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Music as easy as Pi - Chapter 1

I was fortunate, very fortunate. Most unborn children have to endure the noises of modern life - car horns, trains, vacuum cleaners, and the constant auditory assault of every city.

During her summer of pregnancy, my mother, a musician was living in a caravan on the Cotswold Hills in England. She was practising violin and voice to play in the cathedrals of the three counties. She had been disappointed with my two elder brothers but....This child will be very musical. was the general consensus for the future of current encumbant. Few fetuses have had the chance to sit at the center of a symphony orchestra and feel such early exposure to Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy and Bach.

Piano keyboard positions, names, and lock

I was a late reader of words, but could soon identify every note on the piano from the stave positions. I learned to find middle C by its position near the piano lock, and the fact that it was the sharpest of the two adjacent white notes, with two black notes to the right and three black to the left before another pair of white notes. Starting from C and playing the ascending white notes sounded the major scale which I heard as doe-ray-me-far-so-la-tea-doe

The treble clef was the one with a squiggley symbol, which I soon learned to draw. The notes on the lines from the lowest were -E- Every; -G- Good; -B- Boy; -D- Deserves; -F- Favour, and the spaces were F-A-C-E. I only knew my alphabet A through G at this stage.

I later learned that had I been French, I should have reacted with I-E-!

Middle C I knew as circle with a line through it below, and one line below was the top line of the bass clef, which was indicated by a backwards letter C. It reminded me of a whale's fin, like the whale's jaw arch which I had staggered through on a shopping trip to Evesham, by the river Avon. I knew whales were big so they must have deep bass voices, for I knew that double basses were bigger than violins.

Piano keyboard, notenames, and stave positions for naturals
Going up or down was easy line-space-line-space for the white notes, but the black notes were a little more of a mystery. If there was one sharp, it would be on the top line of the treble clef, and the top but one of the bass clef. So every time F was written it should be played as F sharp or the black note above F. I even discovered a pattern to explain it. If I started my doe-ray-me-far-so-la-tea-doe from G instead of C, I found that the white F sounded flat, so I had to sharpen it to F sharp. This gave me the pattern of Wholetone - Wholetone - semitone - Wholetone - Wholetone - Wholetone - semitone, or in more universal terms Large - Large - small - Large - Large - Large - small. If I started the pattern from F going upwards, I would need to play the note between A and B, instead of B, i.e. flatten the B to Bb. I continued this pattern by fourths from C to F to Bb to Eb which needed Bb, Eb and Ab. Then by fifths from C to G to D to A to E, and B. Next I needed F#, C#, and G#. But I knew that there was only one black note between G and A. How could it be called both G# and Ab? In the chord of E Major it was called G#, but in the chord F minor it was called Ab.

All thoroughly confusing.
Piano keyboard - C Major (no # nor b): F Major (one b): G Major (one #)

I asked my mother.

Oh, they're the same on the piano. But you play them as different notes on the violin.

It sounded perfect on violin, so I didn't press the point until the piano tuner arrived. I was actually getting accustomed to the anomalies. But after his visit it went entirely wrong.

About this time I was given a tin drum for Christmas. I was overjoyed and having lost my tuning wandered around the house and garden thumping out every melody I'd ever heard.

What's this one? I'd ask my parents and brothers. They would frown with non-recognition. I even tried it on Engine-Driver, the goose, as he sat on the far end of the bench which supported the prop for the clothes line. He was so unmusical that he ran away squawking. I went to bed tired and puzzled. I never saw the drum again.

Whenever I got the chance I would creep into the music room, pull out the candle holders attached to the front of the piano and experiment, pretending to be a miniature Liszt.

Charles! Stop thumping the piano. You'll put it out of tune. Little did she realise, but that was exactly what I was trying to do.

Not only that, but you are not holding your hands up properly. She placed one old English penny on the back of each hand and told me to practice my scales without the pennies falling off. That was the last day I touched the piano for about five years.

I had discovered the egg slicer in the larder. It had a half egg shaped frame of cream plastic, which the wire passed through as it sliced the egg. The wire was continuous and threaded around the metal frame to cut the egg into slices about one eighth-of-an-inch thick for salads and sandwiches. I found that by pressing the wire in various positions it was possible to play melodies, chords and arpeggios using a toothpick as a plectrum. When other kids would go off and sulk I'd hide in the larder and play the blues. No one ever caught me, but I remember my mother remarking.

This egg slicer keeps moving around the slab in the larder. I said nothing.

Having acquired a taste for strings, and noticing the stream of fiddle students and quartet players through the house, I asked for violin lessons. These involved Twinkle, twinkle little star, successive contortions of my right thumb through the handle of the bow, and pushing my left elbow further to the right as I held the fingerboard. I decided that if it was so uncomfortable that I would take up tree climbing, build a tree house, and learn to drive mowers and cars like my brothers instead.

