Otohelminthiasis—Part 2: Not Quite My Tempo …

Peter Schickele once quipped that the lute is a beautiful instrument, but that you won’t hear it if there is another instrument in the room—even if the other instrument isn’t actually being played! One seldom hears lute music on classical music programs, probably for this very reason: the delicate sound of the lute is simply not “good radio,” in the same way that a chess match would not be “good TV.”


In his marvelous monograph, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander develops many fascinating points, one of which is: it is in the very nature of the medium to exclude certain kinds of experiences from public attention. Television takes a three-dimensional reality and flattens it into the two dimensions of a screen. Subtleties are easily lost. The senses of touch, smell, and taste are eliminated. Only that which is outsized and overly-dramatic makes for interesting programming: tight shots of faces, fast-paced action, conflict, and exaggerated sexuality. Events full of nuance that might be compelling when witnessed in person lose their luster when televised. A moonrise in the desert, a child and a dog napping together, the waves at the beach—there is no cable channel for these things, unless they were to get juiced up with a soundtrack or frequent jumps to new angles. TV is best for conveying scenes of strife and passionate sex, sports or violence.

As a result, there are multitudes of worthy experiences that get shunted out of sight and out of mind in a video-oriented culture like ours. Television simply ignores them. And a generation raised on the values of TV-land never learns to appreciate that which is gentle, slow, and subtle. Fast and furious is what we nursed them on intellectually, and that’s how they expect real life to be as well—frenetic and dramatic.

But Mander’s verdict against television also could have been levied against radio decades earlier. He speaks of the need for a successful “signal-to-noise” ratio, and the medium of radio—especially in its youth—has this problem in spades. What makes for good radio? Only that which can survive the loss of overtones, diminishment of harmonics, effacement of vocal nuances, interference of static, and the possibility of poor quality speakers on the receiving end of the transmission. Your sponsors won’t buy ads during your program if they don’t sense it is compelling enough to keep listeners tuned in. Certain kinds of programming, therefore, come across well over the radio, while others don’t. Lively music, big bands, stentorian orators, and exaggerated voice acting make the cut. Baroque lute music does not.

The highlight of my career as a piano student was a group recital in which I played Schoenberg’s Opus 19, Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke. Technically, these aren’t all that difficult. But musically they present quite a challenge. First, as atonal music, they are bereft of the familiar melody-over-harmony of the classical repertoire; to borrow a phrase from a vocal piece by Schoenberg, they feel like “air of another planet.” Inviting the audience to breathe gladly that alien atmosphere is no mean task. Secondly, the pieces are mostly slow and on the quieter end of the dynamics scale. The final note of the sixth piece is marked pppp—this entails depressing the key as lightly as one can while still producing a sound. On that happy occasion almost forty years ago, I performed the work as well as any concert pianist I have ever heard, and on an unfamiliar instrument with a stiff action, to boot. I managed to caress the perfect pianissississimo out of that final low A♭. Schoenberg’s Opus 19 is an important work, musicologically and historically, but like lute music, it is also something that is rarely played on the radio, undoubtedly because its tenderness and delicacy are too readily lost in transmission.

But what we have said about radio and television really applies to all kinds of recorded music. The process of recording and broadcasting filters out subtleties, except when the finest equipment is being used (i.e., not with the PA system at your supermarket). Music that depends on nuance and delicacy simply doesn’t get airtime.

Which leads to my first point: we swim in a sea of recorded music being played at us … ALL … THE … TIME. Shopping. Swimming at the Y. During commercials. As the bumper music leading into the commercials. Waiting in line at the bank. It is everywhere. And it is unavoidable.

We have, for better or worse, trained our minds to ignore the background tunes. But perhaps we do this at our own psychological peril. I would like in this installment to point out some features of this all-pervasive music. And the first relates to the very medium by which it comes to our ears: through speakers and amplifiers and across airwaves and internet connections and so on. Namely, that the signal-to-noise ratio is an issue that will always lead to a preference for recorded music on one end of the spectrum and not another.

To modify the metaphor … we do not so much swim in a vast ocean of music. Rather, there is in this world a vast ocean of music—beautiful music of great variety. And of this vast ocean, we are immersed in but a small area that is distinctly different from the greater whole. We swim, as it were, in a Sargasso Sea of music … much of which is the North Atlantic Garbage Patch. In this sea that surrounds us one experiences little lute music, few fugues, scant Scarlatti, and negligible neumatic chant. In other words, much of the loveliest and soul-calming music exists at a great distance from us. We can access it in live performances—when we can find them—but otherwise we are pounded incessantly by heavy beats, repetitious phrases, and indecipherable lyrics. In other words, earwormy tripe.


In the previous installment, I mentioned the theory (first articulated by Pythagoras, later expounded by Plato and Aristotle, and thereafter accepted widely up through the Middle Ages and into the early modern era) that different scales or modes had different effects on the human psyche. There are a multitude of scales in which the musicians of the world have expressed themselves. Look at a piano keyboard. If you play a scale just on the white keys, you can plunk out seven distinct scales. Start with C and go up to the next C and you have the major scale. Start with A and you get (one version of) the minor scale. Start with another white key and you get one of the so-called modal scales (sort of … too complicated to elaborate here). These would all be heptatonic (seven-note) scales. Play only the black keys and you get a pentatonic (five-note) scale.

