Emotional map illuminates an iconic rock song

Gilad Cohen

Gilad Cohen, a graduate student in music composition, analyzed the songs of the English rock band Pink Floyd. (Photo by David Kelly Crow)

IN A TYPICAL ROCK SONG, a few chords and a simple rhythm form the foundation for catchy lyrics that carry the listener along for three or four minutes. Expand these elements into a 20-minute song, and the result should be boring.

Yet songs of this length were common for progressive rock bands in the late 1960s and 1970s. Most of these extra-long songs were actually collections of “sub-songs” — sequences of disparate musical ideas, according to Gilad Cohen, a graduate student in music composition. As part of his dissertation research, Cohen analyzed the expanded songs of the ever-popular English rock band Pink Floyd.

The 1975 Pink Floyd song “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is 26 minutes long. “And it’s all in the same key,” Cohen said. “The rhythm is very simple. You have a few chord progressions, and they just repeat themselves again and again.”

But the song is anything but boring. “There’s a very clever, detailed arrangement process that makes this music interesting, and allows it to maintain momentum throughout a long stretch of time,” Cohen said. The arrangement includes motivic development — the alteration or repetition of a motif throughout a piece of music — and the layering of instruments, in addition to the use of studio effects such as reverb and delay, innovative tools at the time.

“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is a tribute to Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd’s former leader. Barrett left the band in 1968 due to mental illness, which was likely exacerbated by his use of LSD and the intense pressure he felt to create hits. Cohen views the song as an emotional journey through the stages of grief, an expression of the band’s sense of loss.

A "bereavement map" for Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" reveals which parts of the song express each of the five stages of grief - numbness, yearning, anger, mourning and acceptance.

A “bereavement map” for Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” reveals which parts of the song express each of the five stages of grief – numbness, yearning, anger, mourning and acceptance.

To better understand how the sounds reflect these emotions, Cohen created a “bereavement map” showing which parts of the song express each of the five stages of grief — numbness, yearning, anger, mourning and acceptance. Like the real grieving process, the progression is not exactly linear.

Numbness, for example, is represented by drawn-out, improvised keyboard and guitar solos built around a single chord. Then, the guitar plays the song’s famous four-note “yearning motif,” in which the last note doesn’t quite belong with the rest. “It sounds like it wants to go somewhere,” Cohen said. “Pink Floyd is amazing at creating this tension.” Later, the same melody is played in two different rhythms, which alternately impart feelings of yearning and anger.

“Rock music is starting to have its day in the sun in musicological scholarship,” said Scott Burnham, the Scheide Professor of Music History and Cohen’s dissertation adviser. “Gilad’s work is timely, and it’s coming from a really great place — namely, his work as a musician and composer.”

Cohen shared his passion for Pink Floyd by organizing the first academic conference on the band’s music, “Pink Floyd: Sound, Sight and Structure,” which was held at Princeton in April 2014, and was co-organized by Dave Molk, a fellow graduate student in composition. The event’s keynote speaker was James Guthrie, Pink Floyd’s producer and engineer.

Cohen said he was inspired by the reactions of students, scholars and “hardcore fans” who attended the conference. “They’re really starved for this kind of knowledge. They listen differently to the music now,” Cohen said. “If I can expand someone’s enjoyment of music they’ve listened to throughout their lives, that’s a big thrill.”

–By Molly Sharlach