Nitpicking in Pandora’s Box: Schroeder on Page 20, ‘I’ Tunes, and Julie Andrew’s Solfège

Schroeder on Page 20

Do you like to sing?

I do.

My singing voice is not great, but it’s serviceable enough for the local chorale. A few years back, we were working on Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Frankly, that tune is a bitch. Did you see page 20 in the picture? Absolutely no place to take a breath. Van Beethoven is also out of breath, but I imagine, somehow, he’s still chuckling in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof.

That noted, what I really want to talk about is the sound of music. In particular – “I” tunes – the mellifluous melodies that we hear when we hum to ourselves in our most private moments. Why is it that despite the fact that one is tone deaf, with no sense of rhythm, and the singing range of a doorbell, the song hummed always sounds to oneself spot on?

Of course, it’s not spot on. Not even close. Anyone who inadvertently overhears is likely to be deeply embarrassed for you. What’s going on is that you’re in a sing-a-long with your ever mindful homunculus (see Rumination 32). The correct tune is pitch perfect inside your head, while your voice box is warbling way off-key in accompaniment. Lucky for you, you don’t have to listen to the playback.

Nevertheless, regardless of how bad your singing voice is, dollars to doughnuts, you were weaned on Julie Andrew’s mnemonic device from The Sound of Music. She may not have helped you hit the correct notes, but she likely helped you to, at least, imagine hitting them. Recently, I took a closer look at her pithy little solfège in Pandora’s Box, and realized that Do-Re-Mi is not quite as simple as it appears. Let me share.

Do, a deer, a female deer
…sure, the kids learned the note, but what about the spelling lesson…and the tics?

Re, a drop of golden sun
…here kids,…a 5505° C dollop guaranteed to burn through your hand faster than The Alien’s spittle.

Mi, a name I call myself
…Me, I, myself? Whoa,…sign of some serious narcissism, or maybe a split personality disorder. Either way, by now, the kids probably have a very different moniker in mind.

Fa, a long long way to run
…Now, she’s on to teasing the poor little bastahds from Maine.

Sol, a needle pulling thread
…oh, nice one, Julie. The ‘L’ trick. So much for “a needew pooing thread.”

La, a note to follow Sol
…What?! How lame is that. Total cop out. She’s clearly running out of steam. At least, she finally got the spelling right.

Ti, a drink with jam and bread
…Oh? Now a little pick-me-up. Seems a bit…well, hoity-toity, but it’s better than a note to follow La.

That will bring us back to Do Oh Oh Oh
…Oh Oh Oh is right. Remember Bill Murray in Groundhog Day?

Anyway, having imprinted her doggerel into the unwitting minds of her young charges, Julie then ups the ante: “Now Children, do re mi fa sol and so on, are only the tools we use to build a song. Once you have these notes in your head you can sing a million different tunes by mixing them up.”

Mixing them up?! Yikes, hang tight to the deer, she’s going to throw the notes in a Yahtzee cup.

Sure enough, she does, and comes out singing in tongue:

Sol, Do, La, Fa, Mi, Do, Re, Sol, Do, La, Ti, Do, Re, Do…” until one of the kids shrieks, “But, it doesn’t mean anything!”

Julie is unmoved, almost derisive. “So…we put in words, one word for every note.”  Dummy.

Except, she’s dissembling…again. It’s actually one syllable for every note. Here,…sing along:

“When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most an-y-thing.”

At the end of the day, what does she care…her real agenda is to show off that two octave wine-glass-shattering range of hers.

Nevertheless, she does get this last bit right. Even if you can’t hit the notes, you can sing most anything. All it takes is a little imagination and some privacy…or, in the case of my chorale and the Missa Solemnis, some good cover from my fine fellow basses on the flanks.

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