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:
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?