‘It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift…’

This is a question for Phillip Bush (or maybe Burl, or pretty much anyone who knows more about music than I do, which is a large set)…

After I posted that item about “Sulky Girl” and “So Like Candy” and other Elvis Costello songs that have an appeal to me that is mysterious, elemental and profound, I got to thinking about something else I’d heard in the last couple of days that had an equally mystifying appeal.

I had been watching the film noir comic-book movie “Watchmen,” and there was a scene that was utterly transformed by Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” So I went to YouTube (the one place you can find practically any piece of music you want to hear immediately and for free) and listened to several versions, and tried to plumb why it completely kicked my brain, my being, into another state as reliably as peyote did for Carlos Castaneda (although perhaps a tad less dramatically).

I have no idea. Is the secret revealed in this lyric?

It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth

The minor fall and the major lift

Are those particular changes where the magic happens? For that matter, do those words even describe what is happening in the music as I hear that line? I’ve looked up the guitar chords, and I see that they go like this:

  • It goes like this — C
  • the fourth — F
  • the fifth — E
  • the minor fall– Am
  • the major lift — F

Or, in another version, I see it’s G, C, D, Em, C…

Are those even the right chords? I expected them to be something more exotic, with “sus4” or something after them.

Is it even the music, or is it the lyrics, with their mixing of the transcendent divine with the transcendent sexual? No. I mean, yes, they’re evocative, and work as poetry (to my unsophisticated ear, they strike a literary note somewhere near that of the Song of Solomon), but they aren’t the secret. I remember when I first heard the song — the cover version used in “Shrek” — I was deeply impressed with the music without hearing the words beyond “Hallelujah.” (Yeah, I’m that uncool. I’m sufficiently unfamiliar with Leonard Cohen that I first remember hearing it watching “Shrek.”)

And how about the fact that it is used in such incongruous contexts as “Shrek” and “Scrubs” (which I discovered from Pandora), and works?

Speaking of Pandora (which I just did, parenthetically), it was little help. I tried creating a “Hallelujah” station, to see if it would give me other songs with that special something. And once or twice, it has moved in that direction — “Let it Be” and “Maybe I’m Amazed” do have something of that essence — but it’s played Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Over the Rainbow” so many times that it’s rapidly losing its charm for me. And “I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight,” and “The Times They Are a-Changin'”? I don’t think so. “The Sound of Silence”? Maybe. But I’m not sure.

Help me out, those of you who understand music. What is it?

73 thoughts on “‘It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift…’

  1. Bryan Caskey

    Brad: The same song was used in the season finale of the West Wing:

    Off topic: I actually really liked the series and I’m usually pigeon-holed as a conservative.

    Another example of the show using great music in the background was the use of Dire Straits’ “Brothers In Arms” in the previous season finale.

    1. Patty Isbell

      May I suggest a book called Paradox Lost by Richard P. Hanson. I believe that lifeforce exists in music. The vibrational effects of some notes over others does indeed have energy.

  2. Phillip

    The first version of whatever you looked up for the chords is not quite right, least not in the first Leonard Cohen version that popped up in my search as I listened. On “the fifth” it should be G Major, not E Major. (The second, transposed-to-G version is correct on that chord).

    So yes, the lyrics and harmonies coincide there: he sings it in C, on “the fourth” it goes up to F, “the fifth” is G, the root on “minor fall” actually RISES to A (but yes, minor), then back to F, G, then E Major (on “baffled King”) which is the real kicker because it’s the first “accidental” or chromatic, or “spicy” note in a C Major song (i.e., the G-sharp in an E Major chord). Then to A minor, which elides back to its relative major, C, for the “hallelujahs.”

    Let It Be is a pretty good parallel in a way, they’re both sort of hymn-like, not just in their harmonies but their pacing and lyrics and overall “affect.” Your Anglophilia is at work here, too: in the relatively diatonic harmonic language there’s a close relationship with English hymnody. I always used to say that one could take the music of great English composers like Ralph Vaughan Williams and put a rock beat to it and create a very effective rock “anthem.”

    The other reason that phrase in “Hallelujah” is so effective is because of the steadily rising melodic line, which doesn’t really reach its peak until the “lu” of the first Hallelujah.

    OK, hope I didn’t suck all the life out of the song for you with that Theory 101 Analysis 😉

    1. david enrique

      I really like the insight on the accidental chord but technically the accidental comes in at “composing” rather than “the baffled king” but nonetheless I agree with the effect it has.

  3. `Kathryn Fenner

    Well, I don’t know as much as Phillip–who does? But the GCDEmF chords are the progression that matches–the fifth of C is G. I IV V VIm VII–it’s a steadily rising progression that matches the sentiment of the text. The minor chord gives it that “breath” or twist that takes it out of what could be banal in all major.

