why do we sing up?
While singing loudly to myself in the car the other day (windows safely rolled up, of course–I don’t want no funny looks from pedestrians), I noticed that the first few notes of the vocal melody of most songs seem to go up rather than down. That’s to say, the first pitch change in most songs seems to be from a lower note to a higher note; there don’t seem to be very many that show the opposite pattern. It actually took me a while to find a song that goes down at the beginning (Elliott Smith‘s Angeles–incidentally also my favorite song—which hangs on B for the first few bars before dropping to A); the first eight or nine I tried all went up. After carefully inspecting millions thousands hundreds several more songs on my drive home, I established that only around 10% of vocal melodies dip down initially (95% confidence interval = 0 – 80%); the rest all go up.
When I got home I did a slightly more systematic but still totally ascientific analysis. I write songs occasionally, so I went through them all, and found that only three or four go down; the rest all go up. But that could just be me. So then I went through a few of my favorite albums (not a random sample–I picked ones I knew well enough to rehearse mentally) and found the same pattern. I don’t know if this is a function of the genre of music I listen to (which I’d charitably describe as wuss-rock) or a general feature of most music, but it seems odd. Not having any musical training or talent, I’m not really sure why that would be, but I’d like to know. Does it have anything to do with the fact that most common chord progressions go up the scale initially? Is there some biological reason we find ascending notes more pleasant at the beginning of a melody? Is it a function of our speech production system? Does Broca’s Area just like going up more than going down? Is it just an arbitrary matter of convention, instilled in songwriters everywhere by all the upward-bound music that came before? And is the initial rise specific to English, or does it happen when people sing in other languages as well? Could it be something about the emotional connotation of rises versus drops? Do drops seem too depressing to kick off a song with? Are evil clowns behind it all? Or am I just imagining the whole thing, and there isn’t actually any bias toward initial upness?
Can we get an update on this? Are there any musicians/musicologists in the house?