Tuesday 11/12/2013 by phishnet


From the editors: We'd like to welcome Mike Hamad (@mikehamad) creator of the amazing @phishmaps to the blog today. Mike has a fantastic post digging into a musician's viewpoint of Wingsuit and its connections to other music you are already familiar with. We hope you enjoy it!

When songs are grouped together, I sometimes hear connections.

What I hear before and after one song, or a segment of a song, influences the way I hear that music. I think a lot of people listen this way, and probably a lot of Phish fans. We’re always talking about sets, pacing, song selection, vibes that carry over from one jam to another, whole weekends, tours, years, and so on. Everything affects the experience of everything else, musical and otherwise.

I hear a few connections, spread out all over the place, in Wingsuit. Did they intend this? Who knows. Brains make connections composers didn’t intend us to hear all the time. Composers are pretty good at creating cool accidents; in a sense, all they really do is create the conditions under which we experience a piece of music, right? The rest is up to us, to take from it what we will.

Some of the connections I hear have to do with melody, and some with harmony. (I think there are probably some lyrical connections that should be discussed as well, and they've probably all been pointed out anyway.) It's tough to talk about this stuff without getting a little technical, and that sucks. But I'll try to make it tolerable if and when I say jargon-y stuff.


The word "mode," for example, has to do with the collection of pitches that make up a melody, or perhaps a whole passage of music that really leans on this particular group of tones. Mixolydian ("mixo" for short) mode is so common in rock music; I think we've all heard it over and over. To my thinking, the fact that we've heard it over and over and over, for years and years, means it signifies something.

It's probably up to everyone to figure out what that particular sound means for them – maybe nothing. For me, it's the sound of a few songs that jump to mind: "Dark Star," "Bird Song," "Wharf Rat." Three Dead songs are the first that come to mind.

If I think further on this: "All Apologies" by Nirvana and, to a lesser extent, Pearl Jam's "Evenflow." All five songs have mixolydian-mode melodies.

What is mixolydian mode, technically speaking? Think of it as a major scale with a lowered seventh scale degree. If you sang "do- re- mi- fa- sol- la- ti- do," the ti, in mixo mode, would be lowered a half-step. Or you can play all the white keys on a piano from G up to the next G and hear mixo mode.

So, I'll just hear something on the radio in mixolydian mode (or, less frequently, lydian mode, which raises the fourth scale degree a half-step and keeps the seventh as "ti") and conjure some association. The sound carries with it the accumulation of all the rock music I've ever heard in mixolydian mode.

Of course, one of the first things I hear in “Wingsuit,” the song, is the mixolydian melody in F major, which descends the distance of a tritone from E-flat (scale degree ^flat-7) down to A (scale degree ^3).

I'd hate to attempt to spell out what it means, so here's a few trigger words: weightlessness, ambiguity, stable but not completely comfortable. I’m not surprised a great deal of psychedelic and grunge relies heavily on the mixo mode. Mysticism, narcissism, drifting around in smoke and fog, drug use, escapism: it all kinda makes sense.


F major, the key of "Wingsuit," is the gravity. That gravity is what we call "tonality." Every sound in the tonal world relates to every other sound. The home key (sometimes called the "tonic") is like a planet, attracting or repelling chords to it with different levels of pull. Those chords, though, have tendencies: they lean in, drift away, flirt with each other, etc., but ultimately they get pulled back home (usually).

Phish, "Wingsuit - 10/31/13 - Atlantic City, NJ

Music, however, would be really, really boring if all it ever did was stay in one key (unless, as is the case with a lot of great one- or two-chord rock, the musical interest comes from some other element, or host of them, like groove, lyrical stuff, what-have-you). So when a chord breaks free of the planet's gravity, if we end up feeling at home in another key, that’s what’s known as a modulation.

