How Music Reveals the Pitfalls — and Possibilities — of Patriotism

By Rachel Kraus

With 4th of July around the corner, I have found myself wondering how we sustain pride in our country during a most complicated time for America. “The Star Spangled Banner” still makes me feeling something, but no amount of O say can you sees and fireworks can erase a morose outlook on our political reality and future.

Certainly, calling Senators, volunteering, effecting some sort, any sort of change — especially on a local level — is a productive way to get back on the America bandwagon. But I’ve also sought consolation on the couch, through the escapism of the fictional worlds of shows like The West Wing and Band of Brothers. When I choose to re-tread the fantasy hallways of The West Wing’s Bartlett administration, I’m after a specific set of feelings. It’s hope and safety, lightheartedness and camaraderie, paired with the notion that there’s something greater at stake. It’s a warm and fuzzy love of country seen through liberal-intellectual-colored glasses. Those emotions rush in all at once as the show opens with the swooping notes of W.G. Snuffy Walden’s theme song.

Steven Spielberg’s HBO World War II miniseries Band Of Brothers is a cinematic ensemble show that questions — but ultimately affirms — the moral certitude of America in the “last great war.” It also, incidentally, has a heck of an inspiring theme song for its opening credits.

Watching these shows back to back, as I have been, it’s impossible not to notice a distinct resemblance — and not just in the subject of fictionalized American history and politics. The two shows’ theme songs seem so alike that once you listen to one, it is difficult to recall the melody of the other. Just try it.

And with their drums and strings and winds, the songs have a similarly chest-swelling and righteous, distinctly patriotic effect. Certainly, each song is a metonym for the values of the show it introduces. But on the musical level of these songs, something deeper than mere association is at work.

By analyzing these TV theme songs, can we understand what patriotism sounds like? And furthermore, what can the sound of patriotism tell us about what we want it to mean to be an American?

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To confirm my suspicions about the parallels between the two theme songs, and to figure out how patriotism works in music, I spoke with musician Reuben Moss, who has a Music Composition degree from Stanford University. He agreed that the Band of Brothers and The West Wing theme songs are structurally similar. But he also pointed out that they have a lot in common with songs like “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Taps.” Particularly through a little musical device called the major arpeggio.

“The perfect 5th and perfect 4th intervals you hear are the purest intervals in music,” Reuben explained, describing the openings to both theme songs and familiar patriotic tunes. “In other words, the major arpeggio is the most simple musical structure.”

A major arpeggio is a major chord, broken into the series of its notes, and the intervals that Reuben referred to describe the ratio of the distances between the notes. The more equal the distances from note to note within a melody, the less dissonant and the more pleasing it sounds to the ear. According to Reuben, the major arpeggio played in the opening of the melody of each of these theme songs is the least sonically disagreeable series of notes one could play; mathematically, it is the most agreeable.

I didn’t understand how something could sound “mathematically agreeable,” so Reuben explained more about why pleasing sounds and simple sounds are so intertwined.

“The key is consonance,” said Reuben. “Certain relationships of notes sound jarring, or tense, or dissonant. And the arpeggio is literally the polar opposite of that. On the ends of the spectrum between total tonality and harmonic ease and resolution, and total atonal dissonance, the major arpeggio is all the way at the tonal end. So because of that it has a simple and soothing effect.”

Arpeggios and intervals and mathematical dissonance sound complicated, but the musical theory Reuben described boils down to two essential concepts: simplicity and consonance. The melodies that characterize our two theme songs in question, as well as many classic patriotic songs, are just about as simple as they come — you can find major arpeggios in the very beginnings of Western music. And because they follow a simple structure, they affect on the listener a pleasing sense of peace. There is no musical discord in these songs, each of the notes are in tune with one another. The major arpeggio is the musical embodiment of a peaceful and prosperous country.

Additionally, the use of arpeggios invokes the idea of collectivism. Arpeggios break a group — a chord — into its component parts — notes. The symbolism is hard to miss here. Musically, it highlights the importance of the individual, while also invoking the overarching structure of which it is a part.

“There’s something group-like about that effect,” reflected Reuben on the similarities between arpeggios and politics. “Which is good for Nationalism. As opposed to these individual notes, it’s outlining a part of something larger.”

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W.G. “Snuffy” Walden gave an interview to Empire in which he expressed his surprise that the show’s directors settled on the tune that they did for The West Wing’s theme.

“If you boil it down to its essence, it’s just a little gospel piece,” says Walden. “It’s very simple; a spiritual kind of gospel piece, just on piano. But as soon as you add French horns and the strings and everything, it becomes very [Aaron] Copland-esque.”

Aaron Copland is known as the composer who most embodies the “American” sound.

I asked Reuben if he thought Walden’s remark might indicate a deeper connection between patriotic American music and gospel. We listened to “Amazing Grace,” and Reuben lit up when he realized that the opening chord of the classic spiritual was yet another major arpeggio.

“Gospel is derived from early choral music,” said Reuben. “Which is where the roots of Western harmony were formed.”

There is a distinct connection between early American music, new patriotic sounds, and gospel. In a symbolic way, this could gesture to the inextricable relationship between religion and America. But there is a simpler explanation: when musicians developed the “patriotic sound,” all they really had was the simple structure, like the arpeggio; religious music was all the Puritan founders of our country had to draw on when they were making America’s theme songs. So patriotic music is structurally similar to gospel music because one was forged from the other.