But there are so many more! There is the Hungarian minor scale, Ukrainian Dorian, Phrygian dominant scale (“Hava Nagila”), octatonic scales (in works by Mussorgsky, Tschaikovsky, Debussy, and Ravel), hexatonic (Scriabin’s Prometheus), and so on. Around the edges of our sonic Sargasso Sea one finds works in these other tonalities, especially in jazz. But in the main, the kind of music we are bombarded with comes from two scales: the Western major and, to a lesser extent, the Western minor.

What is the psychological effect of this predominance of one tonality? I will pass by the idea that the Western major scale is in and of itself harmful to the spirit. Some say it was known in earlier times as the modus lascivus—a tonality that incited the vulgar interests of the lascivious mob. Others dispute this. Either way, among those who thought long and hard about the spiritual influences of tonalities, the Western major scale was not much used: neither by Pythagoras, nor in subsequent Greek music, or in the Gregorian chant of the Latin church. (It is not to the point here to explain the theoretical difference between the modern major scale of seven notes and any of the ancient Greek modes of two stacked tetrachords: the apparent similarities on the page dissipate in the sounds of an actual performance. Ionian mode and the major scale are different musical animals.)

Rather, we should consider what the effect of any repetitive stimulus is on the mind: it stultifies and lowers awareness. It can either mesmerize or induce stress. The predominance of one tonality all around us in society is quite literally a kind of imposed monotony, when considered at a certain level of abstraction.

One might object: the predominance of the Western major scale is simply the tradition of European and American music over centuries. Not so, actually. The Christmas season we recently passed through puts the lie to that claim. Some of the most beloved carols of the season are not in the major scale, but in a mode, like the Aeolian mode: e.g. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” One finds modes readily used in folk music: Dorian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian and common in Irish and Scots folk tunes. (For a modern example of a Mixolydian tune, think of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”)

For that matter, ecclesiastical music in the West was strictly modal up until the Reformation. Curiously enough, one of the least-remarked changes of Protestant piety was to ditch all the modal music of the past and introduce the major scale as the predominant tonality. Not for nothing has Martin Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” been mistaken for a drinking song. It was not—but it certainly could have been one—and a rousing one, at that! John Calvin’s Geneva Psalter—while less likely to set your toes to tapping than Luther’s hymnody—also brought the innovation of major scales into ecclesiastical setting, while sweeping out the modal forms of Latin chant.

And so, on the contrary, Western European and American music was for centuries a garden of tonally variegated delights. Only recently was that garden plowed under to make way for the monocropping of the major scale.

Could this have been somehow intentional? It would be a hard feat to accomplish. It would require some hidden hand to put in place leading figures in classical music, church music, folk music, and popular music in order to orchestrate a tonal conspiracy. One would have to raise up iconic figures for their peers to imitate and follow after. One would have to produce, in each generation, a Mozart, a Luther, an Arlo Guthrie, an Elvis Presley, and so on, just to get this project off the ground. Is there any independent evidence to suspect that figures like these were something more than meets the ear?!?! Nor is it clear what the net effect of this sea change towards a single tonality would be. One would expect that the hidden hand would have to run some experiments, testing variables to see what the societal influences might be. Is there evidence of this? Let’s bracket that question until the next installment …


Meanwhile, let’s analyze a little more closely this Sargasso Sea that surrounds us. It is not simply that we are treading water in Western major tonality, but even in a particular kind of major scale—the equal-tempered scale.

For those who grew up taking piano lessons, like me, it may come as a surprise to learn that the major scale we were taught—whole step, whole step, half step, whole, whole, whole, half—is not in fact the original form of that scale. Whole steps and half steps are artificial constructs arising from the development of keyboard instruments. The steps up the scale actually differ in size from one another, if the scale is derived mathematically—based on whole-number ratios. Jazz musicians express this idea when they talk about shading notes up or down in terms of “cents,” as in playing a note a few cents sharper or flatter.

In equal temperament, all of these slightly different intervals up the scale are forced onto a sonic Bed of Procrustes and stretched or shortened: the larger intervals into uniformly-sized whole steps and the smaller ones into uniformly-sized half steps. It would take us too far afield to get into the math of just, or pure, intonation. One can read a great introduction here. There are also more than a few audio demonstrations of just intonation vs. equal temperament on YouTube, such as here.

Note that equal temperament is not the same as well temperament, such as J.S. Bach exploited for his famous collection of keyboard compositions. A keyboard that was tuned mathematically—in just intonation, that is— would sound good in only one key; if you transposed your piece from C major to, say, D major, it would sound dreadfully out of tune. In well temperament, the different notes of the keyboard are shaded up or down by a few cents, so that every scale and its chords sound passably good. However, each scale on the piano is slightly different, inasmuch as the position of the differently-sized steps varies from the key of C to the key of D and so on. Bach exploited the difference in character from key to key, writing compositions that played up the best harmonics of each key, while avoiding the more out-of-tune chords that might arise from the shading of pitches. In equal temperament, however, the scale beginning on every key sounds the same, aside from the highness or lowness of the starting pitch. Every scale in every key is out of tune in exactly the same way: transposing a piece up or down does not help or hurt the inherent instability of the harmonics produced.