Here's an example: the Reading "Twenty Years Later," over the course of that awesome, long improvisatory section, modulated from B to D. It's not a huge move (B min and D maj share the same pitch collection; they're "relatives"). By 9:30 into the video below, they're still in the key of B, but you get the sense they're trying to figure out where to go next. Around 9:45 or so, Mike alternates between the pitches B and D (D is the third scale degree in the key of B minor, so it doesn't sound out of place here). At 10:23, he eliminates the B, leaving only the D. It's subtle, but it leads somewhere new: Trey joins in around 10:45, comping in the new key of D, and they're off on another three-minute adventure.

Phish, "Twenty Years Later" - 10/29/13 - Reading, PA

Modulations to other keys, in other words, don’t necessarily signal that a jam was interesting or good. They tell us in measurable terms -- or metaphorical terms -- how far a jam travels from where it begins. And distance, I’d argue, is an important factor in how we perceive music, even if we're not always aware of it.

Actually, I've spent a lot of years working on how to hear distance. It wasn't always conscious work, but it sort of evolved into that. But composers have been hip to tonal distance for centuries. In the 19th century, composing a song meant grabbing someone else's poem and setting it to music. You'd grab a poem and analyze it, trying to figure out what notes to play on the piano and what to sing. You might notice the juxtaposition of two ideas or concepts: "when my love is with me" vs. "when my love is gone." Or God and Satan, high and low, rich and poor, whatever. Just two things that were different.

One way to approach that juxtaposition is by using contrasting keys: F minor and A-flat major, for example, which isn't a big, jarring contrast (it's the same pitch collection, only with a different note emphasized in the bass register; more on that later). How about F minor and A major? Extremely distant, and very Radiohead.

Mr. Anastasio even does this sometimes. Check out the song “Rift,” where the distance of a tritone (G-C#, tonally speaking an extreme, dramatic distance) represents, in harmonic terms, a descent down into a "rift" of some kind, mirroring the song's lyrics. In “Esther,” tritone distances similarly stand-in for physical distances in the story: “floating higher over the hills,” “the earth seemed to open and swallow her whole,” and so on, relative to the song’s ground-level home key.

Ironically, musical distance doesn’t equate to how many half-steps on a keyboard you’ve moved up or down. F to F#, for example, while only one key away on the piano, is a much more distant tonal relationship than, say, F to B-flat. Proximity on the circle of fifths is better indicator of tonal distance. (F to F# involves seven sharp-side jumps, whereas F to B-flat only requires one flat-side move.)

In Phish's music, most modulations during jams, I think, seem to move to closely related keys: the relative major or minor (iii or III), the subdominant (iv or IV), the dominant (v or V), the submediant (VI or vi), and so on. Mike, as the lowest voice in the musical texture, is the Keymaster; Page or Trey can suggest new tonalities all they want, and most often we’ll simply perceive them as harmonic colorings. But if Mike moves from, say, A to C and stays there for awhile, congratulations! We’re now in C. That’s just how register works. Mike plays the biggest role in how “outside” a jam gets, if we’re talking about modulations.

Instrumentation, too, has accumulated meaning. Piano (rather than organ, clavinet or Rhodes piano) signifies. Tremolo guitar is meaningful. These are all part of the accumulated baggage of years of listening to music, for us and the musicians.


In “Wingsuit,” F is tonic (home), but it’s also ambiguous, thanks to that E-flat melody note (at “steal away…”). What connects "Wingsuit" to “Fuego?” For me, it's partly the jam progression at the end of "Wingsuit" in the tonic key (F: ii-iii-IV-vi || vii-I-IV). This is where Trey rips a solo, right after they all stop and sing "time to put your wingsuit on," as the song spins toward its conclusion.

Phish, "Fuego" - 10/31/13 - Atlantic City, NJ

The ends of "Wingsuit" really leans on that B-flat (IV) chord. The last chord we hear is that B-flat chord. It hangs around as "Fuego" gets started.