    My soul-healing, soul-stirring failsafe is Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony–the Pastoral. I like open intervals–think hunting horns and a rhythmic underlay like water flowing underground. My “pop” failsafe is Cast Your Fate to the Wind, but also any other Vince Guaraldi (the Charlie Brown music).

    NPR did a piece during the Grammys about why Adele’s Someone Like You, co-written by the classmate of the Perfesser and ATC host Melissa Block (a 70s pop group?) Dan Wilson who also wrote “Closing Time” — another TV favorite (“I know who I want to take me home.”).It may have something to do with appoggiaturas (like grace notes). https://www.npr.org/2012/02/14/146888725/another-take-on-the-appoggiatura

  4. `Kathryn Fenner

    Hey, I was pretty close for an English major (call me Nigel)….The student approaches the master….

  5. susanincola

    That secondary dominant thing (from the Emaj to the Amin) is one of the appeals of gospel music for me — it’s commonly used in a similar way to how it is here, and it always feels to me like a door opening somewhere.

  6. Silence

    Welly, welly, welly, welly, welly, welly, well. And would you believe, oh my brothers, that ‘Kathryn reached deep into her gulliver and came up again with the beautiful beautiful Ludwig Van?

    What you got back home, little sister, to play your fuzzy warbles on? I bet you got little save pitiful, portable picnic players. Come with uncle and hear all proper! Hear angel trumpets and devil trombones. You are invited.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Just ran across this wonderful comment from Silence from long ago (looking up this post upon the passing of Leonard Cohen).

      Makes me wonder where Silence went.

      Where have you been, my droog? Probably spending all your time rabbiting…

  7. Brad Warthen

    Sounds like it’s time our young Alex had a visit from the parole officer, thereby interrupting his plans with the two young ptitsas…

    Speaking of English hymns, another tune I’d put in this category is “I Vow to Thee My Country.”

  8. Brad

    OK, so maybe “I Vow to Thee My Country” is more of a conventional hymn. Another with connections with a country that sends chills, I find, is “Finlandia” by Sibelius.

    Which reminds me of something else — Paul Simon’s “An American Song,” which I love, and which rips off its theme from a hymn that I just can’t place. Do you know it, Phillip — or anyone?

  9. Brad

    But more than any of those, maybe the best song to put in the same category with Cohen’s is “What if God Was One of Us,” an awesome blend of religious concepts presented in an offbeat manner with pop sensibility.

  10. Brad

    Yes, that’s it! The one by Joan Osborne, I think, is the one song that to me is most like Cohen’s “Hallelujah” — in terms of the way I am affected listening to it. So why hasn’t Pandora come up with it?

    It’s also a soundtrack fave. I remember it being used at the close of a cop show once. Very powerful. It might have been used at the end of “House” once, too…

  11. Greg

    As far as Pandora, I pushed the “ask why we suggested it” button once. I got some gobbledy gook like “performed by a British band in either 3/4, 4/4 or 4/8 time”, or something like that. Year of release and genre is the dominant force with Pandora, I think.

  12. Burl Burlingame

    What if god was one of us is way fun to play in a slightly drunken stupor with a band in the same stupor. The chord pattern is totally repetitive, and yet you never play it the same way twice.

    Music moves us in mysterious ways, much as the Golden Mean moves our inner sense of balance.

  13. Brad

    Yes! That’s it! Thanks so much…

    It’s a wonderful tune. Not that great to dance to, though, if that’s what you’re into.

  14. Brad

    And Greg… Pandora comes up with some cool stuff that I like, occasionally. I think its algorithm works better, say, than that of Netflix. Netflix still doesn’t have a clue what I might like, after I’ve rated… let me check… 2,282 movies.

    But then, perhaps we should be reassured that there is no algorithm sophisticated enough to understand the appeal hiding in the tension between the sacred and the profane in the Cohen song, for instance. Music lends itself to mathematical analysis, sure, but why a slight touch of syncopation at a given point in a song releases certain things in our brains is still, at least somewhat, out of its reach.

  15. Brad

    The Cohen lyrics are so wonderful. The passage quoted above, in which the explanation of the music and the music itself are grafted together, is nice enough. But there’s theology in the verse as well. David knew a secret chord, he tells us, that “pleased the Lord.” And the same secret chord — which in this case is the particular deployment of several otherwise ordinary chords — pleases US. Which is to say, it pleases the spark of the divine in us. And as he’s telling us about it, it’s happening to us.


  16. Brad

    And however much we analyze — even analyze brilliantly as Phillip does — we can’t ever in words QUITE describe why these things move us so. And in that mystery lies the difference between the brain and the mind, then the mind and the soul. Therein lies God.

    I realize I’m tiptoeing new the edge of the heresy of Valentine Michael Smith, so I’ll just pause here and, like Silence, quote my fellow Catholic Anthony Burgess: “Oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh.”

