On Music, Thinking, Dreaming, And Gender: Two Chords In A Lego Commercial

“Music’s ability to conceal its processes and to communicate nothing/everything ‘directly’ is largely responsible for its peculiar power and prestige in society.”
– Susan McClary and Robert Walser, “Start Making Sense!: Musicology Wrestles with Rock.”

Every once in a blue moon I watch a TV commercial that stops me, holds my attention, and generates the semblance of real feeling. For instance, I have written here before about ads by Apple and Rolex that pack a punch. Recently I enjoyed the minute-long “Inspire Imagination” commercial for Lego toys. (Ahh, Lego. I love Lego.) The ad depicts a young girl playing with Lego as she imagines various occupations and carries out various tasks–from being a doctor and flying a helicopter to guiding a hamster through a maze and putting on a shadow puppet show. The girl is alone in each scene, yet clearly engaged with her Lego-enabled activities. Near the end of the ad we hear her say, in a voice over, “You taught me how to think, and how to dream.” The girl is addressing her proud mom, yet she’s also referring to her Lego.

The Lego ad is popular, in part because it promotes creativity, and also gender equality by showing a girl with what has often been assumed to be a boy’s toy. (Lego was pioneering in this regard. Check out this “Dear Parents” manifesto they included with their toys in the early 1970s.) On Twitter and YouTube, viewers have praised the ad, calling it “empowering,” “inspirational,” and “melancholy.”

What held my attention while watching was the soundtrack. Created by an advertising agency called Cut & Run, the music is the main source of the ad’s affective power, and helps construct viewers’ sensation of empowerment, inspiration, and melancholy. Let’s take a listen:

The music is simple. Scored for a close-mic’d acoustic piano, with bits of acoustic guitar and long string tones in the background, it consists of arpeggios around two chords: an A-flat major triad with a 6th added, followed by a c-minor triad. If we consider the key to be A-flat major, what we hear is a I-iii chord progression, over and over again. On top of this, in a higher register, the right hand of the piano part plays a fleeting melody that emphasizes the fifth, fourth, and third notes of the A-flat scale. The overall sound is reminiscent of Erik Satie’s moody Gymnopedie pieces; it also evokes the romantic-minimalist sound of Michael Nyman, some Thomas Newman film scores, and the intimate electronica of Helios. (Who, curiously enough, created his own take on minimalist Philip Glass’s Truman Show film score for an Apple commercial.) In short, this piano music has a familiar ring to it, and hearing it we kind of know how to feel.

The music works on two main levels. First, there are those two chords. Every major scale has within it three major chords, three minor chords, and one diminished chord. The Lego chord progression–moving from a chord built on the root or first note of the A-flat scale, to a chord built on the third note of the scale–is inherently happy-sad sounding, because it moves from a major chord to a minor one. So, in a sense this progression encapsulates the music’s sense of melancholy. The I and iii Lego chords also share two notes: C and E-flat. As they are arpeggiated in the ad, the C in particular keeps insistently popping out of the arpeggio, bobbing to the surface of the chords. The C seems energized, empowered and inspired to both keep the rhythm going and act as a glue between the happy and sad I and iii chords.

The music also conjures feeling through that piano sound. For a long time now, the piano has been the ultimate symbol of the middle-class home and of having the financial means, time, and space to take music lessons and practice. The instrument might also be coded as having a feminine sound. In the Lego ad, we never see the young girl playing piano, but we might imagine her being able to play something like this two-chord progression. Finally, the piano sound is an acoustic touchstone that we can relate to as the sound of an instrument that many of us learned to play–a little or a lot–when we were children. Its resonance and warmth suggests an interior world of thinking, imagination, and creativity.

Which brings us back to what makes this commercial empowering, inspirational, and melancholy. The music doesn’t signify these qualities, but it evokes them by gesturing in their general direction through its notes and its timbre to help us feel. As the saying goes, with music, it’s all about the vibe. There is nothing remarkable about a girl playing with Lego, and here the music simply reminds us of the fact that the toy can spark wonder in girls too.

On Musical Analogies: Notes On Design

There’s a lot to think through in this video that features the designers Dieter Rams of Braun and Jonathan Ive of Apple. In the first part we hear Rams enumerate his ten principles of good design. Good design should be:

essential or useful,
consistent in every detail,
environmentally friendly,
and have as little design as possible.

It struck me that these principles are useful for thinking about making music, designing music, improvising music, composing music. In fact, thinking about some of the opposites of these qualities–opaque instead of understandable or inconsistent instead of consistent, say–brings to mind musics that don’t work so well as music. Running through the list, you can probably think of your own examples!

In the second part of the video Ive discusses the understated design of Apple computers (e.g. smooth contours, lights that disappear when not lit) and how the machines are assembled out of single slabs of aluminum that provide materials for multiple parts. At one point Ive says that the company’s design team’s goal is more about staying faithful to a particular process than achieving a particular design per se. He sounds like a purist–like a music composer, actually. Speaking about the MacBook Air, he notes:

“The design of this in many ways wasn’t the design of a physical thing, it was figuring out a process.”

Another thing I like about this video? Its soundtrack features a wonder of process and good design–a drumming pattern (RLRRLRLL) called the paradiddle. As Rams talks, listen in the background to the percolating keyboard part floating along on its own paradiddle rhythm.

On (More) Wonder In Apple Commercials: The “Your Verse” iPad Air Ad

I have written previously on this blog about the musical construction of wonder and enchantment in Apple commercials. (You can read the posts here, here, and also over here.) What I like about those ads is how their evocative soundtracks convey the humanity that Apple wants us to feel is either inherent in their products (a laptop, an iPhone, or the sensibilities of Siri, Apple’s voice technology) or elicited in the social experiences the products enable. Apple’s latest commercial, the “Your Verse” iPad Air ad, is similar to the company’s earlier ones. This time around, we are shown numerous scenes of the iPad in action, accompanying creatives in the field–whether they be outdoor photographer, scientist, filmmaker, musician, designer, coach, storm chaser, artist, or writer.

The soundtrack features an audio sample of Robin Williams in the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society speaking some inspirational lines about the power of poetry. “Poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for” his character says with vigor at one point in the ad. Supporting Williams’ inspired speech is music that sounds like one long d minor chord played in washes of shifting arpeggios by orchestral strings and woodwinds. The name of the piece is “Awareness” by New Zealand film composer Hanan Townshend. The music was first used in Townshend’s soundtrack to the 2013 Terrence Malick film To The Wonder.

On its own, “Awareness” at first listen wouldn’t seem to be ideally suited for signifying a sense of wonder over the technological sublime. At least compared to the soundtracks in other Apple commercials which are more harmonically involved. But on repeated listens I realized that the music’s static drone quality could be heard as conveying some kind of steady ecstatic sensibility embodied by people deeply into their work with their iPads. Also, all those skittering arpeggios could be heard as an analog to the creative restlessness of the people in the ad.

Well, maybe. But it’s hard to know for sure just how the music is working in this commercial. If I listen like most people though, I can say that my attention is monopolized by Williams’ inspirational words and the dramatic outdoor settings. I have to focus on the music to even think about what it might be doing. This fact in turn perhaps provides a clue about what is going on here. Sometimes music is a subliminal force, an invisible guiding hand. Subtle and tinkering in the background of our attention, music plays a supporting role, shaping how we construct our worlds, and reinforcing the feelings we’re already feeling.