"Fuego" opens with an augmented piano chord, with B-natural in the bass, before spinning around to the key of A, which is the home key for most of "Fuego" (that double-time middle section is in F# minor, the relative of A major). (B-flat to B: remember that.*)

But that "Fuego" riff is in A phrygian mode. Phrygian is a little exotic sounding, and maybe a little evil, but certainly not stable. B-flat doesn't belong in this world of A. It throws everything off. A phrygian, spelled A- B-flat- C- D- E- F- G- A, the same pitch collection as F major, the key of "Wingsuit" (the mixolydian E-flat notwithstanding).

So, that's one connection I hear between the first two songs of the suite. Another connection: "Fuego," like "Wingsuit," has a mixolydian mode melody. So, for that matter, do "The Line" and "Monica." It's everywhere.

More connective tissue: the final sonority of “Fuego,” part of that final spinning-out progression (G- B-flat- E-flat- C- B), is a B chord. Personally, I hear that B slipping into the B-flat opening chord of "The Line." (Remember the B-flat to B mentioned above?* This reverses the process.) Composers dig this kind of stuff, I think, especially when they’re trying to create larger blocks of music that work together.

"Waiting All Night" is a great song. It also introduces a new sound world -- E-flat lydian -- into the mix.Lydian, as I mentioned above, essentially introduces a raised fourth scale degree (in E-flat, A natural replaces A-flat). The whole harmonic environment, as a result, sounds to me like one big IV chord: not unstable, but quite "home." It's just an observation of pitch collection, but maybe we want to use it in our interpretations of lyrics (does the protagonist seem satisfied, at rest, comfortable, happy, "home?").

(Lydian mode in improvisational rock is a pretty cool thing to explore. Duane Allman’s other-worldly coda in the Fillmore East “Whipping Post,” where he plays an A dorian scale over a C pedal supplied by the rest of the band, is my favorite example. The resulting pitch collection is C lydian, with much of Duane’s melodic emphasis falling on the pitches E and B. Not only is B a cool note to hit in this context, because he's truly playing A dorian, he usually bends to get there.It’s a truly special, exotic, emotionally charged moment that I’ve returned to again and again.)

Deeper in the suite, the A/B-flat relationship we heard connecting “Wingsuit” and “Fuego” reemerges in “555,” nine songs out from where we started. Here, that B-flat/A alternation serves as the jam progression, but now B-flat is home and A is the outsider (unlike the opening of “Fuego,” where it’s reversed). The final B-flat sonority of “555” dissolves into the B major of “Winterqueen.” Having heard two similar B/B-flat transitions already, it screams out at me.

Over time, more connections pop up. The ones I identified will get even more solidified. Maybe some will disappear. When they finally record the album, maybe they'll change around the order of songs, or add new ones in there. That's all fine. On this particular night -- and I've listened to it over and over since then -- that's kinda what I hear. The fun part will be hearing what they'll do with these songs at MSG.

What connections do you hear, either lyrical or in the music? How do they change over time, as you go back and listen again? Leave a comment and let me know. I’m interested.

- Michael Hamad (@mikehamad)

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, comment by nickavv
nickavv Awesome breakdown of the musical connections, nice writeup. I'm taking a basic music theory course right now so it's good to hear these terms used in a real context.

Lyrically one big connection that jumps out at me is in Wingsuit the opening line "Steal away, let's steal a car" is followed trackwise by Fuego which seems to be about doing stunts in a car which "I asked Diego if it was stolen"
, comment by j_led
j_led Nice write up. The only thing you forgot to say was how sucky the turd known as Wingsuit is. That would have really solidified your analysis.
, comment by Jacculus
Jacculus Image