  17. Brad

    I might as well give you the whole thing, oh my brothers:

    “Oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my gulliver the trumpets three-wise silverflamed, and there by the door the timps rolling through my guts and out again crunched like candy thunder. Oh, it was wonder of wonders. And then, a bird of like rarest spun heavenmetal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now, came the violin solo above all the other strings, and those strings were like a cage of silk round my bed. Then flute and oboe bored, like worms of like platinum, into the thick thick toffee gold and silver. I was in such bliss, my brothers.”

  18. `Kathryn Fenner

    Ah, but Phillip is the King, nay, the Emperor of the microscopic breath, a faint hesitation,a nano-stutter that breaks your heart–comes from long years working with those who play instruments that require more technically physically than plonking keys–oh, and a boatload of talent leavened with years–indeed decades of practice and training. If you doubt it, may I recommend his recording of the Beethoven Sonatas for Piano with Violin Accompaniment?

  19. Brad

    It’s interesting to me that Cohen and Osborne (or perhaps I should say, Eric Bazilian) can give us such spirituality in music, when most contemporary church music is so vapid. How long has it been since anything on the order of “Amazing Grace” or “Just As I Am” or Old Hundredth or the hymns mentioned above been revealed to the world?

    I think choirs should do “One of Us” (and perhaps some have). It’s such a wonderful evocation of the mystery of the Incarnation. It has such freshness: “What if…?” As though the idea had never been thought of before…

    In that vein…

    When I was in the youth choir at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa in high school, “Let It Be” was topping the charts, and it was unquestionably my favorite song. I pushed to have us sing it, and the group liked the idea, and we rehearsed it.

    Then, the word came from our choir director: One of the chaplains said we couldn’t do it. You know why? It sounded too Catholic. (We performed for the generic Protestant services. I don’t know if the Catholics, who worshipped in the same chapel, had a separate youth choir or what.)

  20. Brad

    There was sorta, kinda, another reason. The choir director said that she had been shocked to hear that maybe “Mother Mary” referred to dope. I said, well, yeah, you can put that spin on it, but…

    At that point, I was digging us in deeper. But the thing that really galls was that chaplain thinking it was too Catholic.

  21. `Kathryn Fenner

    Brad–The Trinity choir has sung many excellent pieces written in your lifetime–the John Fitz Rogers Magna Mysteria was stunning and quite accessible. Modern Catholic music falls way behind the glories of Palestrina, Ockeghem, Victoria. et al. Frankly, it hasn’t been the same since the Reformation.
    Mayhap you should attend an Evensong at Trinity some Sunday at 4PM?

    and I seem to recall a choral version of One of Us–and who can forget the Benzedrine Monks of Santa Domonica


    Hey, hey we’re the [pause] monks…

  22. Brad

    Actually, I wasn’t thinking of contemporary Catholic music, at least not entirely. Of course, that’s disappointing enough.

    What disappoints me even more is the way Protestant movements once known for their rich musical traditions seem to have run out of ideas. Have you heard any new Baptist songs that moved you lately? (And the contemporary Baptist composers try SO hard, too.) And what have the Methodists come up with in my lifetime that would honor the memories of the Wesleys?

  23. Brad

    Sunday, our pianist ended the service playing “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Wow.

    Must confess, I had to think to place it for a few seconds. Is that “Sheep May Safely Graze?” But I got it.

    Johann Sebastian! You’re my boy!

  24. Brad

    Yes, I know “Jesu…” and “Sheep May…” are NOTHING alike. But they were right next to each other in an album of Bach’s greatest hits that I first owned 40 years ago, so the titles are permanently wedded in my memory’s filing system…

  25. Scout

    I first heard Hallelujah because Jay Clifford would frequently sing it as an encore at Jump, Little Children concerts. He was covering the Jeff Buckley version.

    I don’t why but I get a similar feeling from The Scarlet Tide which was sung by Alison Krauss on the Cold Mountain soundtrack but was written by Elvis Costello. Here are some you tube versions of it:

    (elvis costello singing it)

    (Alison Krauss singing it)

    I think the chord progression and little trilly thing in the final hallelujah also does something significant for me.

  26. `Kathryn Fenner

    Well, more and more non-Mainline Protestant churches are going with the praise band concept (ew, but I’m not the target demographic)–very successfully–taking a page from the hummin’ n’ strummin’ folk masses you people foisted upon us, Brad.

    I attended a service at the Harvest on 378 in Lexington (in my capacity as a guardian ad litem, fwiw) and they have a big screen with “inspirational” photos upon which are superimposed the lyrics, with bouncing ball, to songs tweaked from, for example, Faith Hill. The place was packed.

  27. Brad

    Yeahhhhh… not for me. But the Good Lord made us all kinds of different ways, and with an affinity for different strokes…

  28. Brad

    Thank you for the “Amen,” brother Silence.

    And Kathryn — no, not any more. Not in about 30 years, in fact. I played guitar (really just strummed chords) for the folk choir at St. Mary’s in Jackson, TN, in the early 80s.

    Matt DeGuire runs the contemporary choir at St. Peter’s, and his 12-string pretty much takes care of the group’s guitar needs. You may know Matt from local theater. He starred as Max Bialystock in Workshop Theatre’s production of “The Producers,” in which I made a cameo appearance a couple of nights. Matt’s a great talent.

  29. Brad

    Just showing how all things are connected, speaking of choirs in West Tennessee…

    My friend Michael Mercer, in the video I posted today, is an awesome singer who used to perform in choirs around West Tennessee back when I first knew him in the 70s. He’d sometimes come in dragging at the paper from his late nights traveling around doing that. I didn’t realize how good he was until I heard him in a production of “Showboat” doing “Ol’ Man River.” It was sort of one of those Jim Nabors moments — THAT voice comes out of this guy I thought I knew?

  30. susanincola

    The insipidness of contemporary “praise music” is unbearable. I’m very glad to be in a church where the music includes music from the african-american traditions as well as my own.

    Here are a few examples I love. Enjoy them if you’re interested. These are all still sung regularly in church (two of them we sing in my own church regularly, and one I’m just learning):

    The Clark Sisters’ – “Is My Living in Vain?”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1xR016vEac.
    The smooth jazz of Lisa McClendon – You Are Holy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3Cd2LlRFho
    The mass choir (Timothy Wright) – Trouble Don’t Last Always: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JW103rJyxGI&feature=related
    Spirituals – Give Me Jesus http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3El92CY0Ck&feature=related
    James Cleveland – I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aXTi1UCzWuI
    Couldn’t find a good link to a common meter song…)

    I used to listen to John Foley and the St Louis Jesuits back in the day — that’s all the Catholic folk music I’ve been exposed to — always liked this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4Cw-NH9lYU.

  31. Brad

    As I type this, I’m listening to Willie Nelson doing the song.

    Wow, it really, really doesn’t work. Maybe because Willie seems to be trying to be Leonard Cohen instead of using the melodic richness of his own voice. Sorry, Willie, but Cohen is a better Cohen than you are.

    Be yourself.

    Meanwhile, I’ve moved on musically.

    Last night I was obsessing over Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.” I was listening to versions by him, and Thelonious Monk, and even Mike Bloomfield. I couldn’t quite find the one that was in my head that was my favorite, though…

  32. Brad

    Now I’m listening to a Charles Mingus version. Of “Mood Indigo,” I mean… Awesome.

    But with all versions, I could do without the intro. Just go straight into that super-funky, ennervated, seemingly off-key DAHHH, dah-da DAHHHHHHHHH of the lazy, can-hardly-be-bothered with it, woodwinds….

  33. `Kathryn Fenner

    Bossa Nova is a favorite chez Fenner–my moping song is “Day in the Life of a Fool” a/k/a Manha de Carnaval a/k/a “Black Orpheus”–ever since Dick Goodwin played in Tuesday nights at Greenstreet’s, circa 1979.

    @Susanincola–I like African American spirituals, but get brain warp when they are sung by an all white choir using veddy British diction–“Ev’dy Time I Heah the Spidit” or “Swing Low, Sweet Cha-rriot”…though Kelly Mayo of the Trinity Choirs–noted for her shocking pink forelock, piercings and tats, can belt the solos brilliantly without seeming like she’s patronizing or doing an imitation.

  34. `Kathryn Fenner

    Try Kind of Blue–his later stuff doesn’t do it for me, but Kind of Blue is one step deeper from Bossa Nova–still very accessible…

  35. Brad

    To quote Thor, god of thunder:

    “I say thee nay!”

    Actually, near as I recall, he didn’t say that a single time in the movie.

    Maybe in the Avengers…

  36. `Kathryn Fenner

    Dave Brubeck–Time Out, Time Further Out–all good.

    Paul Desmond also did some great albums—Two of a Mind with Gerry Mulligan….

    Pacific Jazz is where it’s at, especially for Mad Men….

  37. `Kathryn Fenner

    and what’s this Avengers stuff–I mean, that doesn’t look like Mr. Steed to me….

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      That’s sort of hard to imagine. It’s like the walking and chewing gum thing, only way harder. How do you feel the rhythms of Brazil from Hawaii?

      Of course, I guess it’s easier to feel like you’re in Ipanema in Hawaii than in, say, Cleveland.

  38. Brad Warthen Post author

    Last night, we were flipping channels around (my wife loves “So You Think You Can Dance,” but changes the channel whenever anything but actual dancing is going on), and on another talent/reality show, heard someone sing this song.

    Towards the end, my wife — who apparently had never read this post — said Wow, that is SUCH a good song.



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