Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What lurks under the sea of my mind?

Last Friday at my kids' school assembly, all the children and parents were invited to sing along in a rousing rendition of "Under the Sea." I've always had trouble keeping lyrics straight in general (to the great amusement of a new church children's choir I rehearsed on Sunday), but "Under the Sea" has always presented a special problem for me. For as long as I can remember, the first four pitches have invariably sent my mental pathways scurrying over to another tune, to the point that I've never really internalized "Under the Sea" as its own thing. Here's the way it tends to go in my head:

[For those concerned about my sanity, I really didn't spend much time on this!]

As I've emphasized many times in the past, this kind of connection isn't the kind of thing I intentionally go looking for, and though there's nothing profound about the mashup itself, I am endlessly fascinated by what stumbling on this kind of connection says about how listening works. On a fairly trivial level, this kind of link is closely analogous to a verbal pun (and my mental pathways seem programmed to look for those just as readily) - as with a pun, the fun is in finding a close bond between two seemingly unrelated entities.

But, given that pattern-recognition plays a pervasive role in musical perception, this kind of experience is also a useful way to zero in on how the brain organizes what it hears. (I'd guess it's related to how facial-recognition works.) My musical Christmas fragments play off the fact that a small group of pitches, organized in a certain way, can immediately trigger an association with a specific tune. In "We are the Sea," there are only four shared pitches, and they're not particularly distinctive as a group, but the fact that each has mi-re-do (scale degrees 3-2-1) functioning as pickups into a downbeat on la (6) means each tune (each is actually the beginning of a refrain) arrives first on a IV chord instead of the much more common I. So, that shared harmonic implication is probably a key factor in giving these four pitches a reasonably strong identity.* I'd call it a fingerprint, except fingerprints aren't supposed to be shared. (Yes, each tune has its own differently syncopated rhythm as well, which I've chosen to obscure in the C Major-ified version below.)

Indeed, the fact that four pitches can be building blocks for a seemingly infinite variety of tunes is the point of Leonard Bernstein's wonderfully engaging "Infinite Variety of Music" talk, which I uploaded to Youtube a few years back. That discussion is focused on the even more basic sol-do-re-mi ("How dry I am") pattern; but, I think the little four-note "under the world" descent above has a significantly more distinctive quality.

Just when I thought I was almost done with this post, I had the idea of looking for online resources that would show what other tunes have this particular fingerprint. I first checked out this "best classical tunes" online dictionary, which lets you input scale degrees via keyboard or solfège syllable. It turned up seven "classical" matches, though only one (as far as I can tell) that starts with the 3-2-1 landing on a downbeat 6: this lovely theme from Tchaikovsky's 6th:
Tchakovsky: Sympony No. 6, 1st mvt, 2nd theme
[Listen starting at 4:45 here.]

However, in this case the arrival on B (scale degree 6) is still harmonized with a I chord, with that B treated as a dissonant appoggiatura that resolves to the chord tone A. So, this doesn't quite fit the mold.

Then, for the first time in some time, I remembered Harold Barlow's remarkable Dictionary of Musical Themes, which I used to browse forever in school libraries. Someone has created a fairly unsatisfying digital version of that database here (only returns MIDI audio, no scores images and the search function has issues), but I was able to download an enormous PDF of the whole thing here!

Man, do I ever love this book - so much so that I just ordered a hardback copy since the PDF is a bit unwieldy for browsing and because...because I wanted to have that book in my hands again! Barlow's handy "all converted to C Major" index turned up 14 matches (Tchaikovsky is T282):

I happily "thumbed" through the PDF to check out each tune and found that only one (B710)

meets the "land on a downbeat IV chord" requirement, this theme from a Beethoven Sonata I learned a few years after "We are the world" debuted:
Beethoven: Sonata in Eb, Op. 7, 1st mvt., 2nd theme
[Listen starting at 0:50 here.]

I'll admit I'd never heard "We are under the sea-world" while playing this piece, perhaps because the rhythm is so unsyncopated, and because the "pickup" notes are harmonized as well, even though the IV chord is still the first major harmonic stop along the way. But I do find it easy enough to hear the affinity now, and it's definitely closer than what I hear in Tchaikovsky's tune. Neither of these databases searches the enormous melodic worlds of pop/rock/folk/jazz, so there's probably a larger family of "we are the sea" tunes, but I still think it's a pretty distinct species.

It's possible that I particularly enjoy this little mashup because I'm not such a big fan of either tune on its own.** Thus, like a phoenix rising from the anacrusis, this new anthem of underwater unity beckons to us all - or, at least, to all of us who get these tunes mixed up. Turns out I'm not the only one, as I discovered this (less artful) mashup on Youtube right after posting mine. (My version transposes "Under the Sea" and adjusts tempos a bit to make the recordings fit better.) I was kind of sad to see that someone had beaten me online, but also strangely comforted to know it's not just me. Is it you as well?

P.S. Right after posting this, I discovered this excellent online tool: Themefinder. Enter 3216 into the scale degree box and you'll get the same (?) 14 matches as lots more from folksong and Renaissance reps, but still no pop/rock/jazz. Nevertheless, this site is A M A Z I N G. Note that Bernstein's "How Dry I Am" theme turns up 149 classical matches! I may be spending the rest of my days on this site...

* Speaking of close melodic identities, I was amused/alarmed to see someone trying to assert online that John Williams' "Can You Read My Mind?" theme from Superman is not closely related to the transfiguration theme from Richard Strauss's Death and Transfiguration. On this comment thread, we read:
"This claim has been around in print since at least 1979. And it's completely bogus.

Can You Read My Mind: C E G e d

Death and Transfiguration: C D E e d

Of the five notes, three are the same and two are different. And after these first five notes, the rest of the melodies are completely different."
This simplistic analysis overlooks the fact that the leap up to that "e d" descent has a very strong fingerprint which I discussed in this post. The three shared pitches are easily the most important structurally. You can follow that link to read more about my reasoning, but, as with "Under the Sea" and "We are the World," the proof of the connection is that I heard it before ever thinking about it. (And yeah, sure, the tunes then go in completely different directions; the point is that just a few pitches, shaped in a certain way, are enough to make a distinct melodic character.)

[Click on the examples to hear them played.]

** I'm definitely not a big fan of either tune, but I've got to admit that revisiting "We are the World" was a fun trip down memory lane. It happened to come out during the one year of my life that I listened to Top 40 radio regularly, and I can still remember being completely perplexed by the sound of Bob Dylan's voice, which I'm not sure I'd ever heard before. (It's not a coincidence that his solo made it into my mashup.) The whole production is pretty hokey, but there's something genuinely moving about watching this diverse group of stars (Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, Tina Turner, Al Jarreau, Cyndi Lauper...) seem really to enjoy singing together - to be themselves while also looking beyond themselves and enjoying the camaraderie. I've since come to understand Dylan's voice as something other than comical, although I still am bewildered that anyone wants to hear Bruce Springsteen sing anything - he sounds horrible and just about ruins the song. That oh-so-earnest gravel always sounds more like affectation than authentic to me, whereas Dylan (and even Cyndi Lauper!) don't bother me nearly as much. Go figure.

Final Point: I know Do they know it's Christmas? came first, but in my totally biased view, We are the world is far superior. USA! USA! USA!

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