Having trouble sleeping? Feeling a general unease? I hear many people express their constant low-grade anxiety these days. It’s the election. The news is constantly negative. The candidates invoke fear: fear of the other, fear of the future, fear of the present. There aren’t the normal ebbs and flows of a campaign. The news is relentless. It’s a blast beat that won’t stop. It’s freaking children out, sending the superstitious to astrologers and witches, and spiking massage therapy visits.
There is a musical way to look at this phenomenon. This is dissonance. This is the sound of a chord being pulled apart.
A question asked of the candidates and of commentators and reporters watching events so closely is: how will we all recover from such a nasty year? How we will all get along afterwards?
What they’re really asking is “how will this dissonance resolve?”
In creating music, we have many techniques to create dissonance. When we want to work with dissonance within a key, we often turn to diminished chords. When we’re building chords out of a scale, the vii chord is diminished. It is notated: vii°.
Some music theory (if you want)
When we build chords in a scale, we start on each note and add the third degree and fifth degree to create a triad. When we come around to the seventh degree of a scale to build a triad, we end up building a chord with two minor thirds in it.
For example, in the key of C, the major scale is C D E F G A B. If you start on the seventh note of that scale — B — the third note in the scale above that is a D and the fifth is an F. So you build your vii° chord in the key of C as B D F.
What gives this chord its diminished character is that D is the minor third of B and F is the minor third of D. In the B diminished chord, you’ve got two minor third intervals. (You may have heard this interval called the “tritone.”) There is no dominant tone to anchor it. So you’re literally pulling the chord apart with these minor sounds.
One of my chord books says about diminished chords, “Be careful with this one. It is unstable!”
It’s hard to linger on those chords. Without an anchor, our ears want a pleasing resolution.
We’re all feeling diminished during this season
The barrage of negative speech, the constant news, the amount of fear being sown — it’s pulling us all apart with no anchor. On November 8th, we’re going to resolve somehow but in the meantime, we’re all lingering in this unstable position, this diminished chord that feels like we’re falling apart twice over.
Maybe this isn’t helpful to you but when I thought of it this week, it made me feel a little better. It made “sense” of a weird situation. Hearing the stories of others afflicted with election anxiety, I desperately wanted a theory to bring me some personal harmony. Now, I can say, we’re all diminished — in the musical and emotional sense. But this chord will resolve. It’s too unstable to remain in this state.
So in the meantime, I suggest lifting your mood by listening to music that resolves in a satisfactory way. Let your brain know that the diminished feeling is only temporary. I went to Basia Bulat’s Good Advice this week. I think Fleet Foxes might be great too. Of course, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is always a good vibe. And my personal favorite, Paul Simon’s Graceland.