Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Tune sans Tune

For the past two weeks, I had a tune in my head, and I couldn't remember where I'd heard it. It was from something I had watched, the theme to a miniseries maybe, but which series I didn't know. There it was, thrumming over and over again in my brain, something kind of Irishy with a martial drum beat, and fading away to some quick whistley notes. Darwin and I watch all the same stuff, so I hummed it to him, but our musical sensibilities weren't aligning and I couldn't get across the beat and the whistley notes.

And still I heard the tune. Friends online must have seen the same series, but how was I to ask them? The internet is still mainly a medium for written communication. If you remember a scene from a movie, you can describe it. Throw out a quote, and somebody will come back with the next line, the movie it's from, and a link to the IMDB page. Describe a painting, and likely someone will recognize it from words alone. But how can you ask about a tune in writing? "Something kind of Irishy with a martial drum beat, and fading away to some quick whistley notes" isn't much to go on, and could describe any number of tunes.

About ten years ago, when I was still playing the violin, I ran into a form of notation called ABC. I'd thought it was simply a way to transcribe traditional Irish tunes (see: 12 variations on The Irish Washerwoman written in ABC), but it turns out to be a whole programming language. Though it seems like it would be too tedious to write out anything much longer than a traditional 16-measure jig or reel, you could presumably program out Beethoven's Fifth without the benefit of a single staff.

So, here's my mystery tune in characters:

X: 1
T: Unknown
M: 4/4

DF3-|F4|FG3-|G4|Ac3-|c2d2|FG3-|G4-|
G2f2|e2d2|de3|c4|cB3-|B4|f2d2|c2G2:|

where X = reference number (required first field), T = title, M = meter, caps = the octave of middle C, lowercase = the octave above middle C, number = beats held, - = tie, | = measure, :| = repeat

The problem is that dropping this into a blog post or in a Facebook status is not going to garner you much help unless your audience understands the language, knows music well enough to apply it, and either has access to an instrument or has the ability to sight-sing.

(For the sake of cheating, here's the ABC notation translated into a different, and more recognizable, code.)


In both of these, I've already communicated the tune. But can you convey a tune without a tune?

As an experiment, I used the vaguest of descriptors in referencing movies, books, and painting to Darwin to see if he could figure out what I had in mind, picking common works and not making any inside jokes.

1. It's that movie about a girl, and she lives in a big house, and there was a war, and she had slaves.

2. A painting of a guy holding his face.

3. A book about this animal, and he goes into a garden, and he can't get out.

Then I tried the same thing with a tune, without singing the tune.

4. First it starts, and then it goes down and down again, and then up and up again, and that note repeats twice. Dah dah dah dah dah dah daaah.

He answered 1, 2, and 3 correctly. 4, not so much. Perhaps I could have described it this way:

4. Note, whole step down, whole step down, whole step up, whole step up, repeat, repeat and hold.

That wouldn't mean much to Darwin, who is not conversant in the technical terminology of music, but it's informational enough that the musically-inclined might guess the answer pretty quickly.

Trying to convey a rhythm with words sometimes works, if the rhythm is distinctive enough:

dah dah dah DAAH, dah dah dah DAAH


As it happens, I didn't have to post any code to solve my problem. After being driven nearly to tears by the tune, yesterday evening I startled Darwin by shouting, apropos of nothing, "John Adams!" And sure enough, it was the title theme to HBO's miniseries John Adams, composed by Rob Lane. I had remembered it in pieces: my mystery tune starts at 0:50, and the whistley bits come at the end. 


I wasn't very eloquent in trying to describe a half-remembered piece of music, but how would  you put a tune into words? Here's a reviewer on Amazon summing up this piece: "The agitated fiddle dirge that forms the counterpoint for the main title is, perhaps, the most stirring, distinctly American title score I've heard since "Ashokan Farewell" in Ken Burns' THE CIVIL WAR." Very elegant and apt, but without having heard the tune, could you hum it from this description? Can you convey a tune without the tune?

