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  • Kerry Auer Fergus

West Side Story: The Tritone and the 7th

A brief disclaimer before we begin: This analysis is not for the faint of heart. West Side Story has an incredibly complex score and therefore any worthwhile discussion of this music is going to require some prior knowledge of musical forms, terminology, and traditions. In particular, you’ll need at least a basic understanding of key areas, motives, and intervals. If you are unfamiliar with any of these concepts, I would recommend that you visit the Score to Stage glossary before we begin. That being said, I hope I have not discouraged you from continuing with this post. West Side Story is an incredibly rich score and I truly believe that the actor can gain valuable insight by studying the score and learning what the music has to tell us. Let’s begin!

“A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.” 1

- Leonard Bernstein

Well, Bernstein may be right that the function of a work of art is to provoke questions, but I believe that it is the actor’s job to interpret. In West Side Story, Bernstein and his collaborators – lyricist Stephen Sondheim, librettist Arthur Laurents, and director/choreographer Jerome Robbins – set out to address some weighty issues. Among them: violence, intolerance, and the very nature of love. By the end of the show three young men have been killed, leaving the audience with some powerful unanswered questions: Will this temporary ceasefire continue after the curtain has fallen? Is a permanent reconciliation between rival gangs on Manhattan’s west side even possible? In short, can love triumph over hate? Audiences will continue to grapple with these questions as long as West Side Story is performed. In the meantime, every actor or director or designer who approaches the work must interpret it in his or her own way. That is the actor’s job – to answer the questions posed by the authors, to provide perspective and insight. In the actor’s search for understanding, the score is an invaluable tool.

The intricacies of the West Side Story score could be discussed at great length, but for the purposes of this discussion, I would like to address two particular musical ideas – the tritone and the “Somewhere” motive. Together, these two musical motives form the backbone of the score. An analysis of their development throughout the show can provide crucial insight for the actor. In particular, Bernstein’s treatment of the tritone may perhaps answer West Side Story’s ultimate question: can love conquer hate?

The Tritone

What is a tritone, you ask? The tritone goes by many names: augmented fourth, diminished fifth, the devil’s interval. In fact, it is the interval that sits right between the perfect fourth and the perfect fifth. The tritone has a jarring, unnatural sound, and thus is used carefully in Western tonal music. Bernstein makes great use of the tritone throughout the West Side Story score, most famously as the first two notes in the refrain of “Maria.”

However, the tritone makes its first appearance long before Tony extols the beauty of Maria’s name. It can be heard in the two main motives of the opening “Prologue.” For the purposes of this

discussion, we will refer to these two motives as the Jet motive and the discord motive – the first because it is prominently featured in the “Jet Song” and the second because it appears at moments of great tension throughout the show. In both the “Prologue” and the “Jet Song,” the tritone does not resolve. Thus, Bernstein uses the tritone to establish an uncomfortable, perhaps ominous musical atmosphere in which violence seems likely to erupt.

Following the prologue, we meet Tony, a former gang member and one of West Side Story’s two protagonists. The tritone appears once again in Tony’s solo number “Something’s Coming.” However, in this instance Bernstein softens the harsh interval. A descending tritone can be resolved in one of two ways: by moving half a pitch up to the fourth or by shifting half a step down to the perfect fifth. In this case, Tony resolves his initial tritone by moving to the perfect fourth on the lyric, “who knows.” Tony has found resolution where the rival gangs could not, both musically and symbolically.

In “Maria,” Tony again finds a way to resolve the tritone. Here the ascending tritone resolves up to a perfect fifth (See Fig. 4 below). And indeed, the rest of the piece is filled with perfect fourths and fifths. The aurally pleasing quality of fourths and fifths stands in stark contrast to the jarring nature of the tritone. As we shall see, Bernstein will continue to use these fourths and fifths throughout the show in contrast to the harsh quality of the tritone and as indicators of the power of love.

