 3. Can anyone explain what he is talking about?

It's all so mysterious. He writes (p. 157) that his guitarmanship was electrified in the 1980s when he learned how to play "based on an odd- instead of even-number system" that he learned from jazzman Lonnie Johnson: a "highly controlled system of playing and relates to the notes of a scale, how they combine numerically, how they form melodies out of triplets...

"Popular music is usually based on the number 2 [...] If you're using an odd numerical system, things that strengthen a performance begin to happen [...] In a diatonic scale there are eight notes, in a pentatonic scale 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 the 2 three times. Or you can use 4 once and 7 twice [...] The possibilities are endless [...] I'm not a numerologist. I don't know why the number 3 is more metaphysically powerful than the number 2, but it is. Passion and enthusiasm, which sometimes can be enough to sway a crowd, aren't even necessary. You can manufacture faith out of nothing and there are an infinite number of patterns and lines that connect from key to key..."

Okay, so I get that he began playing triplets. But why 2, 5 and 7? Where does threeness enter into any of these notes?
posted by johngoren to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Did you add those ellipses in, or is he quoted that way? I feel like there's something missing. I can't figure out if his 2 vs 3 thing refers to duple and triple notes/meters, scale degrees, intervals, or what...
posted by danb at 2:33 PM on December 29, 2005


The stuff I took out was just marveling about how well it worked, nothing really of substance.
posted by johngoren at 2:49 PM on December 29, 2005


maybe he's talking about the nashville numbering system?
posted by mcsweetie at 3:29 PM on December 29, 2005


He is known of talking out of his ass, you know.

DYLAN: Carelessness. I lost my one true love. I started drinking. The first thing I know, I'm in a card game. Then I'm in a crap game. I wake up in a pool hall. Then this big Mexican lady drags me off the table, takes me to Philadelphia. She leaves me alone in her house, and it burns down. I wind up in Phoenix. I get a job as a Chinaman. I start working in a dime store, and move in with a 13-year-old girl. Then this big Mexican lady from Philadelphia comes in and burns the house down. I go down to Dallas. I get a job as a "before" in a Charles Atlas "before and after" ad. I move in with a delivery boy who can cook fantastic chili and hot dogs. Then this 13-year-old girl from Phoenix comes and burns the house down. The delivery boy - he ain't so mild: He gives her the knife, and the next thing I know I'm in Omaha. It's so cold there, by this time I'm robbing my own bicycles and frying my own fish. I stumble onto some luck and get a job as a carburetor out at the hot-rod races every Thursday night. I move in with a high school teacher who also does a little plumbing on the side, who ain't much to look at, but who's built a special kind of refrigerator that can turn newspaper into lettuce. Everything's going good until that delivery boy shows up and tries to knife me. Needless to say, he burned the house down, and I hit the road. The first guy that picked me up asked me if I wanted to be a star. What could I say?
posted by interrobang at 4:35 PM on December 29, 2005


Yes, this sounds like the Roman Numeral system.

In a major scale, each note is the root of a chord. The 1,4 and 5 chords are major, all the rest minor except for the 7 chord which is a diminished chord. For the record most rock songs are based on the 1,4 and 5 chords.

Of course, if he is talking about the notes of just the melody, he would simply be numbering the notes 1 thru 8.

Intervals refer to the amount of "steps" between any two given notes.

Him being a guitar player I am inclined to think he is talking about chord progressions (the first thing I mentioned) but since it's Dylan, who the heck knows?
posted by konolia at 4:40 PM on December 29, 2005


interrobang: That's what I was wondering.

He seems to be talking about single notes in a melody rather than a progression...? (basic guitar player here)
posted by johngoren at 5:14 PM on December 29, 2005


btw, "Combinatorial Music Theory" is a really cool paper. I'm just learning this stuff.
posted by furvyn at 5:25 PM on December 29, 2005


No, he's not talking about I, IV, V interval stuff. He says he'd play triplet notes, choosing each note based on this '3' system. Otherwise it would make no sense. He's not talking about snubbing the IV chord.
posted by johngoren at 5:56 PM on December 29, 2005


I have discovered a truly remarkable proof that he's talking out of his arse, which this margin is too small to contain.

Seriously. Dylan has been out of his mind for years. He's effectively insane. Making gnomic utterances as if he was giving away the secrets of his genius, if only you could figure out what his vague waffling meant? You're falling into his trap.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:42 PM on December 29, 2005


Yeah, I'm familiar with some of his insanity, but in the rest of the book he seems so determined to be a straight talker for a change. That's why the '3' passage throws me -- I can't figure out the joke, or whether this really is a gnomic (great word) secret passed between bluesmen.

Or maybe the joke is that he's talking about the late 1980s and pretending it was a high point for him?
posted by johngoren at 7:03 PM on December 29, 2005


It makes a lot more sense if you've smoked as much weed as he has for as long as he has.