Sorry. WAY over my head. I'm sure it's a great analysis though.
, comment by tubescreamer
tubescreamer Fascinating read. It is interesting to see themes pop up in the flow of the middle of the album. I dont have the knowledge base and skills you do so forgive the mistakes I make as I try to explain what I am hearing. Maybe you can help me articulate this better: In Waiting all night, we have an E-flat major with the addition of the minor 3rd, Gflat, that adds the color to the outro. Next up is Wombat, hopping to that 3rd, Gflat major and ending in its 3rd, though minor, B-flat, then up, Snow, again a jump to the 3rd, and again a switch from major to minor, to D. Next up, Devotion to a dream, another jump to a 3rd, back to Gflat. Then, in a move just like we saw through Wombat, we hop 3rds and go from Gflat back to a B-flat minor for 555, and we return to B and allude to the beginning theme of the opening frame, as mentioned. I think it is also worth noting that the jam between 555 and Winterqueen, the only that could be described as Type II for the night, clearly very tweezer reprise in its structure, alludes to the chords Trey is playing in Wombat in the Bflat funk session.
, comment by tubescreamer
tubescreamer *When I said "Type II for the night" I meant "Type II for the set".
, comment by mgouker
mgouker The mixolydian melody in Wingsuit gives me chills. It is the feeling of setting off, going out the door.. a new adventure.

This is a great writeup. It makes me think a lot more about how the music affects me. It is a lot more intentional than I first perceived. The music is really together.

The Bb is really sung by Trey's guitar, but what stands out for me is the joy of adventure and I get that through the G, C, D, and piercing E (that's an E that bleeds, right?) in the solo.

Great music.

Are you going to do the other songs too? I'm interested in that outro of 555.
, comment by mgouker
mgouker Wow, just saw this. Off to study: ;-)

, comment by Spirit
Spirit excellent!!! as a guitar practitioner who is self taught/teaching, i am amazed to how much of this i figured out for myself, but in less technical ways of course. An aspect of why i love Phish so much is that when i tune into jams, im not just listening to music, im learning, exploring and changing my perception of how sound interacts.

For my guitar work, my practice sessions usually start with, scales for warm ups -> Rhythm practice and chord shapes/ discover new chord combination -> Jam Tracks for various modal exercising -> Work on a song -> Finish with a drum track and see how many different songs i can segue in and out of before i either break the -> chain, or run out of juice.

any suggestions, tips, things that you do to help you become a better guitar player but more importantly a better musician?
, comment by BoogieOnBeck
BoogieOnBeck I have a difficult time hearing music in the way you describe here in your post, and have always been envious of those who can, which sometimes seems to be every other Phish fan but me. However, your post gives great description and detail of this particular kind of listening and offers me a little insight. I appreciate these little lessons...helps me experience my favorite band, and all music, a little differently each time.
, comment by jerrytimber
jerrytimber Nice write-up. I just wish ANY of it made sense. I'll still keep listening with my dumb ears.
, comment by metawhy
metawhy Great write up!

What is a note, anyway?
, comment by YorkvilleBeerLover
YorkvilleBeerLover My brain is melting! Wild stuff - will need to revisit again and again.

"D Minor - the saddest of all keys"

, comment by thebabysmouth
thebabysmouth Lyrically, the album seems to me incredibly self-aware as well as referential to Phish and their history and histories. "Steal away" the very first words of the album, recall "Steal away before the dawn" from Cavern. "Devotion to a Dream" seems to me to be about multiple things: 1: the dream that is Phish, the dream of unfettered musical freedom and exploration 2. Phish inviting us even closer to them, disabling the promises that keep the theatricality of their enterprise aloft, the "charade is over," the "curtain's coming down." Which is of course a reference to the decision to invite us into the studio on Halloween, so to speak. As well as a reference to another great song of theirs, The Curtain.

Of course there is more.
, comment by Feel_The_Bern
Feel_The_Bern From one musician to another, this write-up is amazing. One of the things I first noticed listening to the set was the almost perfect transition from wingsuit to fuego, that Bb to Bminor. I swear to Icculus that Bminor is the greatest, coolest chord to start off a song (see great gig in the sky, among other classics.)
, comment by stimbuck
stimbuck I really appreciate these descriptions even if they are a bit above my understanding. Please continue to describe the music this way, I'm bound to learn something
, comment by smoothatonalsnd
smoothatonalsnd You crushed it with this analysis, Mike. By far the most theoretically rigorous thing I've ever read on Phish, and like all great analysis, yours works because you're not just analyzing in a vacuum, you're using it to elucidate meaning. Baller.

