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David Wallace by Cain S. Pinto

David’s Secret Chord: Sour Notes in Infinite Jest

There are several specific references to pitches and chords in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Most of these are unfortunate and reveal a lack of adequate research or editorial oversight. The idea that the pitches, or chords, in question are being named by the principal character in the passage, rather than the narrator, is given the lie by the sheer improbability of the thesis. For that thesis to be true would require a skill possessed only by 0.0001% to 0.0005% of the general population occur in 2 out of the about 119 major and minor characters populating the world presented in the novel; this is staggeringly unlikely. Notably, the two characters in question, Mario Incandenza and Don Gately have not received any music education, and both are intellectually subnormal; the former more so than the latter. In this essay I go over some of the instances where pitches or chords are identified and provide decisive arguments showing these are mistaken, and that these mistakes are attributable to the narrator rather than the characters in the relevant passages.

The correctness of one instance of pitch identification can be granted to the narrator, in the passage where “[t]he soprano leaves the baritone and goes up to a high D and just hangs there, either shattered or ecstatic” (Wallace 1996). As the reference likely pertains to an extant piece of music the score can be presumed available for consultation. The principle of charity can be extended here as a reader needn’t believe the narrator had recourse only to his own dubious musical knowledge in composing the relevant descriptive passage. Regrettably other instances of pitch and chord identification, arguably intended to intimate to the reader that the narrator is in possession of absolute pitch—voiced as a humble brag if you will—demonstrate the narrator’s musical analysis to be inept.

In light of previously discussed considerations, in the passage below the narrator rather than Gately must be taken to be the musical analyst: “[T]he squeal of brakes and raised voices’ noises down out front hasn’t registered on Gately right away, but Hester Thrale’s unmistakable high-B# scream does…”(Wallace 1996). The note B# only occurs in the C# major, C# minor, G# major, A# major and A# minor scales—barring the theoretical construct of the B# major and minor scales—in every other instance B# is enharmonically equivalent to the pitch C. For Thrale’s scream to have been B# rather than C it would have to occur in relation to 2 other pitches; the third and the fifth of either the C# major, or C# minor, or G# major, or A# major, or A# minor scale. None of the relevant pitches are given for context. Since the B# in question is described as a high B#, it presumably belongs to the key of C# major or C#minor, where B# is the leading tone. But absent the reference pitches of the mediant and the dominant one doesn’t have enough to conclude that the C# major or C# minor scale is indicated. Based on a database of 30 million songs, Spotify data analyst and jazz pianist Kenny Ning found that G major, C major, E minor, and A minor were the most common keys. None of these keys contain the note B#. So, if the narrator intended the reader to think about the B# major or minor scale, where B# would be the tonic he has violated the maxims of quantity, quality, relation, and manner in one fell swoop. The most charitable interpretation here is that the narrator was simply musically flat-footed in choosing to tune Thrale’s scream to a B# rather than the common sense choice of C. Or, any of the other 11 available pitches the reader could access without having to assume the narrator was giving less information than needed, prevaricating, being obtuse, and deliberately unclear for effect.  I submit the narrator was being perfectly clear, and he was simply mistaken.

In a dream sequence where Don Gately plays dentist to Joelle van Dyne we’re informed he is “…humming absent chords as he probes…” (Wallace 1996). Outside the genre of Tuvan throat singing, or overtone singing in other cultures, where singers sing two or three pitches simultaneously, people simply do not and usually just cannot sing more than a note at a time. A chord is conventionally understood to contain at least three notes sounded simultaneously; dyads, or two note chords, often being called intervals (Laitz 2016; Levine 1995). It is safe to assume Don Gately isn’t overtone singing; singing more than one note simultaneously. A charitable interpretation here would require us to think of the chord articulated horizontally one pitch at a time, rather than vertically all pitches at once. But horizontally arranged pitches are properly called a melody rather than a chord, which has its component notes sounded simultaneously. I submit that the narrator is far too pernickety about usage to be calling a melody a chord; it is just that he is mistaken in thinking it possible to sing chords.

Finally, consider the passage “…you can weave hypnotic Madame Psychosis-like harmonies around the minor-D scream of a cheap vacuum cleaner, humming to yourself as you vacuum, if that’s your Chore” (Wallace 1996). A D minor chord contains the pitches D, F, and A. Arguably the noise of a vacuum cleaner is perceived by most persons as a single tonic noise; noticeably harsh and unpleasant, but simple in that its component noises, originating in various locations and moving parts in the machine, are not subject to further analysis by the naked ear. It might be argued that some persons with especially acute ears might be able to detect more than one pitch in the tonal noise produced by a vacuum cleaner. The tonal noise produced by a vacuum cleaner consists of noises generated by “the blower and electric motor” and “has aerodynamic, mechanical, and electromagnetic origins” (Cudina & Prezelj 500). As many as seven discrete pitches and their harmonics have been identified as emanating from a given vacuum cleaner unit based on the rotational speed and bearing geometry of the machine (Cudina & Prezelj 2007). Given the shaft rotational speed in rotations per minute the other six noises are related to shaft frequency by factors dependent on roller diameter, pitch diameter of bearing, contact angle between the roller element and raceway, and the number of rolling elements (Cudina & Prezelj 2007).  