17 comments:

MrsDarwin said...

And someone's going to point out that I should have tied the Gs in measures 7, 8, and 9, not slurred them. It's harder to write than to read in all languages, I guess.

Darwin said...

And the first note in measure 13 should be a quarter note, not a half.

Jenny said...

"4. Note, whole step down, whole step down, whole step up, whole step up, repeat, repeat and hold.

...

Trying to convey a rhythm with words sometimes works, if the rhythm is distinctive enough:

dah dah dah DAAH, dah dah dah DAAH"

I've had more conversations like this than I would care to admit. It's hard to google the tune in your head.

MrsDarwin said...

Yes it is! Any guesses on these two tunes?

And I have to say for the record: that's me, not Darwin, critiquing my music writing, but of course I posted without checking who was logged in. "Sure, make me look like a jerk!" he said.

MrsDarwin said...

Yes it is! Any guesses on these two tunes?

And I have to say for the record: that's me, not Darwin, critiquing my music writing, but of course I posted without checking who was logged in. "Sure, make me look like a jerk!" he said.

Jenny said...

I wondered since you said, "That wouldn't mean much to Darwin, who is not conversant in the technical terminology of music" and then he was talking about quarter notes. :)

The first one is 'Mary had a little lamb' and the second one is 'Jingle Bells.'

Darwin said...

I may not have got much from my two years of piano lessons as a youth, but I would like to say that I do know the difference between a quarter note and a half!

It's not a comment likely to come from me, though, in that while I can with slow deliberation pick out a moderately easy tune based on written music, I have no ability at all to hear music and turn it into written. I can't identify what note a tone is by hearing it, though hearing a tune I can usually tell if a note is "off" from what it should be given the overall pattern. I couldn't tell you "that should have been sharp" though, I just hear "that wasn't right".

Jenny said...

"I may not have got much from my two years of piano lessons as a youth, but I would like to say that I do know the difference between a quarter note and a half!"

Sorry! I didn't mean to jump to conclusions. In my family, "not conversant in the technical terminology of music" usually means musical notation looks like Chinese characters.

I, too, did not get much out of my youthful piano lessons because I could snow my mother into believing I was practicing. Wasted youth. Now I have to figure out how to hack again so I can pass a little bit on to my kids since actual lessons are crazy expensive.

Darwin said...

It's mostly a fair cop, because when MrsDarwin says something like "whole step down" that doesn't mean anything to me.

mrsdarwin said...

Number 1 is indeed Mary Had A Little Lamb, but number 2 (dah dah dah DAAH, dah dah dah DAAH) is Beethoven's Fifth.

Darwin has a speaking voice that suggests a fine baritone, but alas, carrying a tune is not the strongest of his many excellent qualities I remember my surprise, when we were first getting acquainted, that he couldn't match a pitch, whether played or sung. He can, however, stay in tune with himself, and warbles a nice sea shanty in the shower.

Jenny said...

Bah.

For some reason I was reading it as 'dah dah DAAH.' My eyes glazed right over that third dah.

I had a friend in college majoring in music who could not match pitch. He played horn. Sight-singing was torturous to him. He did eventually learn, but it took a LOT of work.

And for a little music geekiness, western harmonies began to develop when chanting monks could not match pitch. Generally the non-matching pitch that is sung is a fifth above or a fourth below. You can still hear it today if you stand in the back of the church while everyone is singing. You will hear the ones who sing along at that perfect interval from the actual pitch. As notation developed, they began to write down the errant notes and use it for developing harmonies.

Tor Hershman said...

)))((((((
(·)...(·)
....v....
.[____].

bearing said...

What's number 3?

MrsDarwin said...

Number 3 is Peter Rabbit.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

I looked up abc notation, but do you know any way to turn it into midi files that can for instance be uploaded on a blog?

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

Like, I do not know if blogger can incorporate any midi file per se ...

bearing said...

ha! i feel silly now. could not figure that one out.