Chopin’s Heart

I had no idea that Chopin’s heart had become an object of veneration for the Poles. For more information, see this link: http://news.yahoo.com/chopins-heart-exhumed-secret-relic-122237752.html

The secrecy and intrigue that has taken place over the years as a result of Chopin’s deathbed request is the stuff of which Dan Brown books are made of. But, apparently, we still don’t know exactly what illness it was that Chopin died from. Since the heart is said, upon recent inspection, to still be in good shape, I guess we can say, at the very least, that he didn’t die of a broken heart.

Ba-dum ching.

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The Church of the Pastafarians marches on!

Woman Claims Spaghetti Strainer as Religious Headwear in Driver’s License Photo

I don’t know why these stories amuse me so much, but they do.  In the previous two posts I’ve put up on this topic, they both occurred in foreign countries (well, foreign to the US, that is), but this is the first one I’ve seen where someone has done this right here in the good ol’ U S of A.  What’s more, it happened in Oklahoma, which I wouldn’t think would be a haven for the liberals more conservative types who would want to do this sort of thing.

Anyway, I guess one should applaud church growth wherever it occurs.

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In which my musical OCD comes to the fore

An article at salon.com used the following illustration:

NeuralNostalgia-MJStern

 

 

 

 

 

 

The number of notes between the bar lines are not consistent with any time signature.  Since the article in question is about why we like the music we heard in our teens, even if it was awful music, I suppose the correctness of the musical notation in the graphic really doesn’t matter. (Does “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies belong in that “awful music” group?)

The illustration could even have been better if an actual song had been used to serve as the source of the musical notation: we could have had some fun figuring out what the song was.

Alas.

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This is why I play the organ

I’m too young to remember anything about silent movies and the theater organs that supplied the musical soundtracks to said films.  I suppose there are very few people around who do at this point.  But there are those in the world who feel it’s important to maintain a place where silent films and theater organs can still be seen and heard.

The guy I had a nodding acquaintance with back in high school who was my main inspiration in deciding that learning to play the organ could possibly be cool played theater organ music at the occasional concert in our school’s theater, and a magnificent theater it was; the school was old enough to have been built at a time when they didn’t cut corners and say, well, we can’t afford to build a real theater, so making the cafeteria a multi-purpose building that can house, at a very basic level, events that deserve to be seen in a real theater will just have to do.  And this same guy who played in our school theater from time to time — when he wanted to go to the trouble of lugging his big ol’ Rodgers three-manual organ over to the theater to give us a concert — also worked at the various pizza parlors up and down the peninsula that where the main draw wasn’t the pizza, but the theater organ music.  The pizza was just there to give you something to physically chew on while you mentally digested the wonderful theater organ music.

Anyway, as I was stumbling around the internet this morning reading the various Robin Williams tributes, there was this link that popped up over at TheAtlantic.com: The Place Where Silent Movies Sing.

Nice to know that there are those around who want to keep the concept and the feeling alive.  If it wasn’t for people like this, I’d be sitting in the congregation every week singing the hymns with the rest of you instead of sitting up on the stand having fun.

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“It definitely gives you chills.”

The previous article on the changes that have taken place in piano design over time eventually led me to Stuart Isacoff’s website (stuartisacoff.net), which, in turn, lead me to a 2012 article about (among other things) the healing properties of music.

Perhaps the most striking moment of the [three-day symposium on “Music, the Brain, Medicine and Wellness”] symposium came when Gottfried Schlaug of Harvard Medical School and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center revealed the results of an approach he has developed, called auditory-motor mapping training, using pitch and rhythm to heal autistic children who are incapable of speaking. A video camera captured a boy, almost 5 years old, at various stages of the treatment: Although unresponsive at the beginning, after 10 sessions he suddenly uttered a word: “bubbles.” It was the moment at which his parents heard his voice for the very first time. (Autistic children love anything that makes bubbles, noted Dr. Schlaug.) After 40 sessions, he was speaking simple sentences as well as his name. As this progress played out on screen, a gasp went up from the entire audience. It was a dramatic example of how music is now being employed to revive dormant pathways in the brain.

Other articles I’ve found and mentioned here talk about, for example, how music can help bring Alzheimer’s patients out of their shells.  Scientists typically look for explanations as to how and why these kinds of things happen, and tend to be somewhat “clinical” in their observations in these areas. But Stuart Isacoff, much more interested in the magic that results from exposure to music presses the point:

As the program went on, my trepidation about encountering what Friedrich Schiller called “the disenchantment of the world” seemed unfounded. Nevertheless, I decided to check on the emotional temperature of the scientists by conferring with Dr. Schlaug. Did he find this work as miraculous as I did?

