By Emma Gerber
Just as it was for Peter Gabriel, the song Solsbury Hill was a revelation for me. From the starting moments of the song: my heart races. I am reminded of clouds making their daily progress across the sky, and of the progress that we too must make to get through our lives.
I haven’t always liked Solsbury Hill. In fact, I think I distinctly didn’t like it the first time I listened to it, on a playlist that my step dad Jeff made for me. It felt like too much of a departure from the “British New-Wave 80s” theme of the playlist, as Jeff would describe it. I didn’t yet appreciate the playful chords, and I definitely didn’t understand the message of the song that has made me love it so much today.
But as I talked to Jeff more about his playlist, he also described it as “songs that strive to capture the unknown life beyond Hazleton Pennsylvania,” which was the small town in North-East Pennsylvania that he grew up in. It is through this lense that I have come to love the song.
The first time I remember really understanding Solsbury Hill was a couple years ago, when I was on a car ride with Jeff. We were probably heading to Kent, or maybe the Cleveland Clinic, to visit my mom at work. Jeff was telling me about how he discovered Solsbury Hill; he would listen to it when he was leaving his shifts at the steel mill on the banks of the Monongahela river in Allenport Pennsylvania; driving down the highway, he would play this song as he went back to see his friends. He was escaping the machinery, as the song says. It was to the sound of this song that a young Jeff experienced freedom, learned who he was, and experienced life.
Every time that I leave something behind, or start something new, I instantly think of Solsbury Hill. For me, Solsbury Hill has become a song about seeing what you have never seen before. It is about learning and correcting – finding again the life path that you were always meant to be on. As Jeff said in our discussions of the song, the song carries the feeling of “There’s more to life than this.”
Just a couple of months ago, I entered Physics class and was immediately greeted with a new assignment: find the time signature of Solsbury Hill. I was excited: first of all, I finally understood a homework assignment given by Mr. Dimitrov. Secondly, I already knew that the time signature of Solsbury Hill was fascinating.
Although it is now a contentious subject in our physics class, I strongly believe that the time signature of Solsbury Hill flips between 3/4 and 4/4. For non-music people who don’t know what that means, music that is in 4/4 basically has four fourth notes per measure. 3/4 is very similar, but has only three fourth notes per measure. Most songs stay within one time signature, which is why it is so innovative that Solsbury Hill does not. Peter Gabriel’s use of both 4/4 and 3/4 time signatures makes the song feel unbalanced. Much like Peter Gabriel in the song, it is breaking out of the conventional, and trying to find where it belongs. The song’s unbalanced timing resolves itself at the end of each chorus, entering two consecutive measures of 4/4 timing. Just as Peter Gabriel resolves his internal conflicts in the song, the song follows and finds balance as well.
However, my physics teacher Mr. Dimitrov believes that the time signature is 7/4. And while theoretically you could say that it’s the same thing, Mr. Dimitrov is missing the point. First of all, the whole point of the time signature is the conflict between 4/4 and 3/4 timing. While 7/4 timing also feels off, it does not imply the same opposition between warring time signatures as 3/4 and 4/4 does. To reduce Gabriel’s time signature to 7/4 is not only disrespectful to his musical genius, but also to the entire genre of progressive rock.
Also, if the time signature was 7/4, how would you explain the two measures of 4/4 at the end of each chorus? It makes much more sense for the time signature to break the pattern of alternating 3/4 and 4/4, instead of entering a whole time signature in a song that had been consistent until that point, as it would have to do if it were in 7/4.
But ultimately, as I’m sure Mr. Dimitrov does realize, the time signature is not what really matters about this song. It is the message: we define our own life paths, and we can choose the narrative by which we find our place in the world.
It doesn’t matter, yet…
The sheet music does agree with me: