Whence the Dylan fourth?
June 24, 2008 4:46 PM   Subscribe

Where did Bob Dylan's use of the fourth scale degree originate?

One of the more interesting aspects to me of Bob Dylan's sound is the way he resolves a lot of his melodies on the fourth scale degree against the tonic, which is classically considered to be very dissonant.

He does it all over the place, but the best examples I can think of are in "Like a Rolling Stone" (many places, but especially 'how does it feel>' going into the chorus and "Absolutely Sweet Marie" ('Where are you tonight, sweet Marie?' You can try to pretend that it's a major third sung really sharp, but it really has a completely different quality.

This usage sounds totally distinctive to me and I can't think of anyone else who does it, but I keep wondering if he picked it up from anywhere else, especially possibly in the field of folk music, which I know nothing about. Can anyone shed any light on the history of the 'Dylan fourth'?
posted by dfan to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Harmonizing on the fourth is a hallmark of High Lonesome bluegrass music, distinct from the fifth used in American folk music, and was invented (or popularized) by either the Stanley or Louvin Brothers (I can't find my cite right now). I don't know enough theory to know if this directly answers your question, but these bluegrass artists were certainly Dylan influences.
posted by rhizome at 5:19 PM on June 24, 2008

For Like a Rolling Stone, if feel is the fourth, then what would you call the word rolling later in the line? Doesn't rolling sound like a true suspended fourth and the other just like a sharp third?

On the other hand, I just played it on the piano the way you stated and it doesn't sound off, so maybe it's an audible illusion that I'm hearing it resolve to the third.
posted by fantasticninety at 6:02 PM on June 24, 2008

Two words: Woody Guthrie
posted by poon at 6:47 PM on June 24, 2008

Also, and I don't recall the specifics, but he discuss this in some detail in his (still unfinished) bio, Chronicles.
posted by dawson at 8:19 PM on June 24, 2008

IANAM, but I checked around in some books that approach Dylan from more of a musicological than a biographical approach. Tim Riley's Hard Rain (1992) has a lot to say about the performance aspects of various songs, though the impact of the book is lessened by Riley's writing Bob off as done, gone, and all used up fifteen years ago - not a unusual attitude, to be sure. Michael Gray's Song and Dance Man III (2000) has a lot of amazing analysis of Dylan's music and lyrics set in the context of American folk and especially blues (as rhizome suggusts as an influence here, or poon's Guthrie ref).

The most relevant quote I could find is in the music critic Wilfrid Mellers' 1984 book A Darker Shade of Pale, which in a slightly different way from Gray also sets Dylan in the context of American mountain, old timey, and blues music. Mellers is more interested in affect than in technique, which is good for an amateur like me. Here's an excerpt from what he has to say on p. 140 about 'Like a Rolling Stone' --

"Although the tune is so potent, it is restricted to very few pitches. Its affirmation depends largely on its irregularly rhythmed repeated notes, and on an opposition between rising third and falling fourth, changed to rising fourth and falling major third during the refrain. From its simplicity springs its universality. ..."

Sadly, the link to Mellers' book says that he died just a month ago.
posted by Rain Man at 8:40 PM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Harmonizing on the fourth is a hallmark of High Lonesome bluegrass music

The question is about the construction of a melodic line, not a harmony.

I don't have an answer about Dylan's influences, but I don't think he's doing anything very unusual here, aside from employing his trademark vocal style, which is full of glissandi and portamenti. In both of the examples you cite, he hits the fourth, but immediately falls off towards the tonic rather than sustaining it. Both of those examples occur over V7 to I progressions. The fourth scale degree is the 7th in the V chord. If he actually did sustain that note over the I chord it would sound very dissonant and odd, but he slides downward instead.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:32 PM on June 24, 2008

The question is about the construction of a melodic line, not a harmony.

It's all melody, harmony just occurs when they overlap. American Folk music was centered around fifths until bluegrass came along using fourths, by my reading.
posted by rhizome at 1:01 AM on June 25, 2008

The question has to do with a single unharmonized melody line. Talking about harmony at the fourth versus harmony at the fifth has nothing to do with it.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:32 AM on June 25, 2008

I'm not sure where he have picked it up, but I'll give my two cents anyway. It seems like a lot of rock musicians end phrases on non-harmonic tones - the mixolydian seventh instead of the tonic and the fourth instead of the third or fifth are pretty common. I think there are two reasons for this: 1) ending on a non-harmonic tone give you a little more leeway pitchwise when it comes to the vocals. Bob Dylan is a lot of great things, but a note-perfect vocalist is not one of them. And ending phrases is hard. 2) Landing squarely on the third or root is the rock equivalent of singing exactly on the beat: it doesn't sound as interesting.
posted by aliasless at 9:56 AM on June 25, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses, everybody. I listened to some Stanley Brothers, Louvin Brothers, and Woody Guthrie on youtube and couldn't find any instances of this technique right away, so any more detailed references would be appreciated. I'll check out Chronicles too.

rhizome, by "harmonizing on the fourth" I'm not sure if you mean someone singing on the fourth degree while someone sings the tonic, or someone singing on the tonic an octave up while someone sings the fifth. If the latter it's not really what I mean.

ludwig_van, I agree that from a theory viewpoint it's easiest to consider it a suspension, prepared by the V7, in which the resolution is elided. But it has a qualitatively different feel to me, like it is the actual destination of the melody, not a suspension waiting to be resolved. This is most apparent in the last chorus of "Like a Rolling Stone", which consists mostly of him sitting on that fourth (although, as you note, he's pretty much done with the phrase by the time the tonic arrives downbeat). He's not rewriting Western music theory or anything, but it is a striking element of his musical grammar; this technique alone is enough to get you halfway to a good Dylan parody.

I should have mentioned "Visions of Johanna" in the original post, where he's doing it at the end of almost every line of the verse and the refrain.
posted by dfan at 9:58 AM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I certainly hear what you mean dfan, and in Visions of Johanna it's the same V7 to I thing, but I just don't hear any those phrases as ending on a non-harmonic tone, because in every instance he slides downwards rather than sustaining the pitch. Playing the melody on a piano and ending on the fourth is not a very good approximation of his vocal performance for that reason. I think that expressive glissando is the distinctive element of his style on display here more than any unconventional use of melody/harmony.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:13 AM on June 25, 2008

I can't hear it - I always thought he was suspending the fourth and then sliding through the third and - probably more of an illusion - implying a landing on the root (sort of like the end of the chorus of "Like a Rolling Stone").
posted by adverb at 7:07 AM on June 27, 2008

That's the way I hear it, adverb.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:49 AM on June 27, 2008

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