“Sometimes something looks like a miracle, but it comes about through knowledge and skill. There is some explanation for the outcome,” he stated.

Still, I ask, wasn’t it emotionally jolting when that little autistic boy began to speak? “We have several children who have spoken for the first time,” he replied. “We had stroke patients who couldn’t speak, but we got them to sing. It keeps me going to find ways to coax the brain into doing something it is not doing. But it’s not about me—it’s about the patient and the patient’s family.”

“But,” I insisted, looking for agreement that this stuff is, indeed, magical, “doesn’t it give you chills?”

“Yes,” he conceded with a smile. “It definitely gives you chills.”

 

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This should have been obvious. Duh.

An article at theatlantic.com has done a fine job of pointing out the obvious to someone (like me!) who just takes pianos (or, to get to the point, pianofortes) for granted:

When the piano was invented some 300 years ago, it was a technological marvel. The harpsichord could produce sound plucked at a single volume level, but the piano allowed for the kind of nuance you might expect from a viola or bassoon. A piano’s hammer mechanism meant that a player could strike a key and vibrate the instrument’s strings to produce a booming melody one instant and an almost imperceptible one the next.

This new layer of subtlety is what made the piano—short for pianoforte—different than its predecessors when Italian craftsman Bartolomeo Cristofori designed it in the late 1690s. (Pianoforte gets its name from the variation it provided: Piano translates to quiet, forte to loud.)

Who knows how many times I’ve read that “piano” is just an abbreviation for the real name of the instrument? And yet, it never occurred to me that “quiet/loud” is why it’s named what it is.

Anyway, here’s the link to the article: When Is a Piano Not a Piano

It’s a fascinating look at how the pianoforte (I may just have to stop calling them mere “pianos” from here on out) has changed over time.  What we think of when somebody says “piano” is not at all what the earliest versions of them looked like.  In fact, they were origianally fragile instruments that would break under the pounding given them by people like Beethoven:

And though early pianos could produce both airy and thundering volumes, the instruments themselves couldn’t always withstand the stylings of a fervent player—at least not until 1825 when the first iron-framed piano was patented. Pianos would crack apart under the hands of the instrument’s early rockstars. “Before the iron frame, you had composers like Beethoven breaking pianos as they played them onstage,” Isacoff said. “The instruments could not withstand the power of the players.”

Certain innovations in piano keyboard structure that were predicted to be the standard (like a curved keyboard that would be easier on the pianist’s wrists; you Microsoft PC keyboard people might appreciate that concept) never took off.

My favorite quote from the article:

“This raises the question of whether an electric piano is really a piano or not,” [Stuart] Isacoff said. “I’m on dangerous ground because, as a pianist who’s in love with the acoustic instrument, I’m tempted to say ‘no, it’s not,’ at which point people start throwing things at my head.”

Oh, to be able to afford the latest and greatest in Yamaha Clavinova technology…

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Drums keep pounding a rhythm to the brain

And the beat goes on, the beat goes on
Drums keep pounding a rhythm to the brain
La de da de de, la de da de da — Sonny and Cher

Everyone’s favorite singing duo (you know, the ones who tortured Bill Murray with the sure knowledge that today was going to be a lot like yesterday) were apparently right about that brain rhythm beat thing.

According to this story at NPR.org, our brains are filled with little bitty clocks that all beat at different rhythms.  You can imagine what it would sound like to be in a room where everyone in the room is given a drum and starts beating out whatever rhythm they feel like doing.  You get chaos.  But the strange thing is that when these people start listening to each other, they start to coordinate with each other, and pretty soon the rhythmic chaos becomes less chaotic.  Our brains apparently do the same kind of thing.

This is important because when brain cells fire at the same time, the connections between them get stronger, which is critical to how memories are formed and how we learn things.

We do things, such as walking, or dancing, that are repetitive and rhythmic. And when people who are afflicted with diseases that affect the nervous system, such as Parkinson’s Disease, are exposed to music, it can help to lessen the symptoms of the tremors which are basically caused by out-of-sync rhythms in the brain.

Go read the article at the link up there, and prepare to be amazed, yet again, as to how important music is to the proper functioning of our physical bodies.

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Thanks to player pianos, anybody can do a cover song

I found a fascinating story over at Slate.com, in which one of the bigger blunders ever made by the U.S. Supreme Court occurred, involving a judgment about the copying of piano music onto player piano rolls.

Player pianos used to be a big deal.  I guess they were sort of the iPods of their day, except that they didn’t fit in your pocket, and they didn’t come with headphones.  Well, those old slimy player piano roll companies had no compunctions whatsoever against taking other people’s songs and copying them on to piano rolls.  In a lawsuit brought by “those writers of glorious songs” (to quote a Barry Manilow lyric, and no, it’s not from “I Write the Songs”) against the piano roll companies, the Supreme Court eventually ruled that because the versions of the songs that had been converted to piano roll “format” weren’t readable by humans, they weren’t really copies of the songs at all, but another animal completely.  As a result, the song writers were unable to demand any royalties for the copies made by the piano roll companies.