That being said, it is surprising that Bernstein features the tritone at all in a love song. Perhaps the presence of this uncomfortable interval is an indication that the threat of violence still looms over this relationship. Tony might be oblivious to the possible ramifications of this union. The audience is not.

The tritone is noticeably absent in the following scene, the famous love duet “Tonight.” Instead, fourths and fifths abound. Is this, then, an indication that love can and will triumph over hatred? Perhaps. Or perhaps Tony and Maria simply refuse to acknowledge the reality of the world around them. The script seems to support the latter idea. During their rapturous duet, the stage directions read as follows, “And now the buildings, the world fade away, leaving them suspended in space.” 2 Tony and Maria have briefly suspended all disbelief. Instead they choose to believe that permanent resolution is possible. And in so doing, they remove the discordant tritone from their musical vocabulary.

However, the tritone does not disappear for long. In the following number, the Jets attempt to keep “cool” moments before their war council with the Sharks. Bernstein prominently features a single musical motive in both the accompaniment and the melody of “Cool” (See Fig. 5 below). It begins with an ascending tritone from C to F#. This F# briefly resolves upward to the G (a fifth away from the base note C). However this resolution is immediately undercut by a return to the F# and then to the C. In fact, since the G appears so briefly and really acts more as a neighbor tone (a kind of embellishment on the F#), it cannot be considered a true resolution at all. This faux resolution sheds light on the situation at hand. The Jets believe they have everything under control when in fact their resolution is temporary and unsustainable. The piece finishes with a tritone – an unstable end for a volatile group of young men.

Lost in their fantasy world, Maria and Tony again remove the tritone from their musical vocabulary in the love duet “One Hand, One Heart.” However, the key areas of the piece perhaps indicate a different reality. “One Hand, One Heart” opens in Gb major before transitioning to C major for their exchange of vows. Although Bernstein seemingly transitions effortlessly between the two keys, it is important to note that this is an unusual key relation and not one that many musical theatre composers would use. In fact, C major and Gb are a tritone apart. Perhaps beneath the fantasy, a starker reality exists.

The tritone, with its jarring quality, has thus far only hinted at the threat of violence, but this violence will inevitably erupt before the end of the act. The “Rumble” reprises much of the melodic material from the opening “Prologue” including the discord motive with its prominent tritone. As the scene escalates, the dense orchestration and heavy percussion of the “Rumble” fall abruptly away so that the discord motive may be clearly heard precisely at the moment when Bernardo kills Riff.

As Act II begins, Maria sings sweetly of her love in “I Feel Pretty” – still blithely unaware of the events at the rumble. Tritones have no place in this atmosphere of joy. Likewise, the tritone is absent for large portions of the ballet sequence as Maria and Tony desperately struggle to envision a world free from the kind of strife that the interval represents.

However, this is West Side Story and one cannot escape the tritone for long. It appears as the opening interval of “Gee, Officer Krupke.” The very first word of the number (“dear”) is sung on an incredibly dissonant note and held for an unusually long time. By this point, it should be no surprise that this accented dissonance is a tritone away from the key’s tonic.

In “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love,” Maria desperately clings to her vision of a world free from hate. She interrupts Anita with a perfect fourth (on “Oh no!”). Fourths, as has already been established, are used throughout the show as a foil to the dissonance of the tritone. As the piece continues, Maria makes great use of fourths and fifths in her bid for Anita’s acceptance. For example, fourths appear twice in the phrase “to him alone” (as the interval between “to” and “him” and the interval between the two syllables of “alone”). However, the chief motion of this phrase is actually in the descent from the Gb on “him” to the C natural on the second syllable of “alone.” And of course, the distance from Gb to C is a tritone. Maria may cling desperately to hope, but the cracks are beginning to show.

The tritone plays a crucial role in the West Side Story finale. But before we address the implications of this interval in the final scene, we need to take a look at the second major motivic idea of the show.