Well temperament prevailed until the 20th century, when equal temperament displaced it … inexplicably. Michael Rubenstein of the University of Waterloo says it plainly:

… [W]estern music from the time of Bach until the turn of the 20th century was not intended to be performed in equal temperament. Equal temperament is appropriate for some music of the 20th century, especially atonal music, and music based on the whole tone scale, but not for the works of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Equal temperament, the modern and usually inappropriate system of tuning used in western music, is based on the twelfth root of 2. The ratio of frequencies for each semi tone is equal to the twelfth root of two. So, twelve semitones, one octave, gives a doubling of frequency. The uniformity that one gets by having each semitone equal allows one to freely modulate amongst the different keys. One main drawback to equal temperament is that all major thirds are quite a bit off from where they ought to be, roughly fourteen percent of a semitone. Perfect fifths are all pretty close. More importantly, though, other than pitch, nothing distinguishes the various keys. … When we listen to [music of the 1700s and 1800s] in our modern equal temperament, we are not hearing their harmonic intentions. Key color has been lost.

In the first installment of this series, I mentioned how earwormy music tends to have a sort of mental “gristle” that the mind chews and chews on without being able to swallow. I believe that the equal temperament of the major scale tonality is just such a piece of gristle. The harmonics are never quite right in music these days. The waveforms never match up and mesh as they should. Chord progressions are never truly resolved. Everything is more or less out of tune, even when it is “perfectly” in tune via Auto-Tune. The ear never finds rest in equal tempered music. And with the proliferation of electronic keyboard instruments—pianos, organs, synthesizers—equal temperament has become the standard which all other instruments and voices are expected to match.

Long story short: the sea of equal-tempered major key tonality in which we swim is inherently unsettling. Any music—even music from the classical era or before—when performed in equal temperament becomes an exercise in teeth-gritting dissonance, albeit below the level of conscious perception for most of us.


You have heard of price inflation and grade inflation. Have you heard of pitch inflation? There’s another problem with all that music from the classical era. We are being forced to play it or sing it at a higher pitch than was originally intended. And here we arrive squarely in the middle of a conspiracy theory, propounded by musicians themselves, and not just tin-foil-hatters like me.

Let me say clearly: I do not buy the theory that setting the A above middle C at 440 Hertz (cycles—or vibrations—per second … the larger the number, the higher the pitch) was part of a Nazi mind control plot, led by Joseph Goebbels and continued by an American Navy intelligence officer named John Calhoun Deagan. The matter of pitch inflation began before any Nazis were around to sing “Deutschland Über Alles.” Nor do I buy claims that A=432 Hz. is somehow a more “natural” vibratory rate because the number 432 is important to the cosmos. Measurement in Hertz presupposes a certain measure of time we call a “second,” but that length is an arbitrary choice—a matter of convention rather than nature, and one that goes back to Sumerian and Babylonian customs, not to principles of physics. Define a second as slightly longer or shorter than it is, and the pitch known as A432 suddenly gets a different number assigned to it, while remaining the same pitch. Pitch inflation almost certainly began in the classical era as concert venues grew in size, and thus there was a perceived need to tune up instruments to a level of “brightness” that could fill the space adequately. In turn, luthiers developed new ways to make stronger strings that could bear the increased tension.

What is indisputable, however, is that the pitch assigned to that A above middle C was once lower than it is now. Giuseppe Verdi in 1884 petitioned the Italian government to standardize A at 435 Hz like the French, or even lower, to A432. A tuning fork that had been used by Mozart sounds at A421.6. Handel’s tuning fork sounded at A422.5. It was not just Nazis, but international bodies that decreed in 1939 and again in 1955 to set A=440 Hz as the standard concert pitch. (Why this matter needed to be standardized around the world is not entirely clear to me. There is even a clause setting a standard pitch in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, Article 282 .22!) In any event, even these efforts at standardization have failed:

Virtually all commercially produced contemporary music is tuned to A = 440 Hz. Nevertheless, most symphony orchestras ignore the standard and tune to 441, 442 or 443 Hz instead, while orchestras specializing in older music may sometimes tune in a tuning close to the one for which the piece was originally written, which may range from 415 Hz to 470 Hz.

But that has not solved the problems created by pitch inflation, especially for singers, who are finding that the standard repertoire is moving out of their ranges. In his article “Pitch Battles,” Colin Dickey explains:

In 1988, more than a dozen of opera’s greatest superstars—including Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, and Birgit Nilsson—added their names to a petition before the Italian government, asking it to lower the standard pitch at which all orchestras are tuned. … The petition asked the government to lower this to 432 Hz, claiming that “the continual raising of pitch for orchestras provokes serious damage to singers, who are forced to adapt to different tunings from one concert hall or opera to the next,” and that “the high standard pitch is one of the main reasons for the crisis in singing, that has given rise to ‘hybrid’ voices unable to perform the repertoire assigned to them.” The petition ended with a demand that “the Ministries of Education, Arts and Culture, and Entertainment accept and adopt the normal standard pitch of A=432 for all music institutions and opera houses, such that it becomes the official Italian standard pitch, and, very soon, the official standard pitch universally.”

