There are as many reasons to be a fan of some parts of Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy as there are reasons to be annoyed by it. For me, the best reason to watch is to take in Stewie Griffin’s worldly wisdom. But who knew he knows something about music too?
In one clip available on YouTube, “Music & Lyrics by Stewie Griffin”, Stewie falls for a fellow baby living next door and decides to compose a song for her on the guitar. The song, however, quickly goes meta. Stewie’s improvised lyrics simply describe what it feels like hang out on a G Major chord (“it’s like your cozy house where you live–that’s where you start your journey”) and follow the music as it shifts to C Major (“then you poke your head out the door with a C chord…”) and D Major chords (“whoa!–walking around outside, looking at all the stuff out here…”). Then Stewie switches to a minor key, playing A minor (“it’s getting a little cloudy out here, looks like we might have some weather…”) and E minor chords (“definitely got some weather, things are a little more complicated than they seemed at first”) before returning to C major (“and then we go back to my house!”).
And that’s the song.
Not a small number of Western music theory books have described tonal music–comprised of the major and minor scales and the chords that are built upon them–in terms of a “tonic” note or chord that functions as a stable planet around which other notes or chords orbit like moons. So, for example, if we’re in the key of G Major (as Stewie seems to be), the note G and the G major chord (made of notes G, B, and D) function as the stable tonic. Other notes and chords besides the G and its chord are defined in their relation to it. To return to the planets and moons analogy, the G exerts various degrees of gravitational pull on other notes in its orbit. Thus, Stewie moves from his G Major chord to C Major, D Major, then A minor and E minor chords, before finally being pulled “home” to C Major.
What I like about the clip is that Stewie explains music theory in affective terms that make sense to us: how the tonic G Major chord feels comfortable and stable, how moving to the C and D Major chords (a classic I-IV-V chord progression) feels like taking a trip outside, and then how the A minor and E minor chords feel like bad weather approaching. (In case you were wondering, the association of major chords with “happiness” and minor chords with “sadness” has been around in the western world for centuries.) In a sense, Stewie’s lyrics are a real-time articulation of how a chord progression can guide us through a series of feelings.
Stewie’s song–brief as it is–is interrupted by Brian the dog who calls his baby brother “an unbelievable douche bag.” Stewie uses this insult to fuel the next version of his song. Here he keeps the same chords but speeds up the tempo and strums the guitar in a folk style. The lyrics are based on Brian’s insult and reflect on how that insult is shaping the song’s unfolding. Again, pretty meta. By the time we arrive at the A minor and E minor chords, Stewie is on fire, channelling a young Bob Dylan-esque singing style (“Why are you bringing me down, man?”).
The remarkable thing about this song is how economically (not to mention humorously) it explains not only basic western music theory but also how musicians–even cartoon musicians–put this theory into action as they write songs about their experiences.