Madam, I'm Adam
“A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!” The classic palindrome - that is, something that reads the same forwards as backwards. Palindromes are pretty clever in writing, but what do they look like in music? Better yet, what do they sound like?
Here are five of our favorite examples of palindromes in music:
1. Joseph Haydn’s Symphony #47 in G Major “The Palindrome”
It’d be cool if this whole symphony was a palindrome, but I guess Haydn wasn’t that ambitious. Instead, the symphony’s nickname comes from the third movement, the Menuetto e Trio.
The phrase of the menuetto (which is Italian for a little dance in three) is split into two halves – the second half is the same as the first, but in reverse. Haydn wrote the trio section of this movement the same way.
2. Tyler, the Creator’s I Ain’t Got Time!
The bass line in the very opening of this track from Tyler, the Creator’s most recent album, Flower Boy, is a great example of palindromic music. The low synth ascends for four bars, then turns back around and descends in reverse before immediately becoming the bass line under Tyler’s vocal entrance. The magic pivot point happens right at 0:13.
The keener ears out there will notice that the rhythm isn’t exactly a palindrome, but it’s pretty close.
Note: If you’re offended by the kind of language that is in most Rap music, you should probably skip this one.
3. The film interlude in Act 2 of Alban Berg’s Lulu
Berg’s wild 20th Century opera, Lulu, is a work obsessed with symmetry. The best palindrome, of which there are many, happens during a film interlude placed smack-dab in the middle of the opera.
The music accompanying this silent film feature is meticulously detailed and complex but is nevertheless an exact palindrome. A quick solo piano arpeggio (1:33) serves as the pivot point between the forwards and backwards sections of the music, and ends up being an important mid-point for the opera as a whole.
On screen, the silent action is also subtly palindromic with the story mirroring the plot of the entire opera in miniature as Lulu enters and exits prison.
4. Bela Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta – Movement III
Bartok, like many artists of the 20th Century, was fascinated by mathematical concepts like symmetry, the Fibonacci sequence, and the Golden Ratio. He used symmetry on a large scale in the third movement of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta to create a palindrome with the overarching form of the music (ABCDCBA).
On a smaller scale, the xylophone lick in the opening is also a palindrome. This super high-pitched percussion figure sets up the eerie tone of the whole work, helping to create the kind of “night music” aesthetic that Bartok would become famous for. This musical mood would eventually catch the ear of Stanley Kubrick who employed this very movement in his film The Shining.
5. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Mixtur
Mixtur, written in 1964, stands as one of the first compositions for orchestra to feature live electronics. The work is comprised of twenty small sections that can be performed in any order. These smaller sections themselves are not palindromic, but in the 2003 revised version of the work, the composer prescribes that the twenty sections be played through twice – first in order, and then in reverse order creating a massive palindrome.
My personal favorite palindrome in language is from the Scottish poet Alastair Reid: “T. Eliot, top bard, notes putrid tang emanating, is sad; I’d assign it a name: gnat dirt upset on drab pot toilet.”