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Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Noise that matters

Why sing?

Perhaps more broadly, why music?

If we ignore humming, whistling and blowing into a cavity created with our palms and fingers, singing has the singular advantages of immediacy and portability. Plus reasonable dynamics and a certain individuality.
Thus if we sing (including sing badly) we can create music which allows us to flirt with unique emotions, evoke memories, appreciate patterns, and all the rest. We may also time travel. Vibration is at the heart of all music and when we sing (in tune, that is) our bodies share frequencies with the people who wrote the stuff we're singing.

Listening to music is rewarding but passive. Making music has the added benefit of achievement. Our tribute to the composers, more involving than mere applause. We may - when we sing - please someone within earshot, but it is unwise to depend on this. Singing is audible but is most eloquent in the way it communicates its effects back to us. A note may be false but we alone may be aware of its good intent.

Hardline Hope, a novel (11,432 words)
Sleaford station – even now she recalled the decorative wooden fringe underhanging the building’s guttering – was where Lindsay had started to loathe her mother. In one day Lindsay moved from a manorial farm-house to a bed-sitter in Lozells, one of Birmingham’s feistier suburbs. Giving up her own bedroom with balcony, hens, ducks and geese to tease, huge hemispheres of skyscape and barns to go a’venturing; entering a cavity lit by one small window, surrounded by grubby wallpaper with an antique scroll pattern in ochre, and a toilet down the landing. A child’s summary of domestic tragedy, perhaps, but there was more to come and the loathing intensified.

“I’d understand if you moved out,” her mother said.


  1. A beautifully written post, top to bottom, but I'm compelled to argue that one's engagement while listening is far from passive. The sonic world is every bit as expansive as the other realms, and the only limitations while listening are lack of curiosity. I'm sure you have been a very active listener for a long time, and I'm sure that this new practice of singing will only make you a more active listener. As far as sharing frequencies with the composers, I'm going to remind you that while you are listening, the little tool shop in your ears is vibrating at the same frequency your vocal chords would if you were singing. I'm going to go another step: The only creative singing is done while NOT following a score. You're a jazz buff. Now you know why. And whistling and humming are good too. That's a great clip from HH.

  2. MikeM: I appreciate your thoughtful response to what is, in effect, the 200-word peak of an iceberg which screams out for amplification (if you'll permit a mixed metaphor). Listening is of course far more than acting as a mere conduit; it is willy-nilly education. Almost as much stays as passes through. And it has, though I haven't yet admitted it, brought me to the point where I decided to learn to sing. I'll go further: listening has shown me I need to learn to sing.

    Perhaps the major difference between listening to and making music is the score, although jazz helps blur the issue on this. You can follow a score as you listen but most don't. When you make music you must follow the score unless you have fantastic ears and equally fantastic mental processes that allow you to play complex passages by ear. In my own humble way I played the trumpet by ear but only at the lowest level. Re. the trumpet, you did what I should have done years ago.

    I emphasise the score because it bridges that uneasy gap between the transient and fixed aspects of music. The written, intellectually accessible elements are there laid out in a language that (more or less) tells you all you need to know about music as a process rather than (again more or less) an emotion. Your instinctive reactions to music become confirmed by what is written down and you can nail things at your leisure instead of trying to grab them on the wing.

    But I may sound as if I'm splitting hairs and I don't want to do that. It is great to be talking about music with someone who likes it enough to get serious about it. I'm sure there are many who will insist that learning the theory of harmony, fugue and the rest will somehow destroy the delicate flower that is music; I am not among them. I am greedy to know all I can. It's just that, with limited time available, singing seemed the logical next step. And, as things have turned out so far, there's a good deal more than just logic in what I find myself doing.

    Just one split hair. Back in the eighteenth centure improvisation was a regular feature of what we now refer to as classical music, both instrumental and vocal. And this skill is demanded in a few modern performances, eg, my version of Messiah conducted by Colin Davis. But the fact is most modern singers aren't very good at improvisation. Sad.

  3. No you don't sound as though you're slitting hairs. You sound as though you are talking about writing and reading music(the score), a parallel with your great talent and interest in a couple other languages. How I missed this short jump is beyond me. Please don't start writing music that is on par with your current daily writing as it would require me to fully transfer you into the realm of the gods.

  4. Blonde One will tell you that I sing when I am scared. She is right, the dark, stepping stones, white water kayaking ... I have sung through all of them!

  5. MikeM: Your ever-fertile imagination has, like Peter Rabbit, burst its buttons over this one. I have no intention of trying to write music although years ago I did post new words to the English folk song: Did You Not Hear My Lady? The verses centred on a conceit which brought in a whole host of musical references but it was not a success. The praises you utter in your second comment go some way towards compensating for the shudders I experience recalling this doomed project.

    Being able to use a score in a limited way (I am not skilled enough, for instance, to resurrect an unknown tune merely from the symbols) is nevertheless a huge jump forward and in refining the songs I am set as "homework" I have decided to reject my own attempts at notation and to depend entirely on conventional sheet music. Slower, of course, but there'll be future advantages.

    Blonde Two: It's not an exact precedent but how about this: VR and I were forced (through peculiar family pressure) to undergo a church wedding. Without thinking too much we chose hymns that didn't represent too bright an augury for the half century of marriage that followed. Fortunately things turned out to be better than we appeared to expect:

    Representative verses:

    Be thou my guardian and my guide,
    And hear me when I call,
    Let not my slippery footsteps slide,
    And hold me lest I fall

    Augmented by:

    Not for ever in green pastures,
    Do we ask the way to be,
    But the steep and rugged pathway,
    May we tread rejoicingly.

  6. 'music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music, while the music lasts.'

    I like whistling, myself.

  7. Lucy: Being the music; might that be where I've been just recently? Hubris, surely.

    But can you whistle a chromatic scale?

  8. A reasonably adept whistler can blow a chromatic scale as easily as a singer. Quarter tones instead of semi tones are harder for western performers.

  9. Mike M: What proportion of whistlers is reasonably adept? My anecdotal experience is that most whistle without conviction and briefly. Perhaps reasonably adept whistlers stay at home and are not to be found in supermarkets.

  10. Beethoven's Ninth, second movement, and Sousa marches(Stars and Stripes Forever, with piccolo solo included) are some of my whistling favorites. And I'm at the market daily. I very seldom combine the two activities, as I tend to hide my eccentricity. Not many singing in the market while I'm there either.

  11. MikeM: OK, OK,I accept you're a whistling virtuoso. Which makes you a member of a tiny elite in my book, roughly equivalent to those who've started and finished Look Homeward Angel. My original query was directed towards Lucy; no answer so far so I'll accept that she can't do a chromatic scale