Given that this higher standard for A above middle C is problematic for singers and even for brass instrumentalists (some of whom trim the pipes of their horns to achieve the higher pitches), and given that some studies suggest that listeners prefer A432 to A440 , why does the standard remain the higher pitch?

Maria Renold conducted many experiments, testing the different response of listeners to her tuning system both in 440 Hz standard pitch and 432 Hz.

“[She] found that of 2000 people tested over 20 years, over 90% consistently preferred the lower pitch. The notes were given in different order, on different instruments, with various means to avoid prejudicing the listener. The wide variety of comments all went in the similar direction of calling the higher pitch more “irritating, unpleasant, aggressive, making one stressful and nervous”. The lower one, on the other hand, sounded “right, complete, pleasant, radiant, peaceful, harmonious, heartfelt but leaving one free.”

And, for that matter, why so much mystical hooey out there about a simple matter of engineering? The more I look at pitch inflation and the obfuscations around it, the more it seems like a 9/11 discussion of how the Twin Towers were taken down! With this much intentional misinformation afoot, it feels like something is in fact being hidden in plain sight. But what?


Finally, we turn to the titular subject of this installment. It was through Carl Honoré’s book In Praise of Slowness that I first learned about the “Tempo Giusto” movement. Musicians are coming to recognize that the pace at which classical music is typically played nowadays is actually much faster than the composers intended.

There is certainly evidence that we play some music faster than before. In a letter dated October 26, 1876 , Liszt wrote that he took “presque une heure” to play the Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata op. 106. Fifty years later, Arthur Schnabel needed just forty minutes. Today some pianists rattle through the same notes in thirty-five minutes. Early composers scolded musicians for succumbing to the virus of hurry. … A distrust of accelerated tempo carried into the twentieth century. Mahler is said to have told budding conductors —to slow down, rather than speed up, if they felt the audience was growing bored.(pp. 233-234—emphasis added)

For some nice examples of what a slower tempo can accomplish, search YouTube for performances by Uwe Kliemt.

Before the development of the metronome, composers might indicate their desired pace by marking time with the swing of a pendulum of certain length. (A ten-inch pendulum will have the same period regardless of the mass of the weight attached.) In those early days of pendulum-marking, the evidence points to the idea that the counting corresponded to one full swing of the pendulum: from the left to the right and back again was one unit.

Here’s the catch: when the metronome (essentially a mechanical pendulum whose length could be varied at will) was invented in 1815, some composers seem to have marked their tempo as they would have for the pendulum they used previously—one beat equals one full swing (left-right-left again) of the metronome. Others marked their times to correspond to each tick and tock of the machine. The second way of marking tempo is twice as fast as the first. Which method should one apply in interpreting a metronome marking on a piece?

In a certain sense, then, the metronome markings on classical scores are useless. And in any case, a sense of musicality should dictate the tempo. For a given piece, that sense must be informed by many considerations, such as Honoré details (235): “the mood of the musician, the type of instrument, the nature of the occasion, the character of the audience, the venue, the acoustics, the time of day, even the room temperature.”

Tempo inflation over the centuries probably followed pitch inflation. A bigger auditorium requires a bigger sound to fill it, and nothing does that better than the overlapping echoes of chord upon chord in rapid succession. The end result of the process is a pianist like Lang Lang, who hacks away at the ivories like a chef at Benihana. Such virtuosity can be breathtaking and yet lack the musicality that reaches into the soul. Back in my prime as a piano student, my thick peasant fingers could pound away with the best of them, for a Rachmaninoff “Prelude” or Bartok’s “Allegro Barbaro.” I even played Chopin’s “Fantasie Impromptu” flawlessly … just once. But I still count my proudest moment as that performance culminating in the almost inaudible final note in Schoenberg’s sixth little piece, which was written as an elegiac tribute to his recently deceased friend and mentor, Gustav Mahler. To hit that note just so, in its full context, is to convey the depths of a man’s inconsolable grief.

Da Capo al Fine

Something is amiss with music. Maybe not the music that you choose for yourself for listening or playing. But with regard to the music that surrounds us passively as we shop or dine or swim or wait in line or watch TV, there are a bunch of issues.

To recap, this music is:

• selected for its high signal-to-noise ratio in electronic transmissions (to the exclusion of a great deal of other music)
• largely restricted to a single tonality or two (out of the large number of possible tonalities)
• produced with a temperament in which the notes of the tonality can never quite harmonize with one another
• pitched at a tuning that is relatively high, and not well within the range of even trained voices
• performed at a tempo that is consistently on the faster end of the spectrum

If you compare these features to the list of earworm characteristics in the previous installment, my conclusion writes itself: music is getting more earwormy. These features are innately true of any kind of popular music composed in the last century. And like a time-traveling parasite of science fiction, this infestation of shrill, rushed, distempered, monotonous performance—this otohelminthiasis—is reaching back into the classical and baroque eras as well—at least in terms of how we experience that music today in recordings or live performances.

