I am moved by Lady Percy 's expression of love. CLICK HERE - see if you agree.
Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
responses, apologies. I hold posts to 300 words* having found less is better than more.
I re-comment on comments and re-re-re-comment on re-re-comments.
* One exception: short stories.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Mind the gap

Copyright Gary Larson
Took a step up at last Monday's lesson. I'd been having problems learning We'll Gather Lilacs at home. In my own defence there are reasons: the version I'm learning represents the second voice in what will eventually be a duet. Thus the music is not familiar, nor immediately recognisable as melody; more like an accompaniment. But there was something else.

"Isn't a lot of this set in a minor key?" I asked.

Pleased I'd asked a musico-technical question, V said yes.

"Should I try singing some minor-key scales?"

Pleased this time by a question that was also half-intelligent, V started tinkling the ivories.

Major-key scales are easy: think doh, re, me... as we learned in primary school. Minor-key scales are not as intuitive; there are more half tones which means some notes are closer together and harder to hit precisely. By concentrating and relying heavily on the duffer's crutch (ie, repetition) I did better than I expected.

V sympathised. "Not everyone likes singing in a minor key."

Probably because minor keys are used for downbeat music. But then Mozart's symphony 25 is in G-minor, Bach's cello suite 5 C-minor and Schubert's piano sonata D784 A-minor; none is unremittingly sad.

There's more. When I sing:

And walk together down an En-glish Lane

the minor key turns the gap between "En-" and "-glish" into a difficult jump. When I first do it correctly it sounds alien. A second time and it sounds exactly right. I burst with pride.

Classical music isn't just about being hoity-toity; it nurtures animal spirits.


  1. I've a memory of the first time of hearing a minor scale played, at school, couldn't say when, and an actual shared frisson and smile running through the class; we'd been singing major scales, la-la-la and doh-a-deer since infancy, and indeed 'We three kings' with its gathering gloom, but the actual scale was a revelation, something new and exotic, mysterious and a bit oriental. Also remember learning 'Sumer is i-cumin in' and being told it was the first known tune written in a major key, don't know if that's true, but it seems counter-intuitive that in fact minor key music might have predated major, the latter seems to us the default now, the minor keys the variation.

  2. The melodic minor scale dates back, I think to at least to medieval times. The harmonic minor scale came later, maybe preceded by the major scale.

  3. Lucy/Tom: I appreciate each and every contribution on the technicalities of music. And for these reasons.

    When I decided to take formal lessons in singing eight months ago I had to establish a set of priorities dictated by my extreme age. In an ideal world I would have started by learning musical theory and/or notation but, had I done so, I might well have ended up in my humanist coffin (woven osiers for preference) before I'd sung a note for pleasure. V and I decided I'd learn notation as and when it became necessary. I have to say this proved to be an intellectual rather than a musical decision. But it worked

    For it seems V had a hidden agenda. Halfway through the FIRST lesson V handed me the score of Sarastro's aria "Oh Isis Und Osiris" from Magic Flute and started playing the accompaniment. This wasn't quite the jump into the dark it seems. I knew Flute pretty well (but only as a listener of course) and V knew I knew. I could perhaps hum bits of the melody. But here with V drawing me on via the keyboard and her magnificent voice, I started stumbling over the words and what I knew of the music, transfixed by the discovery that some of the sequences of crotchets actually went up and down with the music. Even more I was singing Mozart.

    These two discoveries had a powerful effect. I broke away from singing in tears, knowing I wasn't quite the musical dunce I'd thought I was and that I had the tiny wherewithal for launching myself into the music of giant composers I'd held in awe for fifty years. I apologised for crying and V, bless her, said: "Don't apologise. That's supposed to happen."

    The next score V handed out, a month later, was of a complex Irish folk song arrangement I'd never heard before and it was intended to emphasise the importance of sustained notes, one of the essentials of the trained voice. Grasping the tune took several weeks of working at home, enlivened by weekly rehearsals with V, and then it gelled. And now, as I mention, I'm required to struggle with the second-line version of We'll Gather Lilacs which (a) is rubbing my nose up against the difficult intervals that are at the heart of minor-key music, and (b) preparing me for a real duet, which has always been one of my intermediate aims.

    It is working. Isis proved I was capable of responding constructively to the essence of great music, by exposing me to it viscerally as, to some extent, Lucy was. In passing I discovered that minor keys come in two forms but for the moment that is enough; when it becomes relevant I'll learn more.

    These days, around the house, I don't sing out of a vaguely self-pleasing instinct, but rather to improve my performance with auch and such a line. That may sound arid in comparison but it's only an expansion of emphasis: not just singing but singing/learning.

    As the length of this re-comment shows it's a subject I love sharing.

  4. Tom's music theory is very strong, which must be a wonderful thing to possess. Much of it is mysterious to me (never did quite grasp about the two kinds of minors!) but I always enjoy listening to it, as I do to your enthusiasm for your singing.

  5. Lucy: Great, we can put Tom to work immediately. If you want to re-explore that sensation when you were exposed to minor-key music for the first time, have him guide your voice through this:

    And in the eve-ning by the fire-light's glow
    G G G A - G F E F - D Eb

    It's eerily unvarying, remote stuff.