A year later, Congress got around to fixing the mess the Supreme Court had made by enacting The Copyright Act of 1909, which mandated that copies of songs could be made, provided that a very small fee was paid to the original song writer.

As a result, what might have been originally a good song as written can be ocassionally turned into a great song when somebody “tweaks” the original just a little bit and turns it into something new.

Which takes us back to this post on stealing “like an artist”, and this post on transformations.  The challenge I have, as a ward and stake organist, is to take the hymns we’ve all been singing in church on Sundays for all our lives, and tweaking them just a bit so that the congregation is forced to sit up and take notice that “he did something different there, it was different from the way he played that chord in the first three verses”.  It doesn’t take a lot of effort — in fact, I’m getting to the point where I have enough confidence in my ability to improvise that I’ll just throw in a completely made-up-on-the-spot interlude before the final verse of a hymn without any thinking or planning whatsoever before we start singing the first verse.  And my ward really seems to like it when they hear something just slightly out of the ordinary during the hymn.

As I see it, it’s how I magnify the calling.

And the best part is, it’s fun.

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Music as a torture device

Over at BusinessInsider.com, there’s an article about songs that the CIA used as part of their — ahem — enhanced interrogation program.  The complete list in the article is eleven items long.  Seven of the songs on the list I’m completely unfamiliar with, so I have nothing to offer about them, but here are the four on the list that I have heard before and would recognize in a heartbeat:

  1. I Love You (the Barney the purple dinosaur theme song)
  2. Saturday Night Fever by the Bee Gees
  3. The Meow Mix theme
  4. We Are The Champions by Queen

Given the presence of Barney’s big addition to the music pantheon, I’m somewhat surprised that “It’s A Small World” (from the Disney ride) isn’t up there somewhere.

As for the Bee Gees making the list, I suppose that high falsetto they do could get to you after a while.  To be fair, there is no single song titled “Saturday Night Fever” by the Bee Gees, so I presume this really refers to just about any song by the Bee Gees from said film.  Is it possible that “Stayin’ Alive”, played for a long enough period of time and at a sufficiently high volume could make one wish he were dead?

Madison Avenue’s addition to the list, the Meow Mix jingle, just makes me laugh, because my youngest daughter will break out into song at the drop of a hat when she’s home, and odds are that this song — or at least a snippet of it — is what will pop out.  I’m not sure she’s even seen one of the original Meow Mix commercials, but probably knows this only from watching an Austin Powers movie.

Here’s everything you could ever want to know about the Meow Mix jingle, from the Wikipedia:

“The Meow Mix Theme” was written by Shelley Palmer in 1970 and performed by a singing cat. The idea came from Ron Travisano, at the advertising agency of Della Femina Travisano and Partners, who had the account with Ralston Purina in 1974. Travisano put together film footage with editor Jay Gold, looping images of a cat to make it look like it was singing. The music was then composed by Tom McFaul of the jingle house Lucas/McFaul, one of the major jingle-composing houses at the time. Working from Travisano’s film, McFaul wrote and produced music to fit, with the actual meowing performed by professional singer Linda November.

Travisano then came up with the idea of adding English subtitles, along with a bouncing ball pointing out the words.

Curiously enough, Jerry Della Femina, eventual chairman of the ad firm mentioned above wrote a book about the advertising industry which is claimed to have been the inspiration for the cable TV series “Mad Men”.  Only appropriate, I guess, given that repeated listening to the Meow Mix song is supposed to send you over the edge.

And, finally, as for We Are the Champions, I really don’t have much to say, except to wonder if the point was to “rub it in” to those forced to listen to it: is the message of the song “we’re better than you”?  Or maybe the electric guitar solos get to you after a while.

I suppose the saddest thing about music used as a torture device is the idea that art should be used in this way at all.  But evidently some songs kind of lend themselves to this sort of (ab)use.

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If 7/4 time is weird, how weird is 13/16?

I wrote once here about how, back in a high school music class, our music teacher played a bit of recorded music for us and then asked us to figure out the time signature.  I identified it as being in 7/4 time, which apparently impressed some people to such an extent that they still remember me having done this to this very day.

Well, I’m glad to see, from an article at slate.com, that the challenge of figuring out the time signatures in weird pieces of music is something some people like to do.

It’s been determined that some of the score for the original “Terminator” movie was written in 13/16.  See this link for more info.

I don’t know if I could have figured this one out on my own or not, but now that I know the answer, I’ll never know.

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