And, again, I would add that these points have no reference to lyrics or their meaning. These are simple observations about music as a whole. Music in Western society over the last century has become more and more like television—in equal measures both boring and over-stimulating at the same time. Stultifying and yet provoking restiveness, addictive and yet unsatisfying. Just what Jerry Mander says TV has become.

The remaining question is: is this trend in music intentional on the part of anyone or anything?

While we ponder that question, and until the next installment, let me leave you with an example of what you might be missing. I first encountered this performance a few years back while listening to one of the holiday episodes of the obscure radio show Hearts of Space. I don’t know Russian, so the only word I recognize is the opening “Alleluia.” But here is an instance of structured sound that—despite its transmission via your ISP and through your crummy computer speakers—still stands out from mainstream music today: in tonality, tempo, tuning, and temperament. Enjoy!

And Happy New Year to all at Piece of Mindful!


60 thoughts on “Otohelminthiasis—Part 2: Not Quite My Tempo …

  1. Another great post, Maarten. There’s something you described as an arbitrary choice while considering the issue of tuning – measuring of frequency by using Hertz, a unit of one cycle per second. I may have understood you wrong, though. Sound is a physical phenomenon and we as people have agreed to describe its properties based on observations and measurements. These measurements usually relate to the research about sounds, such as for instance the rate of repetition of a periodic motion, dubbed as the frequency, with Hertz (Hz) as its unit. Hertz is the SI unit meaning times / cycles per second. As each part of a wave traverses at a constant velocity and, at each fixed point in space, the vibratory motion repeats at a constant rate, we see that one period of the motion is always exactly duplicated in a certain interval of space that depends only on the speed of the wave motion and the frequency of the wave we drive through the medium. Now, regardless of how we measure and name one unit of time in our observations, the sound will change only if we change its observed parameters used for measuring it, which is time in our case. The second is therefore arbitrary in usage with “Hz” only as our human “invention” to measure a specific time difference, while the frequency of sound is nothing to argue about.


    1. a second is defined as 1 day / 24 hours / 60 minutes / 60 seconds. One day is the time the Earth needs to rotate itself one time. It is no coincidence that a 1m long pendulum needs one second for one (half) swing. The mass of the pendulum doesn’t matter there. It is also no coincidence that we divide the day in 24 hours and every hour in 60 parts and so on. This was already known in the ancient times. Sumerians knew that too. All SI units are based on laws of nature. Those laws relate to the mass and size of the earth and the distance to the Sun, etc. Our senses developed to mirror this laws. that’s why it is best to measure the frequency of sound in changes per second. It is all connected together. Unfortunately they don’t teach that anymore. Instead they mislead us on purpose for instance defining 1m in relation to the speed of light now which IMO does not even exist. It is very simple to understand that 1m is the length of the pendulum, which needs 1 second for a half swing. It makes no sense to define it as the distance light goes in 1/299792458 part of a second in a vacuum.


      1. How is the division of the day into 24 hours not a matter of convention/convenience rather than a constraint of nature?

        What would be wrong with a base-10 measurement of time? The Chinese divided the day into 100 ke. What’s stopping us? But then, of course, the length of one tick of a clock is different from the Sumerian second (which was not determinedby pendulums or meters, by the bye).


        1. Maarten, there are two different perspectives on measurement: there is is the scientific one, where you explain relations in the universe. There, using a meter, a second, a kg and 24 hours day, etc. helps explaining the laws of nature, where all those values are connected to each other. The one second pendulum can be defined as a pendulum with the length of 39,4 inches but using one meter there makes more sense. Also it is common and helpful to use values on “1”, as in the unit circle to calculate with 2pi instead of 360°. this won’t work if you will change the 360° into something else. And using the 24 hours/day is also somehow encoded in it. The other perspective is the technical one, where it only matters how exact you reproduce the unit of measurement. There it doesn’t matter if you’re using a meter or an inch, if you measure the time in clicks or seconds, etc. Time is a periodic value by the way, that’s why we use the same unit for time as for angle measurement in geometry. Digital watches give as the illusion, the time were a linear value similar to length and can go forever infinitesimally. That is not true.


  2. Gresham’s law applied to musical instruments instead of currencies. That is why the lute is not mainstream and it shouldn’t be. Lute musical pieces are popular… if you are a Classical Music fan. Super famous giant of guitar music Julian Bream has many recordings for lute.


  3. Thanks, Maarten. Just like I feel a little smarter after reading a Mathis science paper, but only understanding it in spurts, I feel a bit more cultured after reading these installments.
    I can only imagine how my teenage self would have responded when told that in four decades he would no longer watch TV or listen to Rock music. The song you provided made me a bit misty eyed, perhaps mourning my wasted youth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kevin, then you would most certainly appreciate this modern piece by Loreena McKennitt, in which she incorporated the “Alleluia” piece into her masterpiece, Dante’s Prayer. I cannot describe the long-subdued feelings that surfaced when I first heard this, and that still do to this very day…I am still brought to tears whenever I hear this song. I was working night shift at the Post Office, bearing the day-to-day monotony of typing zipcodes on a keyboard as the pieces of mail flew by at a rate of 1 every second, when I heard Loreena’s music for the first time on the radio (which the USPS most graciously allowed us to listen to while glued to the keyboard). I bought the CD the very next day, and shared it with my coworkers. Funny how the most ardent admirer of her CD was a biker dude; I still cannot fully describe the reaction I saw on his face when he first heard McKennitt’s music, especially Dante’s Prayer. He was mesmerized–same as I was–asking “what is she saying?”, as he wrote down her name and title of the CD, and thanking me several times afterward for sharing something so beautiful and sublime. Enjoy! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUHvj1cxOs0

