Thursday, July 16, 2015

Word(less) Music

(Unlike most of my blog posts, this one isn’t a review of a concert or an album.)

I'm assuming that other people have experienced the weird psycho-musical phenomenon that I'm about to relate, and that there's a name for it. It's probably somehow related either to synesthesia, mondegreens, having a “song stuck in your head”, or some combination.

Here’s the set up. I must have been nine or ten years old. The radio was on at home, to a classical station. Dohnanyi’s “Variations on a Nursery Tune” came on. At some point, I began singing along with the words. “…Under the apple tree, under the apple tree…”

“What do those words have to do with ‘Variations on a Nursery Tune’?” asked my mom, quizzically.

I answered, “I don’t know, but that’s the words.” I thought to myself, why would the words relate to the title if the composer didn’t want them to? (Or, why would they have to relate to “Twinkle twinkle little star”, the nursery tune on which the piece was based?) I don’t remember her response, but when I listened more closely, I realized that that, of course, this was an instrumental piece, for piano and orchestra. There was no singing. So where had the words come from?

A couple of years later, I had forgotten all about it, and it happened again. I was at a symphony pops concert with some family friends. The orchestra was playing “On the Beautiful Blue Danube”. I don’t think I’d actually heard the second theme before then, because when it started (after the more famous part), I nearly folded over with hysterical laughter. All I could do was gasp between spasmodic giggles. The words were so ridiculous! …But nobody else seemed to think that the crazy rhyme was as funny as I did.

It turns out again, of course, that there isn’t any rhyme – but I clearly heard, “lumpkin pumpkin pie / it’s a lumpkin pumpkin pie / yes a lumpkin pumpkin pie / and it’s lumpy all over / all the way up high”. There was no way for me not to notice it – those words were (and are) as intrinsic to the music as its instrumentation, tempo, and rhythm. If I listened carefully, concentrating on the instruments, I could try to ignore them; but even so the rhyme buzzes away in the background.

Once, another (even loopier) version of the same suddenly appeared. The Danube happened to come on a classical radio station, and suddenly: “lumpf gallumpf galai / it’s a lumpf gallumpf galai / yes a lumpf gallumpf galai / and it’s flopping all over / really makes me cry.” In the half-second that followed, I mumbled, “huh!?”, blurted out “They changed the words!”, then, “What the @&!! is a lumpf gallai!?”, and finally, was glad that there was nobody else at home to hear me. Now, when I hear the piece, I wait to see which version it’s going to be... There hasn’t been a third one.

(Anyone who’s wondering about “hearing voices” at this point needn’t. I don’t actually hear anyone singing the words – the words are merely there, as part of the music, in the same way that the notes are there.)

There are a small number of purely instrumental pieces where my brain stubbornly insists that there are words – these “lyrics” are usually nonsense, as the above examples, and I hear them as plainly as the instrumental parts (or even more so). I don’t notice that they actually aren’t there until I think about it. The finale of the Nielsen Third has “high above the hill…” (why “above” rather than “upon” is one of those mysteries that goes with this phenomenon); Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” contains a descending scale that sings “selus unta crobita”, pure nonsense that sounds like it might mean something in Latin but probably doesn’t. And speaking of foreign languages, here’s the strangest part: this involuntary mental trick isn’t limited to the sounds or combinations of sounds that can occur in English (obviously, my native language). There’s part of Harry Partch’s “Castor and Pollux” where a plucked string clearly sings out “nyairf-nyoi”, with the Y’s as a consonants as they might occur in Russian. When I first heard this piece, I was unaware that this combination of consonants was possible (it never occurs in English at the beginning of a word, and I was twelve or thirteen years old and didn’t know any foreign languages or anything about linguistics) – but I clearly heard it and struggled to write it down or explain it to others. (Of course this Partch example might just be an extreme case of onomatopoeia. But then again, I’d always pronounced “thirteen” and “fourteen” with a "foreign" sound that doesn't exist in English either, the Japanese double T. It made it easier for me to learn Japanese pronunciation later…!)

This bizarre mental gymnastics seems to be limited to orchestral music – and Harry Partch – I’ve never noticed it in chamber music or jazz or other types of instrumentals. Of course it doesn’t happen in rock or rap or pop because those already have words.

So what of it? Is this something that only happens to me? Has anyone else had this experience? Is there a name for it? Comments and commentary are welcome, as are suggestions that I seek professional help.

As the bumper sticker proclaims: You’re just jealous because the voices talk to me.

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