Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The power of three

with 2 comments

Bob Dylan

I didn’t invent this style. It had been shown to me in the early sixties by Lonnie Johnson…Lonnie took me aside one night and showed me a style of playing based on an odd- instead of even-number system. He had me play chords and he demonstrated how to do it. This was just something he knew about, not necessarily something he used because he did so many different kinds of songs. He said, “This might help you,” and I had the idea that he was showing me something secretive, though it didn’t make sense to me at that time because I needed to strum the guitar in order to get my ideas across. It’s a highly controlled system of playing and relates to the notes of a scale, how they combine numerically, how they form melodies out of triplets and are axiomatic to the rhythm and the chord changes…

The system works in a cyclical way. Because you’re thinking in odd numbers instead of even numbers, you’re playing with a different value system. Popular music is usually based on the number two and then filled in with fabrics, colors, effects, and technical wizardry to make a point. But the total effect is usually depressing and oppressive and a dead end which at the most can only last in a nostalgic way. If you’re using an odd numerical system, things that strengthen a performance automatically begin to happen and make it memorable for the ages. You don’t have to plan or think ahead…There’s no mystery to it and it’s not a technical trick. The scheme is for real.

For me, this style would be most advantageous, like a delicate design that would arrange the structure of whatever piece I was performing. The listener would recognize and feel the dynamics immediately. Things could explode or retreat back at any time and there would be no way to predict the consciousness of any song. And because this works on its own mathematical formula, it can’t miss. I’m not a numerologist. I don’t know why the number three is more metaphysically powerful than the number two, but it is. Passion and enthusiasm, which sometimes can be enough to sway a crowd, aren’t even necessary. You can manufacture faith out of nothing and there are an infinite number of patterns and lines that connect from key to key—all deceptively simple. You gain power with the least amount of effort, trust that the listeners make their own connections, and it’s very seldom that they don’t. Miscalculations can also cause no serious harm. As long as you recognize it, you can turn the dynamic around architecturally in a second.

Bob Dylan, Chronicles

Written by nevalalee

October 15, 2016 at 7:30 am

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Pythagoras spit on the ground for 2? It is the third, which is musical, has legs to run around geometrically? The number three is nothing special, but invention? What is Bob on about? At least John Prine and Phil Ochs kept quiet about 3 as a mystery and just played. At least he clears up the fact that he is not a numerologist. Probably have trouble getting work from Intel if they thought he was. The whole music business is turds.


    October 15, 2016 at 11:55 am

  2. Sometimes words allow a certain form of pseudo-intellectualism that entertains without adding to the body of knowledge. Many dissertations consist of this sort of thing.


    October 15, 2016 at 12:46 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: