Coded gray.

Tuesday 19 December 2000

Me playing organ

Pic of the day: Yes, here you see me playing with my organ. It's been a while, as you can see from all the dust. I played a lot more when I was younger.

All the good music

"Why should the Devil have all the good music?" asked William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. Or so I've heard. Actually, according to medieval theology there was a good reason why the Devil should have all the good music. But let's start with the point where this topic just barely touches real life. Let's start as day is breaking.

Despite having the day off, I woke to the clock radio as usual. The clock radio was playing a christmas song, or nearly so. It was the theme song from the play "Reisen til Julestjernen" (voyage to the Christmas star, though I think this is a purely Norwegian setup). Despite the sci-fi name, the play is a deeply symbolic description of a king that banishes the Star from his kingdom, and his daughter's struggle in the next generation to retrieve the Star. The melody is also hauntingly beautiful. I was getting goosebumps as my sleepy brain somehow realized the deeper meaning in the play.

Of course, there may be no deeper meaning. Perhaps I just thought so because I was half asleep and my prefrontal cortex got jiggled out of time. But it's still astounding how music can convey emotions and anchor memories, don't you think? What is it with the frequencies and the regularities that makes it for us human something more than sound, that makes it music?


Already the ancient Greeks were pondering this, and discovered the link between music and maths. For instance, two strings that are otherwise equal in every way, and where one is twice as long as the other, will sound a harmony that is almost as one. As you experiment with other proportions, like fourths and fifths, you'll clearly recognize the harmony of the fractions. Indeed, western music is largely based on these orderly proportions. The poor deluded Greeks also imagined that music was some kind of cosmic property, that the planets were singing and stuff. Still to this day some people strike on these grand ideas after smoking herbs their doctor did not prescribe. But strange it is, that our ears can do maths.

In the middle ages, there wasn't TV and computer games and Internet like today. People had to do something else with their time. Most became serfs, who worked all day and slept all night. A few became nobles and knights and such, to spend the riches that the serfs brought in. And some became monks and priests and such, to pray for both of the above, and that could certainly be needed. And often the monks could need to be prayed for too, for it wasn't all that easy to pray and read scriptures all the time when you were young and horny. Trust me on that. While natural science did not make all that great progress in those years, theology was quite advanced.

According to medieval theology, there was a lot to know about the Devil. Rarely has the Devil been given so much attention as in the middle ages. And succubi too, but that's another story. Anyway, theologians found references to the Devil in several places in the Bible which are not very obvious, among them Ezekiel 28:
(12) Son of man, take up a lamentation upon the king of Tyrus, and say unto him, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Thou sealest up the sum, full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty. (13) Thou hast been in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was thy covering, the sardius, topaz, and the diamond, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the emerald, and the carbuncle, and gold: the workmanship of thy tabrets and of thy pipes was prepared in thee in the day that thou wast created. (14) Thou art the anointed cherub that covereth; and I have set thee so: thou wast upon the holy mountain of God; thou hast walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire.

From the unhappy fate this character suffered later in the chapter, it was deduced that it had to be the Devil himself. And from the reference to tabrets (a kind of small drum, or possibly a cymbal) and pipes, it was concluded that the Devil was inherently musical. This was great news: It explained why people would go on to sin after dancing to music. After this many Christians have avoided drums of all kinds; but the pipes were generally kept. If you look in churches, there are organ pipes aplenty.


And the times changed, and new forms of music came and went. After the end of Gregorian song, music remained fairly mainstream in the western world, using the same scales and the same rhythms only in various combination. Only very lately has there been attempts at completely new kinds of music, and not with too much success so far.

So you'd expect that all the good melodies were taken already. I mean, it's been hundreds of years. If you string together a few dozen notes in such a way that they are in harmony all the way, that limits severely the combinations you can use. For many sequences are downright ugly to listen to, disharmonious and abrupt, clashing in our brain like a catfight in the early morning. You'd think the area must be trawled empty of good combinations. But no. Every few months there is a small tune that is new and beautiful. Don't ask me how they do it. I am sure if I composed a new melody (actually I do that quite often) then it would be used by someone else before. Just to remember all the good music would take more time than I could possibly devote to it. And then to compare a new piece of music to all of that ... I can't imagine how they do it.

Some years ago, when I was still fairly young, scientists announced that they had now programmed a computer to compose melodies. It was able to string together notes that were in harmony, and even to imitate the style of several famous composers. This was the last I ever heard of it, but around that time we got breakdance.


Now we've got MP3. There is a whole load of freee holiday music over at, and for the more Norwegically inclined there is still Freetrax (texted in English, but with lots of Norwegian music). Now if the heavy-bottomed record companies could please start to sell MP3 files cheap over the internet instead of crying in their fat hands over the existence of transferrable music, I'd be quite happy to buy a few tracks. I already have loads of music CDs that I don't play, or at least not every year.

But until the miracle happens, I'll hare over to the free legal MP3 sites for most of my musicking needs. After all, why should the big label record companies have all the good music?

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