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  • Writer's pictureSteve

I'm Telling you why you can't help but like Burn So Much...

What if I told you that your exposure to music throughout your whole life meant that you were pre-determined to like "Burn?" Lemme see if I can explain...

The last post was devoted to just the first 8 bars of the music (the introduction) and was pretty analytic and this was before Eliza even begins to sing. This post is the next 8 bars of music when she does sing and there is such a contrast from the previous music that it really catches our attention: The harp melody vanishes to be replaced with just the piano bassline notes. They are long and sustained. This matches the lonely and vulnerable state that the harp set up in the introduction despite the contrast and sits under the vocal line; supporting it but staying well out of the way. It's Miranda's choice of notes/pitches here that really suck you in without you being able to control it. For you to understand, you need a little background knowledge.


The key of the music is B minor meaning the notes available for the performers to sing and play are:

I present them here in a scale in their "natural" minor version (and please don't worry if you don't read music well - I will do my best to keep it devilishly complex!)

Let's look at the music with a load of my markings on it:

The very first note in the piano bass line is a "B" and this is super important because it confirms the "home" key. It is the first and last note in the B minor scale (above.) This note is our harmonic centre and it is where we will regularly return to ensure a sense of stability for us (the listeners.) [Muso speak: we call this the tonic.]

The next note is an F#. If we look at the scale, we can see that F# is five notes above the B (where B is the number 1) and as such has an interval of a 5th. [Muso speak: we call this the Dominant.] The relationship between the tonic and its dominant is extremely, extremely strong for lots of reasons that I will not go into here but suffice to say - the movement between the two is used so, SO , SO much in Western Music (Classical/Jazz/Pop/Whatever) that we sub-consciously really like it (because it is familiar). We are programmed to expect it. In fact, we could go as far to say that music is practically built on it; built on something we call the "Cycle Of Fifths;" where music simply travels from dominant to dominant to dominant.

From the F#, Miranda moves up by the smallest interval we have: a Semitone (a half-step.) And really, this movement is difficult not to appreciate because the F# really leads to the G and is very comforting because it feels like a resolution upwards in pitch.

We now know (because I told you) that the 5th is the most common interval in music. This means it is not surprising that the G moves down a 5th to the D. And once again, it feels safe to us because we are so used to this dominant progression. With a little rhythmic push here, Miranda ascends up one note (in the B minor scale) to E before ascending with our favourite interval of a 5th again landing on our home tonic of B! From there this same sequence repeats (boy do humans love familiarity and the comfort we gain from repetition) but with a variation on the second D. This time we get the same rhythmic push but he descends note-by-note (through the C# in the B minor scale) to our home tonic: B. ahhh... home! Who doesn't like to come home, right? And this forms the harmonic basis for the verses of the song.


In fact, you could go as far to say that it's not very dissimilar in idea to the opening (just the first 8 bars) of Pachelbel's Canon in D Major (undeniably one of THE most famous pieces of music ever:)

NOTE: I'm not saying Miranda is copying but rather he uses common intervals and progressions to "hook" our ears into the song and force our appreciation. (It could of course be that HE himself is so influenced by the Western Music he has been exposed to that he perhaps wouldn't be able to write music that he was happy with unless it emphasised the relationship between tonic/dominant.)


So when Eliza sings, what makes it so "special?" (and let's avoid the fact we KNOW that Phillipa Soo is already a wonderful singer!)

The melody that Miranda writes emphasises the interval of a 7th (7 notes above the tonic.) For example, in the bass we have a B and in the melody (counting up 7 notes in the B Minor Scale, where B is 1) we have an A.

This is not a "pretty" sound. Although they are 7 notes away, B and A also sit directly next to one another and such when played at the same time (context dependent) sound pretty bleugh! [Muso speak: we call this the Dissonance.] Dissonance in music is the source of musical tension and given that Burn is a song where Eliza is... unhappy, having dissonance is something we would expect and approve of.

What Is of more importance I guess, is that Miranda resolves the dissonance by moving to and through notes that bring consonance (the opposite of dissonance and thus sounding "nice") with the bass notes. The melody never stays dissonant and this pleases us as listeners because it allows us some emotional relief in the music.

And not that I have a "thing" about repetition BUT when you look at the melody he repeats the same notes on the similar lines:

I knew you were mine

You said you were mine

I thought you were mine

He's actually helpful to the performer here because he writes the melody syllabically (every syllable has it's own note) and with a sense of the natural rhythm of speech (should you speak them aloud) which allows for a little variation beyond the different words in the lyric. This (as we know from a previous blog post) is really great for keeping the attention of listener (yes, yes I know it's only the opening of the song... but still... it's something that should be thought about. Especially given the meaning of each line has been distorted by the subtle change in lyric on each repetition) As a result, Miranda has set up an emotionally charged yet vulnerable sounding opening that grabs us by the cajones and gives us a place from we can grow throughout the song. I have been told (by people who have seen Hamilton - as yet I have not) that there is nothing else on stage; just Eliza. So having just the left hand of the piano accompany her solo voice would only emphasise this lonely and isolating image.

When we consider the (deep-rooted Westernised) harmony that Miranda employs combined with the tension in the melody and the calculated choice in instrumentation/accompaniment in this opening verse, it's very difficult to feel anything other liking Burn... a lot.


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