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The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
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Thursday, October 2, 2014

NAME THAT TUNE


As I was sitting in my office having a first cup of decaf before taking my morning walk, I heard the radio in the kitchen, playing the local classical music station [WCRP -- a gem!  I wish France had something like it.]  After a brief pause, there was a blaring G played by trumpet, horns, reeds, and strings, and the thought popped unbidden into my head "The Mikado."  Sure enough, it was the unmistakable faux Japanese theme that introduces arguably the greatest of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

No sooner had I performed this feat of instant identification than I called to mind the old TV show Name That Tune, which premiered when I was in college and returned in several iterations in the following decades.  For those of you too young or too refined to have watched it, this was a game show in which two contestants competed to see which one could name a tune faster after hearing the opening notes.  There was a special bonus round in which the contestants bid for a chance to name a tune after a specified number of notes:  "I can name that tune in three notes."  "I can name it in two notes."  If you won the bid and then failed to name the tune, your opponent won the round.

The mystery tunes were all drawn from the pop literature, of course, but I have often thought over the years that it would be great fun to play a classical music version.  Everyone of course recognizes Beethoven's Fifth Symphony from the first four notes [dah dah dah daaaah], but it is actually remarkable how many great works across the centuries are easily identifiable after only a very few notes -- maybe not many one can spot after one note, as I did The Mikado, but many surely after one bar of music. 

I would be terrible at the game, not because I would not recognize the music, but because I would most likely have a senior moment and be unable to put a name to it.  This morning, during my walk, I thought about this post, and it took me almost the entire walk to remember the word "Overture."  I thought "The Prelude to The Mikado?  No.  The Introduction to The Mikado?  No.  The Preface to The Mikado?  No."  Finally in desperation I thought "the William Tell ---" and the word "Overture" popped into my head.  [I was a big fan of the Lone Ranger as a kid.]

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3 comments:

Chris said...

In a 2003 essay in Music Theory Spectrum, Jeffrey Kresky wrote: "There is a game we used to play as undergraduates: someone would produce a single sound at the piano, and we were to name the piece that it begins. Thus, the A below middle C, with just the right pressure and length, stood for Tristan, while the C two octaves lower, staccato, was meant to evoke the Waldstein."

I've always thought this sounded like a terrific game—but it would take a pretty serious group of music nerds to make it any fun.

skholiast said...

Of course, it isn't just the note that signals what piece it is, it's the instrumentation with all accompanying colors, timbres, and so on. The sort of thing you describe here happens to me occasionally (I had a moment like yours with a single chord -- Bam -- "Egmont Overture!", which sort of took me aback because I had not consciously listened to that piece for a couple of decades), but more often it's along the lines of "Hmmm-- I know this -- Mozart? no... ah, Haydn!" And sometimes it even is Haydn.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

My problem is that even when I have played a quartet I may not be able to recall whether it is Mozart or late Haydn, which is a bit embarrassing. Generally speaking, I have an extremely good memory for musical lines, but I am simply terrible at remembering lines of poetry. It is all I can do to sort of memorize a four line poem, and yet without really thinking about it I can reproduce in my head line after line of music. I experience it as akin to a logical argument in which each step follows naturally and necessarily from the one before.