One day in the attic I found a guitar with a broken back and no strings. I used to play Santa Lucia on that. my mother remarked, and it disappeared the same way as the tin drum.

During these years, as my brothers were away at school or doing National Service, I would sit in the back row of abbeys, cathedrals and concert halls listening to orchestras tuning and rehearsals.

If there isn't an organ or piano, we tune to the A from the oboe. I was told. I watched for the oboe, and as I was playing recorder at school, I became an ardent Leon Goosens fan and went to one of his local concerts. Not long after this I heard that he had been arrested in Australia for smuggling pornographic pictures. My interest in the oboe player was discouraged, and a brand new clarinet appeared.

[In April 2000 I received the following email from an Australian visitor to this website That was Eugene Goosens, the conductor and composer, who was caught in Sydney with the naughty books. And they weren't smuggled, they were a few books for his own reading - it was Australian customs who made the charge of smuggling stick. It is somewhat of a blemish on our history, and is generally not mentioned here.]

Acker Bilk had taken his Stranger On The Shore to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and the sheet music was available. I learned it and Take Five by Dave Brubeck. My mother would attempt to accompany me on the "out of tune" piano, but she could never get the pieces to move right.

She's a very good technician, with her training at the Royal College of Music, but has no feel, my brother confided. I agreed. Poor old Mum, she never could quite hack it with pop music or jazz. She had no improvisational skills, and suddenly got interested in mandrigals through a composer friend called Peter Twilley, who always struck me as pretty wet (a wimp), with a droopy wife who wore her hair long, straight and centre parted, as though she was a waif found out in the rain. That's when I started guitar.

But to regress; earlier my vocal career had been going from strength to strength as a boy soprano. At the local church I often got the solos, and my eldest brother Richard got the dark haired contralto. Our motives for attendence were classic. I was after the money for the choir practices and services. He went for the romantic or sexual interest, which soon left me on my own, as I had to keep attending to reap the benefits, whilst he took his elsewhere, like to the local cinema known as "the flea pit". I realised that my voice was my fortune.

My first journey away from this idyllic setting took me at age twelve to Rapid City, South Dakota via Prestwick - Shannon - Gander - New York - Washington D.C - Cleveland and Minneapolis, in the pre-jet age. This trip, a car journey to Vancouver Island, and a year in Junior High School was provided by Kelton S. Lynn, who eventually became the president of the American Bar Association. At South Junior High School, I was immediately recruited into the choir and became the first tenor in the barber shop quartet. Somehow I missed out on the orchestra, but got my first opportunity to sing with guitar, and to learn about algebra and science in a practical way. Mr. Van, whose name must have been short for something very Dutch, was the science teacher, and proposed a wholistic view of the universe, with planets orbiting the sun and electrons circling nuclei.

Here was a wonderful way to understand how the logics of music and mathematics were connected. I found that an octave was the doubling of frequency and that the frequency of each adjacent ascending note could be found by multiplying the lower frequency by the twelfth root of two. [The twelfth root of two is the number, which when multiplied by itself twelve times equals two (1.05946).] Without being aware of it Mr. Prior, the algebra teacher, and Mr. Van were working together to enable me to see the complete perspective. I saw that the patterns of music could act as a model for both the macro and micro systems from astronomical to microscopic levels.

I was introduced to the Jacob's ladder, a high voltage spark, which repeatedly climbed between two tall electrodes on his desk giving off loud crackles, radio interference, and the ionic charge which my nostrils recognised as the feel of the air after a thunderstorm. There was a small clique of science enthusiasts, who built and fired rockets and radio controlled missiles. I was fascinated. Unfortunately this created the first conflict with my hosts, the Lynn family. After school I went off with the young experimenters and was so absorbed with thee activities that I forgot the time. I had gone to the house of an American Indian friend and I was later found in a rough part of town in, of all unforgivable things an American Indian home. It was the first time I had encountered racism and could not understand why I was forbidden to ever associate with this particular friend again. Kelly was so generous, and would proudly display his collection of Sioux art, but to find that I preferred the company of Indians to whites was too much for his Republican hackles. I'm still not sure whether the Indian familily's sin was poverty or racial impurity, but I found the Lynns' attitude as hypocritical as my own family's snobbery about the children from the local council houses in England. Were both families afraid that I would be culturally polluted? I wanted to experience and explore everything.

Related Pages
MusicAsEasyAsPi - Geometry Chapter
Listen to a 30 minutes BBC Oxford radio interview of Charles Lucy, by Dave Freeman (10 Dec 1987, MP3)