      Liked by 1 person

      1. +Carri: I know Loreena’s music well and saw her live in concert in San Francisco in the 90s. I hope to see her again one day. I found her music and lyrics incredibly powerful and hearing it live in concert was very moving and sent me in a semi-trance, ecstatic kind of state. Thanks for sharing your personal story and the link. I am trying to remember when I first heard her music and it may have been at a hair salon and I perked up and asked “who is that?” You will never hear me ask that question when assaulted with modern day pop “music” that makes me want to scream and go hide in a cave. I may ask “who is that” only to be fore-armed so I will know to stop, drop, and cover my ears. There is a war going on for our soul and our sanity. Pity our young generations.


      2. Carrie, I delayed reading this wonderful series by Maarten because I am not that familiar with much of anything that isn’t country music….grew up on it and didn’t listen much else. Thanks so much for linking this beautiful song by Loreena McKennitt….it brought tears to my eyes. It also reminded me of an album from the late 70’s that I discovered while going though a divorce. Karla Bonoff…found this link to a song I listened to many times. “Lose Again”


  4. Your pinky is still hitting that key, ever so softly.

    A few years back as a birthday gift I bought symphony tickets to several performances for my wife, who has always enjoyed classical music. I thought it a better gift if I went with her, not being a total moron. The first performance that year was Beethoven 9, but it was not until the fourth movement that I awakened and realized that I was hearing really inspired music by really talented musicians.

    Now to learn that it was not played like that when originally performed … fascinating.

    Anyway, my attention gained, I began to wander and developed an ear for the pieces that it seems are more appealing to the modern ear, Mozart 21, Rach 2, Pilgrim’s Chorus and Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, Vivaldi and Carmina Burana O Fortuna. I love the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and recommend Fantasia for a popcorn evening … and even back when classical music had no appeal I always loved Pachibel’s Canon. That would have been enough for the ordinary person, which I am, to listen to Halleluhia Chorus but not sit through the entire two days of music involved there or wonder what it sounded like or meant back when performed in its own era.

    So I closed my eyes and listened on my computer speakers to Behold the Bridegroom at the end of your piece. Good lord, how moving and relaxing at once. I listened at a time when I am experiencing some mental strife, as we all do living our lives, and found it peaceful and soothing.

    Anyway, thank you. What good writing.


    1. Thank you, Mark. For me, the moment of tender heartbreak in the song above is at the 3:28 mark, when the soprano finds that soaring line, staying up there for the rest of the piece.

      Your remarks reminded me of something from my high school days. My dad came home from work one evening in deep consternation. He was getting pressured in strange ways by the higher-ups, and it was the beginning of the process that would cause him to lose his job in his early fifties. Anyway, that night when his heart was so troubled, I pretended that I didn’t have any homework and just wanted to listen to records on my dad’s old hi-fi. (This was the kind that was a whole piece of furniture: no kid today can imagine a playback device of that magnitude.). I played album after album of classical music, picking pieces I thought would be soothing. This I did until my bedtime. When I said goodnight to my parents, my father thanked me for the music that brought him some relief from his troubles.

      Good music has great power. Hence this set of articles to shine some light on the sonic bars of our societal prison.

      For readers who are curious about the otherwordly atmosphere of Schoenberg’s Opus 19, I combed through several YouTubes. Here’s a great performance. Tempo is just right, down to the composers’s mandated breaks between the pieces:


      1. Just listened to it again, and noticed what you said above at 3:28 where the female voice arrives. Man that is beautiful.

        Wondering what you think about Bose … at the gym I go to the music can be tortuous, so I slap on an old pair. Another guy there who was in the music business in LA, very interesting to talk to as he knows lots of stuff, saw my Bose and said “Ah yes, no highs, no lows, Bose.” I wondered how untrained my ears are, but am for sure going to listen to Bridegroom on them.

        The other piece above, Op 19, seems to require a trained ear … it seems un-melodic, but I notice that people really schooled in music seem to eschew melody for other elements. It must be a lifetime of immersion that makes you guys (and girls) hone in on things that we more light observers do not notice.


          1. I agree with you both–it made my “innards” hurt, and I couldn’t listen to if for more than 45 seconds! Discordant is the only word that came to mind! Is that piece the equivalent to “modern art”? Miles Mathis would have something to say about him, I’m quite sure. This is from Wikipedia: “He was associated with the expressionist movement in German poetry and art, and leader of the Second Viennese School. With the rise of the Nazi Party, Schoenberg’s works were labelled degenerate music, because they were modernist, atonal and what even Paul Hindemith called “sonic orgies” and “decadent intellectual efforts” (Petropoulos 2014, 94–95). He emigrated to the United States of America in 1934.” Yup, looks like another “project”.