The “Somewhere” Motive

There are two basic components to the “Somewhere” motive. Motive A consists of the melodic idea that accompanies the phrase “There’s a place for us.” The opening interval of this phrase is a minor 7th – an unusually large interval. Traditionally, composers have used larger intervals to indicate great longing and Bernstein’s minor 7th “Somewhere” motive is no exception. Motive B is a rhythmic idea – a short-long rhythm on a major second interval. In the song “Somewhere,” it can be heard at the phrase “someday, somewhere” just before “we’ll find a new way of living.” However, both “Somewhere” motives appear in the show long before we hear them vocalized in the second act.

Motive B, with its distinctive short-long rhythm, first appears in the final moments of “Maria.” In “Tonight,” Motive A can be heard in the underscoring as Tony sings alone onstage. This is the first appearance of the minor 7th and in this instance Bernstein uses it to reflect the intensity of Tony’s yearning. Six different variations of motive A are subsequently heard under Maria and Tony’s dialogue. Then in the final tag, both A and B are heard in full. In this context, the audience is perhaps beginning to associate “Somewhere” with love or longing, but its full implications will not be understood until much later.

The first three notes of “Somewhere” Motive A appear again in the dance break of “Cool.” Although truncated, this particular iteration of the motive still includes the distinctive minor 7th. But by dwelling on the opening interval and omitting the rest of the phrase, Bernstein creates a musical tension that works well within the context of this particular piece.

Motive A can be found again in the introduction to “One Hand, One Heart.” The theme is heard in the woodwinds before Bernstein suddenly transitions to C major. He then introduces a new theme that is used to underscore the exchange of vows. This theme is harmonically and melodically simple (mostly it outlines a major tonic chord) and thus it stands in contrast with the distinctive minor 7th idea that characterizes the “Somewhere” theme. If “One Hand, One Heart” in its gentle simplicity truly represents Maria and Tony’s love, then perhaps there is are deeper implications to the more melodically complex “Somewhere.”

Traditionally, a composer firmly establishes a theme and then builds upon it. However, this is not true of “Somewhere.” As we have seen, seeds of this motive are planted early in the show, but it is not heard in its entirety until midway through Act II. When “Somewhere” is finally heard in context, it’s full implications become clear.

During the “Scherzo” of the “Ballet Sequence,” Bernstein escalates the tension through rapidly shifting key signatures and a thickening orchestral texture. Then, suddenly, the mood shifts. We find ourselves in a new key, in a simplified time signature, with a considerably less dense

orchestral accompaniment. Bernstein and lyricist Sondheim leave us with a simple idea: There’s a place for us. Somewhere. As we always knew, there is an element of longing in the minor 7th, but now our understanding of the idea is colored by what we know has already happened. There is a darker quality, a quiet desperation to the “Somewhere” motive that we didn’t know existed until it was understood in the larger context of the work. In retrospect, the appearance of ‘Somewhere” in “Tonight” may be considered an omen, a sign that this love affair cannot end happily. Moreover, just as the lovers begin to envision a world where Jets and Sharks can coexist (“Procession”), the nightmare intrudes. This is the music of the streets, of reality, and of discord. The dissonance of the tritone replaces the quiet desperation of the “Somewhere” motive.

The “Somewhere” motive next appears in the transition music between “Krupke” and “A Boy Like That.” Although transitions are often disregarded, this particular moment carries a great deal of significance for the actor seeking an understanding of the show’s core themes. Here, the “Somewhere” motive interrupts a particular piece of music that the audience has heard twice before. This passage first appeared in the opening “Prologue” in the lead-up to the moment where the Sharks attack Arab and pierce his ear. It is actually the climax of the opening scene – a moment of violence that sets off a full-blown fight between Jets and Sharks. This particular musical passage returns in the “Rumble.” It is heard just after Bernardo kills Riff and then builds to the moment where Tony in turn kills Bernardo. Given its incredibly violent associations, a reprisal of this theme should signify that another act of violence is imminent. Instead, Maria and Tony lie peacefully in each other’s arms, and “Somewhere” interrupts the frenzied energy of this violent theme right at its moment of highest tension. The juxtaposition of these two themes carries great thematic significance. By allowing “Somewhere” to undercut the musical tension, Bernstein asks us to consider the possibility that Maria and Tony can overcome the violence of their world with the strength of their love.