"Positively 4th St." is a great companion to "Chronicles," by the way.
posted by rleamon at 7:30 PM on December 29, 2005


On post: the book "Positively 4th St." I should say.
posted by rleamon at 7:34 PM on December 29, 2005


Jack Endino, by way of explaining how to tune a guitar and why it's sometimes impossible for a given song, wrote a very interesting piece about the math behind chords. It's near the bottom of the tuning article in the section "More Math: There will be a quiz in the morning".

The whole article is really worth reading, even if you don't play guitar.
posted by intermod at 7:48 PM on December 29, 2005


I fourth or fifth the "talking out of his ass" response. When they said Dylan was going to release an autobiography, I just started laughing. He's been feeding bullshit to reporters and interviewers since the dawn of his career (about forty five years now?). I don't think he could give a straight, factually accurate account of his life if he wanted to. And besides, even if every word of it was true, we'd never know.

So yeah... if something he's saying doesn't square with reality, I don't think there's any big mystery as to what's happening.
posted by Clay201 at 7:49 PM on December 29, 2005


aside from grouping his melodies in threes, i think dylan discovered from lonnie johnson that there are musical intervals called thirds and one can actually use them to build chords and melodies based on those chords ... which is something all jazz musicians and most rock musicians already knew

wait until someone tells him that he can keep going with the 3rds and make cool chords like 9th and 11th and 13th chords ... and you can even alter the individual notes by a half step or put a different note for the bass and make slash chords ... his head may explode

he's a genius anyway, i guess he doesn't need to know music theory
posted by pyramid termite at 9:50 PM on December 29, 2005


The guy is a genius. Geniuses sometimes find it difficult or tedious to explain things that are to them obvious -- it may even be hard for them to grasp that what's obvious to them isn't to most others. Rather than dismiss that as bullshit or weed-whacked blather, sometimes you have to work harder to get what for the genius is easy.
posted by orthogonality at 10:47 PM on December 29, 2005


Rather than dismiss that as bullshit or weed-whacked blather, sometimes you have to work harder to get what for the genius is easy.

It's Occam's Razor, orthogonality. Dylan nearly always talks total bullshit in his public utterances, why should this be any exception?

I'm not just saying it's bullshit, I know a fair bit about music theory and Dylan's music and I respect the man a great deal. But it's still bullshit. The other possibility is that he genuinely believes that it makes sense, which would be far sadder.

The bullshit is all part of the package. Go with it. You don't make yourself a true fan by insisting that he really does literally recommend you keep a cool head and carry a light bulb...
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:15 AM on December 30, 2005


I know nothing about chords, but I can Google a bit.

This site also has a little discussion on Dylan's claims about Johnson's chords.

You can buy a set of CDs and a booklet on Johnson's techniques here.
posted by maudlin at 6:26 AM on December 30, 2005


Whoops -- that Dylan Chords site has four articles on the topic and their index is here.
posted by maudlin at 6:27 AM on December 30, 2005


Bullshit or not he wrote The Times They Are A Changin', Masters Of War, The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carrol, Like A Rolling Stone, etc., mostly with basic major/minor/dominant7 chords...Very few major7sharp11flat5's in Dylan's ouevre...If Any. Whatever arcane self-evolved system he's developed over the years, however whimsical it may seem to us-it works incredibly well for him. The key question is how he was able to create so many extraordinary and poignant melodies and lyrics on top of (for the most part) basic chords.
posted by vurnt22 at 9:16 PM on December 30, 2005


he wrote The Times They Are A Changin', Masters Of War, The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carrol, Like A Rolling Stone, etc., mostly with basic major/minor/dominant7 chords

That's because it's folk music.

Whatever arcane self-evolved system he's developed over the years, however whimsical it may seem to us

Oh god you're like those people who believe that the moon landings were faked. There's no system! He's laughing at you! Get over it!

The key question is how he was able to create so many extraordinary and poignant melodies and lyrics on top of (for the most part) basic chords.

That sentence makes no sense at all.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 9:17 PM on December 31, 2005



It's not that deep to me. Of course it's folk music; that's my point. Whatever way he explains his "system" to himself or others, he's created an extraordinary body of work using basic chordal materials (sorry about that last sentence in my previous post!).

I really don't mind Dylan laughing at me `cause he's laughing at U 2.


p.s.

The "moon" landings were faked. Everybody knows that.
posted by vurnt22 at 5:48 AM on January 1, 2006


Rest assured that if you ever DO figure out what Dylan’s “system” is, it won’t help you play/compose like Dylan. You’ll have to use it, or any other system, to reveal yourself. (This is a plus, btw.)
posted by dpcoffin at 11:50 AM on January 1, 2006


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