Category Archives: Curiosities

Sweet & sour music

Two experiments investigated the influence of the harmonic content of background music on taste perception.

The participants evaluated samples of mixed fruit juice while listening to soundtracks that had either been harmonized with consonant or dissonant musical intervals. Each sample of juice was rated on three computer-based scales: One scale was anchored with the words sour and sweet, while the other two scales involved hedonic ratings of the music and of the juice.

Participants reliably associated the consonant soundtracks with sweetness and the dissonant soundtracks with sourness, rating the juices as tasting significantly sweeter in the consonant than in the dissonant music condition, irrespective of the melody or instrumentation involved. These results provide empirical support for the claim that the crossmodal correspondence between basic taste and a higher-level musical attribute (harmony in this case) can be used to modify the evaluation of the taste of a drink.

This according to “Striking a sour note: Assessing the influence of consonant and dissonant music on taste perception” by Charles Spence (above) and Qian Janice Wang (Multisensory research XXIX/1–3 [2016] pp. 195–208).

Another post about Professor Spence’s research is here. Below, some consonance and dissonance imaging.

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Pykini’s parrot

A lively musical culture existed in the second half of the 14th century at the court of Brabant during the reign of Wenceslas I, Duke of Luxembourg (above, right). This abundant musical activity makes it likely that a member of the court chapel, Nicolas de Picquigny, was Pykini, the composer of the much-admired four-voice virelai Plasanche or tost.

The text of Plasanche or tost mentions that the audience will listen with pleasure to the parrot (le papegay). Although parrots are often mentioned in such texts to evoke springtime, and some scholars have guessed that here it is a punning reference to a Pope, archival sources show that Wenceslas had chosen the parrot as his symbol, having had its image embroidered on numerous furnishings with the coats of arms of Brabant and Luxembourg.

The bird was a very appropriate mascot for this duke and poet, who welcomed poets from so many different linguistic regions to his court and was himself fluent in multiple languages. The virelai’s listeners would have had no doubt about the identity of this particular parrot.

This according to “Pykini’s parrot: Music at the court of Brabant” by Remco Sleiderink, an essay included in Musicology and archival research/Musicologie et recherches en archives/Musicologie en archiefonderzoek (Bruxelles/Brussel: Bibliotheca Regia Belgica, 1994, pp. 358–91).

Below, Plasanche or tost performed by The Early Music Consort of London.

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Typatune typology

In 1940 Alexander Rose (1901–85, above) received a U.S. Patent for his Typatune, a toy piano with a QWERTY typewriter keyboard. He seems to have been destined to create this curious invention both through his vocation as a court stenographer and his choice of a wife—one Clara Berger, daughter of Samuel Israel Berger, a noted maker of toy typewriters.

World War II may have caused a moratorium on the Typatune’s manufacture, as the toy did not appear on the market until shortly before Christmas 1945, when it was widely advertised.

The purchaser of a Typatune also received a spiral-bound booklet showing which keys to press to produce a number of popular melodies. Two models have been identified—one in a red rexine case and one in an off-white wooden case, both with a collapsing carry-handle. A later development was the addition of a hinged lid to protect the keyboard. All versions carry the label Made in Switzerland.

This according to “Neither one thing nor the other: Alexander Rose’s Typatune” by Arthur W.J.G.  Ord-Hume (The music box: An international journal of mechanical music CCVIII [summer 2017] pp. 48–50).

Below, a brief demonstration with an inside view.

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Bayadères and devadāsīs

In 19th-century Europe, the term bayadère—derived from the Portuguese bailadeira—referred to a Romantic concept of the Hindu devadāsī, a female temple dancer.

“Who has not heard of the bayadères,” gushed Victor Dandré, Anna Pavlova’s companion and manager, “so graceful and of such incomparable beauty, dancing sacred dances in temples and secular ones at feasts?”

In fact, Europeans had virtually no information on this subject at all, but that did not deter some of the most distinguished names in classical ballet from conjuring up their own images of devadāsīs and presenting them on the stage.

Thanks to travelers’ tales and other writings, India appeared to Europeans as a fabled land, steeped in mysteries, and abounding in stirring narratives of love, hate, devotion, and valor. At a time when the real devadāsīs were scorned at home, their image functioned as an icon of Indian dance in the West.

This according to “Devadasis in tights and ballet slippers, what?” by Mohan Khokar (Sruti 154 [July 1997] pp. 21–26); this periodical, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.

Above and below, excerpts from what has proved to be the most enduring example, La bayadère by Ludwig Minkus and Marius Petipa.

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Drunken dotard refrain

Tablatures of ancient Chinese vocal music usually provide very little concrete information on rhythm, and few ancient Chinese writings on rhythms and time values in musical performance survive. One fortunate exception is the perceptive scholarly work of the 11th-century Buddhist monk Master Yihai, who was the only known person from early China ever to explain musical rhythm using a concrete example from guqin music.

Yihai analyzed a famous musical setting of Su Dongpo’s poem Zui weng yin (醉翁吟, Drunken dotard refrain). The earliest surviving musical notation of Zui weng yin dates from several centuries later; whether a tablature of 1539 actually preserves the music discussed by Yihai cannot be determined with full certainty, but there is indirect evidence to support an early date for the music.

This according to “The Drunken dotard refrain” by Marnix Wells (CHIME: Journal of the European Foundation for Chinese Music Research XX [2016] pp. 85–105). Above, an 18th-century manuscript; below, a 21st-century performance.