        1. One of my college profs, a specialist in audio design, used to show us how badly Bose speakers were designed. That was back when they had a five sided cabinet, which created all sorts of interference patterns from the peaks and troughs of the waveforms canceling or adding together due to the angles of the drivers.

          Like so many things, you can put the effort into the product, or into the advertising and marketing.


  5. I’m going to have to read this every day for a week or two to even begin to take it in. Thank you. A couple of questions: firstly, where does this leave the idea of perfect pitch? Secondly, is one reason for the popularity of the ukulele that its notes are so vague, and so not accurately playing equal temperament? I’ve just tuned mine down sonething like a half-tone: does it matter exactly how much?

    And a clause in the Treaty of Versailles! What a glorious piece of information.


  6. Hi Richard! Good question about absolute pitch. I don’t have it, so I cannot answer from personal knowledge. But I read on the Web that a perfect-pitch possessor who is used to A440 can adjust after a day or so to A415. So absolute pitch is actually relative pitch! Unless there are people out there unknown to us who can name a pitch in Hertz. That would be absolute pitch.

    Keyboard instruments are the only ones with the equal temperament issue. On a stringed instrument, the musician’s finger have infinite control to adjust the pitch according to whatever tempering is desired. Like for a wind instrument: there are ways to shade a tone up or down as desired.

    Glad to see someone else finds the Treaty of Versailles mention interesting. After the Years of trench warfare, chemical weapons, horrors by land, sea, and air … they’re worried about a standard for concert pitches? Unless …

    But I anticipate myself.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Excellent, thought provoking piece that connects a lot of dots. Thanks for the time and effort you’ve put into this and the whole series.

    You could even add in the harmonic distortion caused by solid state electronics and digitization as another element.

    I too was amused by the Treaty of Versailles nugget. It never stops.


  8. I was listening to “Alleluia, Behold the Bridegroom” as I transcripted Miles Mathis’ conclusion from a paper which now seems to be from a different era.

    “In the end, what one learns from the masters that is most important is that great artists are not just virtuosos or brilliant technicians. Nor, as we have had ample evidence in the 20th century, are they simply groundbreakers, visionaries, or ideamen. History teaches us that they must be both: masters of an expressive medium with ideas of a depth and expression worthy of expression.”

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Another treasure from MM mined from the depths of his voluminous writings. I cull such insightful MM quotes myself and share with family members. My eyes glaze over the genealogy as I strive to find such nuggets as you found and transcribed. Thank you for sharing this.


  9. Greetings: What a wonderful piece – “Alleluia – Behold the Bridegroom”! I used to listen to Hearts of Space (“safe journey, Space fans, wherever you are”) religiously on a northern PBS station; have not heard it in years. Thanks, too, for your thought provoking piece. I’ve often wondered why today’s “music” seems to set my teeth on edge. Now I have an idea. Am looking forward to your next installment.


    1. Hey, Deb! Another fan of “Slow Music for Fast Times.” I listen to the show on their app (for iOS only, though, I think.) Allows you to play each week’s “transmission” whenever you want, in that week. I am too cheap to pay for access to the archives.

      I first found HoS while driving late one night through the mountains of Tennessee several years ago. Terrible reception, but there was something about those gentle waves of sound that kept me glued to the NPR station out of Chattanooga. I found the app afterwards. I don’t care for every episode, but it’s a wonderful alternative to the nerve-grating stuff out there otherwise.


      1. Greetings, Maarten and thank you for the info. I discovered most of the music HoS played seemed to put me into a creative state of mind and soothed the disharmony in my soul. While I, too, am too cheap to pay for access to their archives, I’ve found some of their music on YouTube (as well as some other very nice ambient music). Classical music does the same thing for me – especially chamber music – strings, primarily. Also great for meditating to.


  10. Perhaps you can appreciate this Maarten. We were watching a 1961 I’ve Got A Secret show tonight, and the first contestant was a young man who had just won the world accordion competition. The panel guessed his secret, and he then treated the audience to two classical pieces. He was very agile with his fingers and fast, even brilliant, and when he was done I told my wife “That’s pretty good, but it is still a fucking accordion.”

    But it gets worse … during the competition he was in a place where there were 15,000 accordionists.


      1. Greetings: I don’t understand the animosity against accordions. Is there a joke that I missed? (I confess to being somewhat dense at times, so there may have been something that passed me in both lanes.)


  11. I came across a blog comment awhile back and discovered an incredible inspiring piece of music and a composer heretofore unknown to me; so, in a hopeful attempt to add another example of stunningly beautiful music so rare in our corrupted world, I share below. I was so moved that I archived the comment and link and shared it with family and friends (and even copied MM on the email), with the thought that the comment and music it referenced deserved a wider reception. I added that if anyone was feeling down, they might dim the lights, get comfortable and sit in stillness and enjoy the music. I felt that the listener would emerge inspired, uplifted and feeling measurably better. I remembered this after happily and gratefully being introduced to “Alleluia, Behold the Bridegroom” by the sage and wise Maarten.