One thing you clarified for me is why "Monica," probably my favorite song (not jam, but song) from the set, sounds so much like a 60s psychedelic pop tune to me. It's that mixolydian character, combined with the timbres of acoustic guitar, crisp drumming, and electric piano.

The Lydian quality of "Waiting All Night" really gives it that lilting, foggy quality that I always associate with the "Lady With a Fan" section of "Terrapin Station," also very Lydian flavored.

When I first heard "Wingsuit," I remember thinking how much it reminded me of my call for the Halloween costume, Meddle. But it also really reminds me of the moment in the 10/20/13 Tweezer, right around 21 min., when Page directs everything into a bliss jam.

I hope they'll use "Wingsuit" as a landing pad after a monster set II opener jam, and of course "Light" is in B major. It could be very cool to hear them navigate that half-step modulation from "Light"> "Wingsuit," although I guess "Light" often travels through a few other key areas before winding up wherever it does.

Kudos Mike. This is really something.

, comment by tek9rifleskills
tek9rifleskills Way too good of an analysis!!!! The "glue" I was hearing the last 2 weeks made me pick up my bass and find the root notes for the first half of that set. Yah, its pretty amazing how together these songs are, and how different they from most other Phish songs I've learned to play. They don't write redundant music from album to album, but they sound like they come from a usual music "stock," if you will. These don't. I found myself playing notes in progression that I've not done before on most of their songs. The complex stuff, like Foam, isn't the same as this, these songs are driven by feel and accompaniment of lyrics with music. I think having Waiting All Night stuck in your head is more easily pulled off than anything from Junta, except the Bundle of Joy melody, that one is a keeper :)
, comment by nichobert
nichobert Would it be fair to say that the improv from recent years is a lot more complex than the late 90s?

Just heard BGA 2012 Crosseyed while real stoned, ended up in my "phish couldn't SNIFF this kind of jam fall 97" mood
, comment by tubescreamer
tubescreamer To add to my comment above-- Since Halfway to the moon is in G, in keeping with the jump to 3rd of the root of the preceding or succeeding song that the middle of album travels from Waiting all night > 555, my guess is Halfway will be placed after The Line (Bflat) as it is G's minor 3rd, and flows perfectly as the minor 3rd of Monica-- which is in E.
, comment by thebabysmouth
thebabysmouth more than fair Nicho. They may not be as wild and manic in their best jams. But from a sophistication and listening standpoint, they don't search as much as they used to, they just get right down to work. And they are still primarily a funk band. That is their dominant mode of improv. IMO

@nichobert said:
Would it be fair to say that the improv from recent years is a lot more complex than the late 90s?

Just heard BGA 2012 Crosseyed while real stoned, ended up in my "phish couldn't SNIFF this kind of jam fall 97" mood
, comment by LightsWentOut
LightsWentOut Thank you for the in depth analysis. I look forward to seeing more of this from you on the site. I think it really adds to the the discussion.
, comment by TwiceBitten
TwiceBitten @j_led said:
Nice write up. The only thing you forgot to say was how sucky the turd known as Wingsuit is. That would have really solidified your analysis.
-33 wow
, comment by whrdina
whrdina Fascinating! I have a very non-technical understanding of music and always enjoys these peaks into how the sausage is made. Perhaps you could include links to wiki pages for the more important ideas like Mode so we can read a longer explanation with more varied examples (although I think Mike did a good job of explaining it)
, comment by Just_Ivy
Just_Ivy Love this. Thanks, @mikehamad.
, comment by bushwood_a_dump
bushwood_a_dump This surpasses, in both content and approach, most of the undergraduate music theory courses that I had in college. Phenomenal crafting and analysis.

Your Duane/Fillmore East anecdotal tie-in gave me shivers. I've always felt that Live at the Fillmore East has several lifetimes worth of musical beauty and inventiveness.