#dotard

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A saxophone in surgery

When doctors discovered a tumor in Dan Fabbio’s brain, he began a long journey involving a team of physicians, scientists, and a music professor that culminated with him awake and playing a saxophone as surgeons operated on him.

A professional musician and music teacher, Fabbio suddenly started to experience hallucinations, and a visit to a hospital led to a CAT scan that indicated a brain tumor. It appeared to be benign, but doctors were concerned about its proximity to a brain region that is responsible for music processing.

Fabbio was referred to the neurosurgeon Web Pilcher, who contacted Elizabeth Marvin, a music theorist who also specializes in music cognition, and together they developed a series of cognitive musical tests that Fabbio could perform while researchers were conducting brain scans. Using this information, the team produced a highly detailed three-dimensional map of Fabbio’s brain that would be used to help guide the surgeons in the operating room.

The surgeons wanted to know if they were successful in preserving Fabbio’s ability to perform music, so they decided to bring his saxophone into the operating room; once the tumor had been removed, they gave the go-ahead for Fabbio to play it.  “It made you want to cry,” said Marvin.  “He played it flawlessly and when he finished the entire operating room erupted in applause.”

This according to “Saxophonist is told to play while undergoing brain surgery” by Norman Lebrecht (Slipped disc 30 August 2017). Below, a brief documentary fleshes out the story.

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Mozart’s starling

 

On 27 May 1784 Mozart purchased a European starling (Sturnus vulgaris, above). The pleasure he expressed at hearing the bird’s song—“Das war schon!”—is all the more understandable when one compares his notation of it with the beginning of the last movement of his Piano Concerto in G major, K.453, which was written around the same time.

Three years later the bird died, and he buried it with much ceremony. Heavily veiled mourners marched in a procession, sang hymns, and listened to a graveside recitation of a poem Mozart had composed for the occasion.

Although many questions remain about starlings’ vocal capacities, a recent study supports a definite link between their mimicry and their lively social interactions, illuminating Mozart’s response to his beloved pet’s death.

This according to “Mozart’s starling” by Meredith J. West and Andrew P. King (American scientist LXXVIII/2 [May–August 1990] pp. 106–114).

Below, the concerto movement sung by Mozart’s starling.

Related articles: 

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Dancing elephants in ancient Rome

In his De natura animalium, Claudius Aelianus described the training of dancing elephants.

“To begin with, [the trainer] introduced them in a quiet, gentle fashion to his instructions, supplying them with delicacies and the most appetizing food, varied so as to allure and entice them into abandoning all trace of ferocity…So what they learned was not to go wild at the sound of the flutes (auloi), not to be alarmed at the beating of drums (tympanon), to be charmed by the pipe (syrinx), and to endure the beat of marching feet and the singing of crowds.”

Noting that elephants have a keen sense of music and an aptitude for learning, Aelian reported that they successfully mastered “the movements of a chorus, the steps of a dance, how to march in time, how to enjoy the sound of auloi, and how to distinguish different notes.”

This according to “Vox naturae: Music as human-animal communication in the context of animal training in ancient Rome” by Rodney Martin Cross (Greek and Roman musical studies V/2 [2017] pp. 147–58).

Below, two elephants enjoying a serenade.

Related article: The Thai Elephant Orchestra

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The Vatican’s Top 10

The Vatican has recommended ten pop and rock albums as perfect listening for being marooned on a desert island. The recordings serve as an alternative to the mediocre songs featured at Italian pop festivals and on the radio.

The Top 10 list includes the Beatles’ Revolver, David Crosby’s If I could only remember my name, Pink Floyd’s The dark side of the moon, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Donald Fagan’s The nightfly, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Paul Simon’s Graceland, U2’s Achtung baby, Oasis’s (What’s the story) Morning glory?, and Carlos Santana’s Supernatural. Bob Dylan is excluded from the list because he spawned generations of singer-songwriters who have harshly tested the ears and the patience of listeners with their tormented stories.

This according to “Dieci dischi per sopravvivere ai festival: Prontuario semiserio di resistenza musicale” by Guiseppe Fiorentino and Gaetano Vallini (L’Osservatore Romano CXLVIII/37 [14 February 2010]).

Below, the concluding track from David Crosby’s album.

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Tovey’s marginalia

Donald Francis Tovey left thousands of marginal comments on the sheet music he owned, dating from different periods of his life.

Here and there one finds a score that is chock-full of pencil scribblings, critical, historical, personal—clearly remarks that Tovey meant for his own eyes alone, though it is impressive that he often wrote complete sentences with full punctuation. Most commonly he sang the praise of some compositional marvel in words of simple rapture: “Splendid!” “Magnificent climax!” “Wonderful!”

But Tovey was at his wittiest with composers he didn’t much like. Muzio Clementi came in for some particularly choice remarks, such as “Silly little beast in bad Mozartian style with one or two idiotically difficult bits of pianistics.” A passage in Clementi’s op. 50, no. 3, subtitled Didone abbandonata, elicited the comment “and here comes the Bishop, or the Pope with triple crown.” This whimsy is petulantly crossed out, and below, in a different but equally Toveyan hand, are the words “Pretentious NONSENSE” (see above). Where the theme is inverted he wrote “Here Dido stands on her head.”

This according to “Tovey’s marginalia” by Raymond Monelle (The musical times CXXXI/1769 [July 1990] pp. 351–53). This journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.

Today would have been Monelle’s 80th birthday! Below, the jovial finale of Tovey’s Sonata for two cellos.

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