Clearly the narrator is assuming that the pitches generated are spaced like the notes in a minor scale. If we take this in stride and add in the four pitches he’s missed out, taking his word that the tonic determined by the shaft rotation speed is D, then the other six component pitches vary as factors of D and the tonal noise produced is an extended chord. Specifically, it is a D minor thirteenth chord: D, F, A, C, E, G, B♭ [or some inversion of these notes]. The most generous interpretation here is that the narrator is assuming the notes to be spaced like the notes of the minor scale, and failing to hear the full set of notes. But this is quite a rococo interpretation, one that rescues the appearance of the author’s musical competence only on pain of being epistemologically extravagant. To assume this explanation obtains the reader must also grant that the previous musical infelicities in Infinite Jest were perpetrated knowingly as some kind of cryptic jest instead of being mistakes attributable to authorial overreach. It is far more parsimonious, generous, and true to the text to assume Wallace is straight up fabricating a D minor coloration for a bunch of frequencies that there is evidence to believe he finds to be one unified atrocious noise plain and simple.

Two final defensive strategies remain open to the Wallace bro, or acolyte of St. Dave, committed to defending the appearances and the esoteric reality they might be concealing in the face of these cacophonous perplexities. Firstly, the Wallace bro might argue that these mistakes are mistakes, but made deliberately, in full cognizance, in order to draw the reader into a musical metaphor without distracting them with considerations of the direction of fit between vehicle and tenor. The reader, they might argue, is expected to observe how shattering melancholia and ecstasy might equipotently be represented by a high pitch, even if that pitch be unnamed or misnamed; rendering considerations of the pitch’s identity irrelevant. Secondly, the acolyte of St. Dave might cavil, if a musically knowledgeable reader notices the note B# and registers it as a misspelled C they’re expected to simultaneously think themselves clever and worry that Wallace is smirking after having hoodwinked them into a paroxysm of unearned pride in their musical and readerly acuity. This two-fanged quibble is dismissed with the considerations that: i. Irrelevance cuts both ways. If misnaming the pitch doesn’t take away its effectiveness as a metaphorical vehicle of transcendence neither does spelling it aright. Using the right spelling has the benefit of presenting the reader with a well-engineered vehicle, one that isn’t rickety at best and booby-trapped at worst. If incorrectness doesn’t distract one with considerations about the fit between vehicle and tenor in a metaphor which is incidental to the point being made, here about emotional valence being less relevant that its intensity, then how much less will be the correct spelling’s potential to distract. I, for one, would never have thought to pick up on this passage if it had used C instead of B#. And, ii. If Wallace was lying just to shame the wise with a foolish thing then he has failed inasmuch as there are other musical infelicities in the text of IJ which cannot be dismissed as merely private jokes at the expense of the reader. There’s nothing funny about a vacuum cleaner producing one chord rather than another, for instance. Its producing a chord at all is an awe inducing miracle, and it’s inconceivable that Wallace intends this passage to connote or induce levity. If Wallace wants the reader to question their judgement upon noticing an infelicity that might not after all be an infelicity, but just a jest masquerading as an infelicity, then it seems like a tendentious  and feeble attempt at browbeating. He could plainly and equally well assert himself the victor of the logomachy between reader and author by simply calling the B# a C. Musical literacy is not as widespread as literacy, and most readers wouldn’t cringe when the sour note is misspelled, showing them to be the dupes he intends them to be. The tenor of the passage, while striking no false notes, would remain unaltered. The added advantage of this approach, of course, would be that musically literate readers would find the passage euphonious. 

We can love writing and writers without losing perspective about the difference between the two. Learning to live with a beloved writer’s foibles, and triumphs, is not a betrayal of the writer’s vision but a blow for their work’s longevity and enduring relevance in the face of its own and its author’s failings. To acknowledge our heroes have feet of clay is not to deny their heroics, but to find them grounded in our world. It’s all well and good to say Wallace achieved something transcendent in Infinite Jest, but to deny the sour notes in his recital doesn’t establish his virtuosity as much as it shows us to be tone deaf.


Mirko Cudina, & Jurij Prezelj. (2007). “Noise Generation by Vacuum Cleaner Suction Units: Part 1. Noise Generation Mechanisms-An Overview.” Applied Acoustics Vol.68. PP.491-502.

Steven Laitz. (2016). The Complete Musician: An Integrated Approach to Theory, Analysis, and Listening. Oxford University Press.

Mark Levine. (1995). The Jazz Theory Book. Sher Music Co.

David Foster Wallace. (1996). Infinite Jest. Little, Brown, and Company.

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