Monday, April 28, 2014

Noteworthy Instruments: the Banjolele

For a long stretch last year, part of my work was cataloging sheet music from the early 20th century. On many pieces from that time period, I saw a curious note—that the music could be played on a "banjulele banjo. " I wasn't sure what that instrument was, and assumed it was extinct. But lo and behold, while I was at the musical Assassins, one of the characters whipped one out and started strumming.

The banjolele (a.k.a the banjulele banjo, or the banjo uke) was invented in 1917 by Alvin D. Keech. It features ukulele strings on a miniature-sized banjo frame. The instrument became very popular with vaudeville performers, because it was small like a ukulele, but had more volume. The instrument reached the peak of its popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, and was popular enough, obviously, that it showed up on sheet music (though I never saw music with banjo-uke tabs, just chord symbols). And it turns out that the instrument has not gone away. There are lots of people out there still strumming away on their banjoleles.

Here's a demonstration of someone playing a banjolele:

If you are really hardcore, you might also check out this banjolele cover of 50 Cent's "In Da Club".

Probably the most famous champion of the banjolele was Beatle George Harrison. You can see a video of him playing one here. Harrison used to give away ukulele and banjoleles, and often had two on his person at all times—so he could play with someone else. At
Paul McCartney's concerts, Paul often plays George's songs on the ukulele as a tribute.

Vocab: strings, banjo, cove

Monday, April 21, 2014

Sondheim’s Assassins: Songs for Villains

The singing villain

We all know that in musicals, villains can sing a song. Just look at this Buzzfeed listicle of the 12 Greatest Disney Villain Songs (1). The villains' song (they usually only get one) function as a window to their characters, a behind-the-curtain look into their psyche, and maybe a glimpse into their plans (2). These songs are also often scary and ominous (and in a minor key).

Another example of a villain's song is the stage version of Singin' in the Rain"What's Wrong with Me?", sung by Lina Lamont, the conniving silent film star with an unfortunate accent (3). But the song doesn't really work in the context of the play's action, because this particular song, a look into her soft interior thoughts, makes the audience relate to Lena. And Lena's role is the villain of the melodrama, the person we're supposed to hate.

If everyone is evil, then no one is evil

But what happens when all the characters are villains? Last week I saw Stephen Sondheim's Assassins. Almost all of the characters in Assassins are people who killed or tried to kill various Presidents of the United States (4). Why did Sondheim (and his librettist, John Weidman) turn this bizarre/violent collection of stories into a musical, a genre usually reserved for love stories and comedies? I think Sondheim and Weidman are taking these characters, all villains, and trying to make the audience relate to them, to understand them. And making the characters sing helps us step into their skin (5). As we saw with Lena Lamont, a song is a great tool to portray a character's innermost thoughts.

One of my favorite songs in Assassins is "The Gun Song," which features a lively barbershop quartet sandwiched in between some minor-mode inner thoughts. What happens when we hear a barbershop quartet about gun violence? Well, we start to feel a dramatic tension between the happy music and the horrible things the characters are singing about. And I think we also start paying more attention to the arguments the singers are making. And this uncomfortable/sympathetic feeling is exactly what I think Assassins is all about.

(warning: some strong language)

Vocab: minor, mode

(1) Though not all of these are sung by the villains.
(2) Songs in musicals and operas often are about a characters inner feelings, and hardly ever about plot.
(3) If you're wondering why you've never heard this song, it is not in the original movie.
(4) It’s actually hard to talk about the music in Assassins, because this play has so many other interesting things worth talking about. But, one cool factoid about the music is that each assassin's song is inspired by the style of popular music at the time they were living.
(5) The same thing happens in Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Music sounds better when you hear it again

Maybe Andy had it right. From Flikr, via the MOMA.

