Artist: Led Zeppelin
Album: Physical Graffiti
"Kashmir" has recently been licensed for use on the NBC show Revolution so it's kind of in heavy rotation at the moment in advertising. It is also a featured track on the band's forthcoming release Celebration Day, which chronicles a 2007 reunion concert. It's such an oft-played track that it seems like there may not be much to say about it at this point, but there's always room for a quick theoretical analysis, right?
There are two forces at play that make "Kashmir" such a unique creation: one is rhythmic and one is tonal. Let's deal with the rhythmic element first. The primary motive of the piece, played by guitarist Jimmy Page, is in 3/4 time, with an arrangement of eighth and sixteenth notes that divides the measure evenly (in the diagram below, m. 2 is not correctly spaced because of the "Bb"). But the heavy drum track laid down by John Bonham is in a relentless common time that refuses to accommodate the triple meter of Page's riff. This creates a "windshield wiper" effect sometimes referred to as a polymeter.
3 1e& 2 &a3 & | 1&a 2 &a3 & | 1e& 2 &a3 & | 1e& 2 &a3 & |
4 AAA D AAA D | BbBbBb D BbBbBb D | BBB D BBB D | CCC D CCC D |
4 1 2 3 4 | 1 2 3 4 | 1 2 3 4 |
4 B* S* B S B S B S B S B S
*B=Bass Drum, S=Snare Drum
I like to imagine the conversation went like this. Jimmy: "Oh John, actually, this track is in 3/4." John: "It's in whatever meter I say it is!" (punches Page in gut) The effect of these conflicting elements is mesmerizing, especially when paired with the looping chromatic line Page is playing. (Robert Plant has stated that "it was what [Bonham] didn't do that made it work" and I think this nonconformity to the meter is what he's referring to.) During the breaks, the instruments join Bonham in 4/4, albeit with a syncopated rhythm that still suggests 3/4 or even 6/8. My favorite moment occurs at 2:14 where the 4/4 meter is interrupted and a bar of 3/8 is inserted in place of beat four. (There are other ways to notate this, but this is how I have seen it written: 3/4 + 3/8.) The six sixteenth notes that occupy the 3/8 bar then become the last six notes of the 4/4 bars that follow. It's one of my favorite transitions in all of pop (or anywhere for that matter).
While the rhythmic elements drive and steer the song, the tonal elements provide the Eastern flavor that resonates so much with most listeners. Truthfully, as much as we'd like to think this is what Eastern music sounds like, it's still very Western, employing no quarter tones and not based on the any of the Arabic scales known as the maqam or anything resembling an Indian raga. In fact, the song seems to rely primarily on the D Mixolydian mode (one sharp like a G scale but it starting and ending on D) as its source with occasional forays into D melodic minor. Still, the rising chromatic line in Page's riff is almost monumental in its scope. It reminds me of an ant repeatedly (and triumphantly) scaling a hill only to be knocked back down and begin again—it has that kind of steady perseverance. And the song's emphasis on drones and open fifths rather than full chords does give it a heterophonic sound consistent with Arabic music.
Amazing song. Probably the height of Led Zeppelin's achievement as a band. It's easy to see why they continue to inspire and intrigue young listeners decade after decade.