by Harriet Schock
There’s a lot to say about “wrong notes” but I’m going to concentrate here on the good ones—the ones that you wait for in a song. They’re not really wrong, but they’re unexpected and give a color to the music that is rather magical. Some occur from simply non-chordal tones called appoggiatura, and we’ve all made lots of use of these. Otherwise, the melody is too diatonic, like coloring inside the lines.
But let’s talk about wrong notes as in “that note is not in the scale” sort of wrong notes. Those are the really fun ones. My current songwriting student, a wonderful composer/songwriter, Robert Intriligator turned me on to the phrase “The Rodgers patented wrong note,” which was coined by Deems Taylor, a biographer of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Richard Rodgers was arguably one of the greatest popular composers of all time. His body of work is vast and in a huge variety of styles. But there is a characteristic he became so known for, they coined a phrase for it. I asked Robert Intriligator to find a bunch of examples for me, and I went to the piano and noticed that these are some of my favorite places in his music. For example in “Something Good” from “The Sound of Music” that raised fourth on the word “childhood” is what we wait for. In “No Other Love” (from “Me and Juliet”) he uses a raised 2nd on the word “you” in the phrase “only my love for you.” In “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ ” the “morn” of “mornin’” is on a flat seventh of the scale or raised sixth, depending upon your viewpoint. In looking over most of his “wrong note” examples, though, Robert concluded that most of them are a raised second or fourth.
Of course, in “Maria,” commonly known as “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria,” he uses a raised fourth as well as a raised second in the first line; but because they’re not held or accented, they simply seem like passing tones and aren’t as remarkable.
In order to create a bit of dissonance, the note has to stay there for a while. All consonance in a song is like a plot in a play or movie with no conflict. It’s just not interesting enough to hold our attention. I remember when I first heard “When We Dance” by Sting I waited for that note on the word “love” in the line “like I love you.” Yeah! Of course, these dissonances, wrong notes or whatever you want to call them are everywhere. They’re not just in Richard Rodgers and Sting. It might be fun for you to look for them in the music you listen to and pick out by ear what the composer is doing. Where is the “wrong note” and which scale degree did he/she augment or flat? Anyway, studying Richard Rodgers can only help a songwriter/composer since there’s so much to learn from his music.
There’s an old expression in jazz that goes something like “If you hit a wrong note, go back and hit it again in the same phrase. That way it will seem to have been done on purpose.” The trick is to find out when and where to do it on purpose the first time.
Harriet Schock wrote the words and music to the Grammy-nominated #1 hit, “Ain’t No Way To Treat A Lady” plus many songs for other artists, TV shows and films. She co-wrote the theme for “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks,” currently showing in 30 countries. She and her band were featured in Henry Jaglom’s film “Irene In Time” performing 4 of Harriet’s songs. She also scored three other Jaglom films and starred in “Just 45 Minutes from Broadway.“ Jaglom’s recent film, “The M Word,” features Harriet’s song “Bein’ a Girl,” performed on camera at the end of the film. Karen Black wrote the play, “Missouri Waltz,” around five of Harriet’s songs, which ran for 6 weeks at the Blank Theatre in Hollywood as well as in Macon, Georgia. In 2007, Los Angeles Women in Music honored Harriet with their Career Achievement and Industry Contribution award. Harriet teaches songwriting privately, in classes and a popular online course by private email.