Hear it again

I have written about repetition of lyrics in music, but what about repetition of the music itself? Well, recently Elizabeth Hellmoth Margulis wrote about musical repetition in her book How Music Plays the Mind (2013). I haven't read the book yet, but I did read this article in Aeon Magazine in which she discusses some of her main points (you can also see a digest version on

To bring out a few of those points: it turns out that we like music more when we hear it multiple times. For example, Margulis took music by Luciano Berio, a famous 20th-century composer known for writing complex music that does not repeat, and added some repeats (you can hear some snippets in the NPR article). Then, she played these for other musicians, not telling them which was the original, and asked which version was more compelling. It turns out that the doctored versions beat out the original. Says Margulis, in explaining her results:

"The psychologist Carlos Pereira and his colleagues at the University of Helsinki demonstrated that our brains show more activity in their emotional regions when the music we are listening to is familiar, regardless of whether or not we actually like it."
Our brain is wired to want to hear music again, and like it more on the repeat. Even when we aren't listening to anything, our brain may play us back 30-second snippets of catchy music, called "earworms". And our behavior reflects this disposition—David Huron, a musicologist at Ohio State University, estimates that as much as 90 percent of the music we hear is something we've heard before.

This all makes sense to me. I know I will often like a song more just because I have listened to it before. Also, I've had the experience of rehearsing a 20th-century atonal piece of music over and over again, and getting those "melodies" stuck in my head, melodies that almost no one would leave a concert whistling after just attending one performance. But this is how composers hear their music when they are composing: over and over again. Perhaps some composers did not take into account how their music would sound hearing it the first time. And perhaps this is why the minimalist music movement in the generation after Berio rebelled and wrote music that repeated a lot.

Sound becomes music

Margulis also says that the more we hear sounds again, the more they sound like music to us. From her Aeon Magazine article:

"Ask an indulgent friend to pick a word – lollipop, for example – and keep saying it to you for a couple minutes. You will gradually experience a curious detachment between the sounds and their meaning. This is the semantic satiation effect, documented more than 100 years ago. As the word’s meaning becomes less and less accessible, aspects of the sound become oddly salient – idiosyncrasies of pronunciation, the repetition of the letter l, the abrupt end of the last syllable, for example. The simple act of repetition makes a new way of listening possible, a more direct confrontation with the sensory attributes of the word itself."
In other words, with repetition the word becomes a kind of abstract musical snippet.

Now, something that Margulis does not discuss is the over-repetition in music and how that can lead to dislike. Maybe she gets to that in her book.

What do you think about Margulis's article?

Vocab: melody, composer, musicologist, earworm, atonal

P.S. Thanks to Will Owen for bringing my attention to this article!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Copyright question: How do I copyright my music?

The "poor man's copyright"? From Flikr.

Copyright law is somewhat murky, and some of you may have wondered: if I write (or arrange) my own music how do I copyright it? Before I try to demystify this, I should start with a disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer.

Okay, with the disclaimer taken care of, let me tell a story: when I was in high school, I was (unnecessarily) worried about people stealing my creative work. I heard somewhere that to protect yourself, you should seal your music in an envelope, mail a copy of the music to yourself, and never open the letter. And I did this a few times. Well, it turns out that this method of copyright protection is folkloric, and really unnecessary. It wouldn’t make a difference in music copyright litigation (though patents might be different).

So what do you need to do, under current copyright law? Well, not much. You don't even need to put a copyright symbol and year on your work, and you don't need to register. Unless of course, you want to sue people, in which case you do need to register. And you aren't going to sue people unless they are making substantial money from your creative work.

If you do decide to register, it's not too difficult (I hear, as I haven't done it myself). You can register a single author for $35 online on the US Copyright Office website. The copyright office doesn't do much verification; if there's a problem, it will be sorted out with litigation. In other words, act now and ask questions later. For more, see "Taking the Mystery Out of Copyright" from the Library of Congress. Why is the Library of Congress doing education about copyright?  Well, it's more than just than that a librarian's job seems to entail explaining copyright to the public—the Copyright Office is actually a part of the Library of Congress.

One final thought: some things you just can't copyright—you can’t copyright ideas, for example. But you can copyright the way that idea is expressed. What about the murky space in between? Well, again, that's what litigation is for.

Have any of you tried to register something with the US Copyright Office?