Maria, for one, certainly clings desperately to the hope that this is possible. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love.” Maria borrows the melody for “I Have a Love” from the “Procession” of the dream ballet. Within the context of the “Ballet Sequence,” the “Procession” symbolizes the lovers’ dream of a world where Jets and Sharks may coexist. The stage directions in that moment call for Maria and Tony to “hold out their hands to each other; the others follow suit: Jets to Sharks, Sharks to Jets.” 3 Maria reprisal of this melody signifies her continued belief that this vision of peace is possible. During the course of the piece, she also borrows from “Somewhere.” The first three notes of her “I love him, we’re one,” match the opening notes of Motive A. Just as before, the “Somewhere” motive with its minor 7th reflects not only her longing, but also a darker sense of desperation.

Maria’s faith in a better world is so strong that she is able to convince Anita (albeit temporarily), but the final chord of the number does not resolve – a signal to the audience that permanent resolution is unlikely.

Now that we fully understand the symbolism of the tritone and the “Somewhere” motive throughout West Side Story, we are ready to take a look at the final moments of the show.

The Finale

Unlike most Broadway shows, West Side Story does not conclude with a show-stopping final number. However, there is a great deal of thematic significance contained in the music written for the final moments of the show. In particular, Bernstein’s use of the tritone and the “Somewhere” motives may perhaps answer West Side Story’s ultimate question: can love conquer hate?

As Tony lies in her arms, grievously wounded, Maria beings to sing “Somewhere.” Even now, she clings desperately to their shared dream of a better world. But Tony dies before they can finish, and Maria’s dream is shattered. The orchestra then picks up the tune but this too is interrupted. It seems that Maria has finally given up on the desperate hope represented by the “Somewhere” theme.

And yet, her impassioned final monologue forces Jets and Sharks alike to evaluate the actions that have led them to this violent end. As members of both gangs join as one to carry Tony’s body offstage, Bernstein reprises the “Procession” from the ballet sequence. Maria and Tony’s vision of Jets and Sharks united has come to life in a horribly distorted way.

In the final moments of the show, both the “Somewhere” themes and the tritone make their final appearances. After several overlapping iterations of “Somewhere” Motive A, Bernstein transitions from E major to the more pure key of C major (a key with no sharps or flats). “Somewhere” Motive B is then played against a C major chord, but it is followed immediately by a jarring low F#. By juxtaposing the tritone between F# and C with the “Somewhere” theme, Bernstein has framed the fundamental subject of the show in musical terms. He asks us to consider whether this temporary peace between to the two gangs (embodied in “Somewhere”) can triumph over hatred (represented by the tritone). Interestingly enough, the answer may differ depending on the score being used. In the original production, the F# sounds twice, but ultimately the “Somewhere” motive prevails. The show ends on the C major chord, free from the implications of the discordant F#. However, in later versions of the score Bernstein added a third and final F#, thus indicating that ultimate resolution is not possible in the world of West Side Story.

Which then is correct? The beauty of West Side Story lies in “the tension between the contradictory answers.” Perhaps reconciliation is possible. Perhaps not. Certainly a great deal depends on whether or not one chooses to include the final F#. But what is certain is that Bernstein’s treatment of the musical themes has far-reaching implications for the show as a whole and for the actors, directors, and artists who choose to interpret it.


1. Leonard Bernstein, The Infinite Variety of Music, 1962, Reprint (New York: Amadeus Press, 2007), 141.

2. Arthur Laurents, West Side Story (New York: Laurel-Leaf Books, 1965), 161.

3. Ibid., 202.

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