Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews   entry Sept 2015   Allegro ma non troppo #33  (original pub. date, Lion Magazine, 1990-5)

Zany music

Ten-ness, Anyone?

We all have a soft spot in our heart for zany musical trivia. I know I do, in spite of my doctor's insane protestations that it's really my left ventricle. (Are you going to believe some bozo just because he has a diploma on his wall?) Thus it is, as I'm sure is the case with all of you, that I, too, remember that glorious loss of innocence, that moment when my faith in the eternal stability of Things wonderfully started to erode; yes, I recall exactly what I was doing and who I was doing it to when it dawned on me for the first time that you could sing Robert Frost's Stopping By The Woods On A Snowy Evening to the tune of Hernando's Hideaway.

If we rate traditional musical skills on a scale of one to ten and you played a trumpet solo with your high school band—Trumpeter's Lullaby, for example—while your mom gurgled and cooed in the first row, you get a three or four, depending on how good your double-tonguing was. If, on the other hand, you have played the Haydn Trumpet Concerto with a major symphony while the Times critic gurgled and cooed in the first row, you have been weighed and found not wanting— a heavy, heavy "ten". Fraught with ten-ness.

Not many of us get that far, so luckily there is a similar scale for the other stuff. If you can whistle, you get a one. If you can whistle on the inhale as well as exhale stroke, thus producing a continuous tone with no perceptible break, that is pretty nifty and gives you a three. There is a yogi in Benares who has been whistling a continuous note for 27 years. He is very thin and is trying to hasten the end of Creation.

At the upper end of the scale, we have a solid ten by those who can sing two notes at the same time! No kidding, this time. This is physiologically possible from that fact that the larynx has two folds which usually vibrate in unison, giving a single note. Monks of the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism have trained their vocal chords such that one of the folds produces a second note, two octaves higher than the first. Additional harmonics are also present, giving the impression that one voice is actually singing a chord! These monks live in the Gyuto Tantric College in Dalhousie in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, which is probably why you've never heard of them. (See Smith, Stevens, and Tomlinson, "On an Unusual Mode of Chanting by Certain Tibetan Lamas," Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, May 1967.) Weird, but not really a show stopper on the order of the other ten: humming one song and whistling another at the same time! I heard this myself on the Ed Sullivan show many years ago and whatever that guy's name was, he will never be forgotten—thousands of hours of practice for one shot on national television. If you think that stunt is like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time, then you probably think that just another number.

More in keeping in line with what most of us can do is the trick of singing a lyric to a melody other than the one for which it was intended, such as the collected works of Emily Dickenson to The Yellow Rose of Texas. Or, in the old days, there used to be printed in lavatories in English train coaches the supplication: "Passengers will please refrain from passing water while the train is standing at the station." Iamb freaks (right, it  conjugates out to 'you are freaks', 'he is freaks', etc.) soon saw the potential and put it to the tune of Dvorak's Humoresque. Budding Sir William Gilbert's tacked on, "...I love you," or " full view," or "toodle-oo" to fit the last dah-dee-dah of the melody and even added an additional line: "Tramps and hobos underneath will get it in their eyes and teeth and they won't like it anymore than you".

This is so difficult to do well, that the Welsh—a notoriously musical people—have yearly contests. The contestants are told to have a number of melodies prepared—usually well-known traditional melodies. At the last moment they are given a text and they're on. The winner is the one who best fits lyrics to melody.

Here, have a go, yourselves. Set your own lyric to the melody of the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Shiller's Ode to Joy may have done the job the first time around, but we need an update. For example, try everyone's White Knuckle Special :
In case of sudden loss of pressure
Oxygen masks will drop down.
Simply pull them down and toward you
and keep breathing normally!
Please be sure to help young children
put their masks on properly.
Members of the crew will tell you
When its safe to take them off!

Or, just to show you what you're up against in terms of outrageous originality, here are my favorite twenty place names in East Anglia set to the same melody.

Steeple Bumpstead, Newton Flotman,
Braintree, Walton-on-the-Naze;
Thurlow,Thaxted, Six-mile Bottom,
Saxthorpe, Breast Sand, Baconsthorpe;
Old Fletton, Bury St. Edmunds, Castle Rising, Walberswick;
Woolpit, Eddingham, Snettisham, Biggelswade,
Stow-on-the-Wold and Maidenhead

There probably should be a prize for this sort of thing.

Copyright © 2002-2023