The Major Third: A Little-Known Spice For Enhancing Synths
Updated: May 2
In our daily lives, we often add a 'little something' to a subject in order to augment it - a dash of salt unlocks a rich world of flavor in our main dish, a touch of color in an otherwise monochrome outfit that gives it much more life etc.
Similarly, there's a certain spice found in the sound design of certain electronic artists that's little-noticed & thus little, if ever, discussed despite its relatively large presence: the interval of a major third.
The major third, as we'll come to learn, is a certain harmonic color that can be layered atop a sound to add a certain intensity to its character.
Before we hear it in action, let's first learn the key ingredients of harmonic layering that the major third falls under: intervals.
In our Western system of music, we have twelve individual notes.
Each note makes up 1/12th of the octave, covering the same ‘distance’ of audible pitch as every other note. Naturally, moving from any one note to an adjacent note has the same character to its sound no matter what that ‘any one note’ is.
We’re not limited to playing in increments of 1/12th of course - we can play any number of pitches away when going from one note to the next. We call these specific pitch distances ‘intervals’ - each interval has its own characteristic sound (though we're primarily interested in just one for this article's sake).
Any interval can be realized starting with any note. It’s not the exact musical notes (like that we have an A & a C#, let’s say) that are important - it’s the structure of the interval (A to C# is a major third, which is also found between G to B, D to F# etc.) that’s important as it’s the structure that our hearing is actually sensitive to.
The interval that we’ll be focusing on is the major third - which spans between four adjacent notes - and the properties of its sound.
Let’s take a listen to it:
Acoustically-speaking, the major third has a sort of body and resonance to it. If we add a major third above the notes that a melody is playing, it imparts these acoustic properties to its sound.
While it's true that these intervals are primarily added for how they enrich the base sound acoustically, as a side effect they'll also function as a second melody atop. The melodic behavior of this technique has its own considerations & implications as we'll come to see.
Now, it’s no secret that musical artists layer sounds to flesh them out; virtually every producer knows the technique of doubling a melody with an octave or a perfect 5th to fill out its sound. These intervals are naturally gravitated to for layering as they're more 'neutral' in sound - they virtually always blend into the melody in a way that makes them fairly invisible. They can be used relatively freely as a result, like how white & black can essentially be added to any outfit.
The major third, however, has more ‘color’ to its sound. It imparts a lot more character than the octave or perfect fifth, making its use much more limited. Make no mistake, though: the major third has a power that only it can impart. The French are very aware of this phenomena, to say the least! The major third finds its way into their sound design mainly as a way to add intensity to their synths.
The most prominent example is in SebastiAn’s Walkman (@3:29), where the major third is just as loud - if not louder - than the distorted synth melody that it enhances.
The major third's presence can be more subtle, like in Justice's One Minute To Midnight (@0:02):
Layering is used on select notes to give emphasis at different points in the melody. Here it without vs with:
Note how the layered line isn't always playing major thirds, however - it switches to octaves for a short time. Here's how it'd sound if it were major thirds all the way through:
Justice likely found that continuing with the major thirds at that point resulted in too much emphasis in the layered melody, leading them to reign back the line's character a bit by opting for more subdued pitches - the end result sounds a lot more controlled.
The major third can also be nearly imperceptible, like its use on the bass synth in Mr. Oizo's Z (@0:02):
Overall, the major third's prominence exists on a continuum depending on how much of its effect an artist desires at any one point in a song.
You may have heard throughout these examples that sounds can be layered with a mix & match of octaves, perfect fifths, and major thirds - any assortment of intervals, really - as long as the end result is taken into consideration.
Notice too the 'sonic distance' between the base notes of a melody & the major third layer atop. Notes being closer together have a sort of blending effect - listen to how the unity of the sound weakens as the second note of the interval goes up further in register.
Basses are rarely - if ever - going to be layered with a major third in the same octave. Lower register notes tend to be pretty 'thick', so layering two together with an interval as non-transparent as the major third creates a very muddy sound which isn't often desired. Take a listen:
Tonal Side Effects
(If you aren’t familiar with what a tonic is, what scale degrees are, or how the bassline of a song serves as the track's harmonic dictator, I recommend reading through the past article ‘How SebastiAn Writes Dark Melodies' as well as the “Harmonic Effects Continued: The Tonic” section of the past article ‘Ostinato: The Patron Saint of Musical Repetition’ as it’ll make this next section easier to understand.)
While the major third is used in these examples as a sound design device, it will invariably have musical effects as well. In passive listening, the major third's presence simply slips our attention and is interpreted as part of the 'main' sound that it's meant to enrich. If we focus on the major third layer, however, we can hear it affect the interpretation of a song's character.
The most interesting example is with a tonic bassline. The major third above our tonic note is scale degree 3; the third scale degree is the note that ultimately differentiates whether a song is in a major key or a minor key - 3 for major & b3 for minor.
The bassline, as we know, has an incredible influence on a song's harmonic identity too. So what happens when a tonic bassline in a minor-based song is layered atop with a major third? If we focus attentively on the major third, the song - and everything within it - can be heard as taking place in a major key.
A minor key - which is generally thought of as being more dark, somber, serious etc. - compared to a major key - generally thought of as being more positive, bright, and optimistic - is a bit of a difference in character, to say the least. Try not to smile when locking in on the major third in Justice’s Phantom (@2:27), hearing the dark sonic barrage be reinterpreted as a much more cheery affair!
It's similarly apparent in Daft Punk's Robot Rock (@1:36):
Be aware: the major third on the tonic in a minor key can also be used as a songwriting color, of course - you are supposed to notice it in this case. The best example of this would be found in Justice's Genesis, where the final chord of the song opts for the major third as opposed to the expected-minor third (part starts @3:35, chord-in-question hits @3:47) - the song ending on a much brighter note as a result.
Overall, just be aware of the intention: whether the interval is used for a songwriting purpose or a sound design purpose.
Throughout this article we learned what intervals are, how select intervals - primarily the major third - are used in sound design, and some of the musical considerations & by-products of such usage.
As always, the best way to truly grasp these concepts is to play with them yourself. Here's a few exercises I leave to you, in order to aid understanding:
1) Listen out for this sort of layering being used when listening to music - why did the artist choose to layer? How does it affect the perception of the overall sound?
2) Take your favorite music and mess with the layering employed on the tracks. What sort of effect results by adding a specific interval or by taking one away?
3) Try using these concepts in your own music - how could you use layering to enrich a sound & thus the song as a whole?
P.S. You may never be able to hear your favorite gritty minor-based electronic songs in the same way ever again!
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