Stairway to Heaven

Posted by in Ask Dr. Van

I found your profile on a expert finder website and I was wondering if you can help me understand something. I am a high school senior in [state] and Stairway to Heaven is my favorite song of all time and I can’t quite describe why. It is something about the way the notes and music is composed that sound so amazing to me. I was hoping you could help me understand the technical musical theory explanation of why this song is so pleasing to the brain. 
Thank you very much,


Hi Grace;
There’s a lot going on in your question, and there’s a lot going on in Stairway to Heaven — too much for me to explain all of the “technical music theory” elements of what’s going on in the song. But I can try to explain one thing about it, and that is the concept of tension and release, which works on multiple levels throughout the song.

On a small scale, think about the vocal melody for the opening line: “There’s a lady who’s sure, all that glitters is gold.” There are two notes that set the word “gold,” and the first one doesn’t belong to the chord that the rest of the instruments are playing. It is what’s called a dissonant note — it doesn’t fit, so it creates tension, and it wants to resolve to something that does fit. The resolution to the following note on the word “gold” provides that resolution, which provides a sense of release. So just on one word in the melody, we have a sense of tension and release on a very small scale. That happens over and over again throughout the song; there will be small tension moments leading to release moments.

Then, if you think about how the song builds and builds and builds over the course of the song, adding instruments and getting louder, that’s also building up tension on a bigger scale. And we eventually get the release at the end of the song. 
So the simple concept of tension and release have a lot to do with it, and that’s happening at both the small scale and large scale throughout the music. There’s obviously a lot more going on, but that’s a start to think about!

If you’re interested in this type of thing, you might enjoy a book by a friend of mine named Dan Levitin called “This is Your Brain on Music.” It has a lot of information about how we listen to music, why we like the music we do, and what’s going on in our brains when we listen to music. The book is available relatively cheap (like $8 or so) in paperback, and it’s a really fun and entertaining read. It’s a great introduction to a field called “music cognition,” which is what I do, which focuses on how we understand and process sound and music. It’s a big field, and there’s a lot of research going on, so you’re asking great questions that others are really curious about as well!

I hope this helps a little bit!
Dr. Van