Parallel open fifths

As I am reading through Jimmy Webb’s brilliant book Tunesmith, I am learning all sorts of wisdom — not just about writing songs, but about so many social constructs around songs that I never before thought about.

For example, he points out that composers for the soundtracks of Hollywood movies long ago invented a musical shorthand for Indigenous people in the Americas. Such people were invariably introduced, whether in dramas or comedies, by musical sequences consisting of base notes moving together in parallel open fifths.

Meanwhile, he points out, the same composers developed a different shorthand for people from East Asia — sequences consisting of treble notes moving together in parallel open fourths1. By now I am sure you have heard both of these motifs many times.

What’s interesting — and disturbing — here is that these two remarkably similar musical motifs really have little to do with the actual people being caricatured. They are musical shorthands invented by White people to immediately evoke a cartoon version of “the exotic other” for an audience of White people.

Why is such a similar pattern used in both of these instances? Do parallel open intervals possess some intrinsic quality which to White folks suggests “Exotic other people who are not like us”?

1) Thanks to DB Porter.

2 thoughts on “Parallel open fifths”

  1. In common practice western harmony (baroque until the 20th century), they are to be avoided — typically, 1st semester music majors need (well, back in my day, hoping this is still the case now) to learn how to harmonize melody lines in a 4-voice chorale style as Bach would have done, and parallel 5ths and octaves are to be avoided at all costs. This was actually my cue to transfer schools — another student pointed out to the head of the department that they knew examples of Bach and Beethoven using both of those, and he told her that “no one in this school is the next Bach or Beethoven!”. I mean, maybe not, but I do know that I’d rather be at a school headed by someone who wasn’t so confident that there was no greatness in his students. (and I haven’t read Webb’s book, but I thought that the cheesy asian cue was parallel 4ths)

  2. Ah, you are right, my mistake (not Webb’s). The cheesy Hollywood take on “Indigenous American” is open fifths, whereas on “East Asian” it is open fourths. I’ve gone back and corrected that.

    Still, the question remains — how and why does that sort of thing come about? And what other examples are there of insultingly reductive stereotypical musical motifs?

    Thanks for the insightful comment! Sounds like you made the right choice to transfer schools.

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