    Equally inspiring to the music was the composer’s description of his muses and the creative process. I had sadly never heard of the composer so I am grateful to have come across the random blog comment:

    “Regarding the composition of which the provided link is an excerpt, the composer (Arvo Part) said:

    The liturgical text of the Te Deum consists of immutable truths. I am reminded of the sense of immeasurable serenity imparted by a mountain panorama. Swiss artist Martin Ruf once told me that he can distinguish over 20 shades of blue in the mountains when the air is clear. His words immediately turned into sound; I began to “hear” those “blue” mountains. I wished only to convey a mood, a mood that could be infinite in time, by delicately removing one piece, one particle of time, out of the flow of infinity. I had to draw this music gently out of silence and emptiness. The work Te Deum was a quest for something evanescent, something long lost or not yet found, the quest for something believed to be non-existent, but so real that it exists not only within us but beyond our being as well.”

    How beautiful and inspiring! Such words and feeling are a display of rare artistry and genius and I can’t find any such lofty attributes among the manufactured “artists” pushed on us by the disgusting pieces of human vermin that give us the sh*t that is modern music, designed to confuse the brain, cause inner turmoil, anxiety, nervousness, and discord.

    And so I offer the work of Estonian born composer Arvo Part, an artist I never heard of before until coming across that random blog comment somewhere.


      1. Lawrence: and my memory is terrible. I, too, posted about Arvo Part in response to Jesse back then and I didn’t even remember! Ouch! But actually it wasn’t from Jesse that I discovered Arvo; it was somewhere else but no matter. I was spellbound by Arvo’s description of the creative process and how ethereal it can be.


  12. I entered a store today and was subsequently infected with an earworm. Spent the remainder of the day, whenever there was a pause in the action, singing out loud “And he traded in his Chevy for a Cadillac-ac-ac-ac-ac-ac.”


    1. The above comment was a “transgender” reference from an entirely different post. I think cryptic about sums that up. My apologies.

      But Maarten here is the earworm I crave most these days. Was just wondering if you were aware of 4’33”, a 1952 composition by John Cage.

      *It was composed in 1952, for any instrument or combination of instruments, and the score instructs the performer(s) not to play their instrument(s) during the entire duration of the piece throughout the three movements. The piece consists of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed, although it is commonly perceived as “four minutes thirty-three seconds of silence”. *


      1. John Cage was a freak show who had to be a spook. He was honored on PBS a year or two ago, where they performed one of his “compositions” that had kitchen appliances and bathtubs, and was a big bunch of nothing.


      2. You know, I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed real silence (or it’s soul-nourishing equivalent, the absence of any manmade noise). Probably on my trip up to Isle Royale.

        I agree, IB, that John Cage was a freak show and was clearly promoted to fame above the level of his talents. But I would be slow to award him “spook” status. Along with useful idiots, there are plenty of useful oddballs all around us. Even so, I enjoy at least one of his pieces for the prepared piano (pethaps, like the Schoenberg Opus 19, because I have played it myself):


        1. Can’t say it does much for me, but I understand if you’ve played it. I guess it was an attempt to do with music what Duchamp and his ilk did with art. But it just doesn’t work as well with music, maybe because you can stomach a quick glance at vomit on canvas in order to be part of the “in crowd,” but not sit through an hour of sonic debris.

          It did somehow trigger the memory of a jazz pianist I used to enjoy, and hadn’t thought of in years, Joachim Kühn. So I went back and pulled up some of his work. Thanks for that!


  13. I’ve been casually exploring classical music, but I need some guidance. Maarten, please help. Do you have any (CD) suggestions for a novice? Thanks.


    1. I’ve retired the Kevin Starr persona. But I have not retired. See you guys on the other side. Until then, as Ringo (Starr) likes to say “peace and love.”


          1. Ok, trying to catch up here….what happened on 3/3?….I see your comment was made on 3/3….were you just having some fun by adding “Hand in my Pocket” I’m an old timer and not familiar with Alanis Morissette.


          2. I think this was the second time that I quit the comment section in disgust. I mention 3/3 because…well…Freemasons and all that. I say it was a hoax because…well…here I am. Not a good joke if you have to explain it though.


  14. Maarten, I have avoided reading these wonderful articles because I was raised on “country” music. My dad loved to sing and pay guitar with a group of friends. In addition, I still have favorites from the 60’s era, but know little to nothing about current fads or current musical favorites that my grandchildren might listen to. I have also grown to hate a lot of the “new” country…especially what I consider “country rap”. I plan to take the time to carefully read each of your articles. I would like to grasp some of the finer points that you write about.

    I bring this up because I have recently heard a piece of music that I find really beautiful….gives me chills.

    I am watching the HBO series “Big Little Lies” and I looked forward to hearing the opening song that is played at the beginning of each episode. Today, I had to check and see who sang it. The song is called “Cold Little Heart” the musician/singer is Michael Kiwanuka. Here is what I found on wiki

    Below is a link to the song being played during a live music session it is almost 12 minutes long and the singing doesn’t start until around the 6:30 minute mark. All I know is I like it and think it is something special to hear these days. Any feedback appreciated.


    1. forgot to follow comments….also adding the link to the original video…..over 23 million views….so, at least, I’m not the only person that finds it compelling


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