Having said all that, I haven't 'revisited' Wingsuit since I witnessed the debut from the couch, but if left feeling as optimistic about the near future of this band as I have in many years. I don't think this level of inter-song points of interest (as it relates to key, harmony, melody, tension, reprise, etc) has been a part of a studio release since 'Billy Breathes'. My expectations are high at this point.
, comment by EllisonPharmD
EllisonPharmD I hope to understand this one day. I think of music theory as something beyond calculus. It blows my mind. But it really does make playing / jamming easier if you know just a little. Imagine what these guys (phish) know, and then wonder why our brains get twisted and our faces get melted at the shows...
, comment by bertoletdown
bertoletdown @thebabysmouth said:
more than fair Nicho. They may not be as wild and manic in their best jams. But from a sophistication and listening standpoint, they don't search as much as they used to, they just get right down to work. And they are still primarily a funk band. That is their dominant mode of improv. IMO

@nichobert said:
Would it be fair to say that the improv from recent years is a lot more complex than the late 90s?

Just heard BGA 2012 Crosseyed while real stoned, ended up in my "phish couldn't SNIFF this kind of jam fall 97" mood
I'm not really sure what constitutes "complexity." But it's an interesting question.

From a harmonic perspective, tension and release jams from the 1.0 era could be argued to be very complex, as the tension measures often had Mike, Trey, and Page creating three different kinds of dissonance before resolving to the tonic together. That's definitely complex, but we don't hear that a lot anymore.

Hey hole jams are as complex as the band chose to make them, which sometimes wasn't very complex at all. Listen to the Big Cypress Sand > QT as an example -- one of my favorite jams ever and a total hey hole thing. It transforms at a snail's pace, always one piece and one player at a time, like a game of Jenga. A very advanced idea, but not complex in the way I think of complex.

When I think of 1997 though, I think of telepathy, and those spontaneous modulations that just fucking ***happened***. Listen to the one in the 11/21/97 Ghost (I don't have a timing handy but if you are familiar with the jam, you know what I'm talking about). Is that "complex?" I don't think so at all. I think it is just a magical byproduct of years of connection.
, comment by fracai
fracai One thing I've found as a musician. Mike loves to modulate in the songs he writes.
In Sugar Shack he changes key every new section (very cleverly I may add).

Verse: Ab minor
Chorus: modulates between B major/minor
Instrumental: mod. between Db major/minor
Bridge: Db major
Verse 2: Bb minor
Chorus: mod. between Db major/minor
Instrumental Out: " " Db major/minor

, comment by relax_
relax_ Wow, thank you very much for this write-up, @mikehamad. I'm a music theory novice, so I can't understand all of the "jargon", but I've always been interested in how the music is perceived. I don't have a lot to add here, but I was talking to someone yesterday who mentioned how much he loves "Waiting All Night". After finding the guitar tabs online and playing it, he said his love for the song stemmed specifically from the maj7 intro chord (Ebmaj7 according to the tabs) -- "it's comforting", he said, "like a favorite sweatshirt or a thick, warm blanket". In that case, the lyrical content juxtaposed with the chord structure is a little odd! I know the interpretation can go any number of ways, but that's how I (and he) perceive it. It seems out of the ordinary to experience this warmth (chords) in the midst of remorse, anxiety, and sadness (lyrics). Maybe the protagonist is "home" in the present, and is just relating a sour moment from his past. Or, maybe he just likes to play the victim and is most comfortable in melancholic thought.
, comment by Piper72
Piper72 Great write up, definitely got the gears in motion. I'm a musician so a lot of that made sense, but there are many on here who disparage themselves thinking that the knowledge helps enjoy the music more. It may explain WHY you enjoy it, but IMO does not displace the actual act of listening and enjoyment. If ya do, ya do. It's like the first line John Nash delivers in "A Beautiful Mind": "There has to be a mathematical explanation for how bad your tie is."
, comment by Kyaphish
Kyaphish How about the common phrase of trey pulling the ripcord on certain endings? Does this have anything to do with wing suit?
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