But this relationship does have a larger effect in terms of how “patriotic music” generates emotions in its listeners. There is a gravitas in the TV theme songs and even “The Star Spangled Banner.” The songs invoke awe and greatness. Perhaps the major arpeggio inspires these feelings precisely because of its roots of in gospel, religion, and America’s early days.

“Simplicity, openness, belonging,” reflected Reuben. Because of these songs’ similarity to gospel and choral music, “the arpeggiated outline at the beginning sort of immediately on a subconscious level calls those same emotions to the forefront.”

In the early days, the sound that signified both worship of an all-powerful God and love of country were comparable. Now, though “Amazing Grace” and The West Wing theme song evoke different images, they both sound equally lofty. Because of their roots, they also both hearken back to quainter times. The sound of patriotism is wrapped up with the sound of both tradition and religious worship. Church and State may be separate, but musically, they are inextricable.

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Simplicity, harmony, and gravitas are the essential ingredients for an America-praising tune. However, this formula seemed to be missing something. In the bridge of both theme songs, there are moments of conflict, and ultimately triumph. The conflict, in fact, seemed to be very important because it made the sounds of victory more dramatic.

“It creates tension,” agreed Reuben, considering the introduction of the minor chords. “But in a way that the earliest stuff used to create tension.”

Leading in with minor chords creates sadness, but resolving back to major chords produces triumph and happiness. Reuben explained that this is true of all music and not necessarily a characteristic of patriotic music. But what does typify the kind of conflict in these songs is the ease of the question and answer — once again, the simplicity in the problem and the inevitability of its resolution.

“There are new innovations that can create sadness,” Reuben explained, “but this is just the simplest way to go about doing that. Kind of like the ABC form of sadness, triumph, and those basic emotions. This is the most risk-averse strategy, and I think it’s the most unequivocal in terms of its intent.”

A reasonable explanation for the straightforwardness in both the conflict resolution in these songs, and the prevalence of the major arpeggio and everything that it connotes, is that these songs are necessarily structurally modest because of their classical roots in western harmony, gospel, and early American songs. New patriotic-sounding songs make us feel that national pride because of their connection with the past, not because of the simplicity itself.

The lack of complexity in the songs is telling about the character of patriotism, too. Imagine a song where the storm created by dissonance was not sure to clear within a few measures. That doesn’t inspire ease and confidence, which we see are necessary in the music of countries. The sound of patriotism requires expected victory, easy answers. It can only be a song about a conflict written after the fact — say, for a mini series about a war in which right and wrong, in retrospect, were crystal clear.

Peddling patriotism through music comes down to fulfilling the feelings we crave like resolution, harmony, togetherness, greatness, righteous struggle, and assured victory. The straightforwardness of these feelings reveal what makes patriotism both so appealing, and often, so hollow. We gravitate to the sounds and fervor of patriotism, because the other side of the coin is “atonal dissonance” — a fairly accurate phrase to describe our current political climate.

Perhaps tellingly, our Commander in Chief traffics in easy answers to false questions, such as the promise of coal mining jobs for a world that cannot stomach any more coal. It is easier to skate over the harder truths, and instead bank on nostalgic patriotism with the “Make America Great Again” refrain. A wish to return to better times, a desperate reliance on blind love of country, a yearning for simplicity.

The first time The West Wing viewers hear the melodic overtures of the theme song within the show itself, President Bartlett is preparing to address the nation, informing a televised audience that he has authorized a strike on Syrian military targets. Viewers have spent the episode watching Bartlett grapple with the idea of “proportional response”: how to answer the aggression of another country. Bartlett is sick of measured military might, and wants vengeance for those killed by Syria’s actions. But his Chief of Staff ultimately talks him — yells at him — down.

“There is no good [response], it’s what there is. It’s how you behave if you’re the most powerful nation in the world. It’s proportional, it’s reasonable, it’s responsible, it’s merciful. It’s not nothing. It’s what our fathers taught us.”

President Bartlett accepts the mantle of responsibility his Chief of Staff says being the “last remaining superpower” necessitates. Ultimately, with grace, he chooses the answer that the situation demands. The show has hinted that the question of military violence is not such an easy one. But ultimately, the show delivers what we want: a humble acceptance of America’s greatness and moral fortitude. Bartlett resolves the conflict with the most consonant response, as the notes of the major arpeggio walk up and down the staff.

I will continue to watch and love The West Wing and Band of Brothers despite their simple solutions and rose-colored nostalgia, partly because I crave the pride that being a part of a country affords me. This 4th of July, I won’t apologize for that. But by looking critically at patriotic music, and seeing thematic parallels in our tumultuous present, we can come to know the danger of simplicity, and the value of questions that lack easy answers. Maybe this year, instead of “The Star Spangled Banner,” we should look to the music, television, arts, and voices that innovate and interrogate and make us uncomfortable. America, after all, is about the mind and liberty-expanding political, social, and artistic breakthroughs that came after the Revolution, too. In the years to come, there are no easy resolutions before us. So for now, let us sit with, and embrace, the American-ness of dissonance.

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