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NOTES ON NOTES
BY SARAH STODOLA


As a child, it made perfect, logical sense to me that the world would one day run out of different ways to arrange notes, and there would be no more new songs.  And we would for the rest of eternity have to listen to the same old songs over and over.  This was a terrible concept for a ten-year-old to ponder, and it seemed all too plausible.  To the credit of the ten-year-old me, when I think about this today as a 24-year-old, it still seems like thereís a slight chance it could be possible.  If there are actually only eight notes in an octave (plus their sharps and flats), and two of those notes are actually the same note (C begins and ends the octave), then there has to be a limit.  I know better than to worry about it these days, though.  After all, there arenít any segments on Dateline or NPR discussing the imminence of the scenario.  Record studios arenít preparing for what to do when the world runs out of note arrangements the way governments are scrambling to prepare for the day when current popular energy sources run out (Wait, that isnít actually happening, is it ...).

My childhood sixth sense told me that this may not be a proper thing to discuss with adults.  Mom probably would have thrown it in the Why-Is-The-Sky-Blue category.  Mom didnít actually know why, in all likelihood.  So I tried to tackle the issue myself.  I would try to think of it in terms I hadnít yet learned.  Today I know that "4!" means 4x3x2x1, and that somehow you use that to determine critical information, like how many different ways a set of books could be arranged on a bookshelf.  But I didnít know that back then, so I would try to pinpoint, using a crude ancestor of "4!," how many different ways there actually are to arrange notes.  I would write CDEFGABC on a piece of paper, then below it, DDEFGABC, then EDEFGABC, and on and on and on.  I never got it, but it seemed like the number would most definitely be finite. 

And then I would be in the car with said Mom, riding home from school or Brownies (The little sister of Girl Scouts, not the club) or dance class, and I would hear a song on the pop radio station which I would swear Iíd never heard before, but which I found to be nearly identical in sound or harmony or whatever to another song which I had known well over the years of my childhood.  And I would say to myself, see, itís happening already.  I was probably experiencing the modern day equivalent of hearing Oops!...I Did it Again for the first time after having heard Hit Me Baby One More Time once too many times, but still.  I really worried about this possibility.  Like you worry about death when youíre twelve - way too arcane to understand but itís still something which once you start to vaguely grasp the concept of, you canít not think about.

All of this worrying, of course, derived from my knowledge of the octave system of the Western Hemisphere (Thatís another thing I worried about.  How can a Hemisphere be western?  West of what?  The Eastern Hemisphere is west of the Western Hemisphere, too.  Another Blue Sky question).  I played the violin for eight years, so I knew something about the arrangement of music, I knew how to read music well and play the piano a little bit.  I knew that every note you could play on pretty much any instrument corresponded to a key on the piano.  Except then I wondered about that too.  Why couldnít there be another note between F# and F?  Like when F# is tuned a little too sharp, isnít that another note which falls between the two keys on the piano? 

When I first started playing the violin, at the age of six, they made a fake violin for me out of a Cracker Jack Box.  Once Iíd mastered that, they let me get my hands on the real thing.  Only before they let me play it, they put colored tape on the fingerboard so I would know where to place my fingers when trying to achieve the sound of a certain note.  This pretty much set in stone the things I was allowed to do with my fingers on the violin.  And I was clearly NOT allowed to place my fingers in between the strips of tape.  But it turns out that if you are a bit of a mischievous child, and when no grownups are looking you audaciously place your finger on the black space between the tape, and you run the bow across the string, a sound most certainly rings out, and that sound most certainly does not correspond to a note on the piano. 

But rules are rules, and the piano seemed a thing as old as the world itself, an unalterable part of nature.  It couldnít be wrong and it was surely all-inclusive, I decided.  That was a leap of faith on my part.  I still believed people when they told me that there was a Santa Claus, and that if you do what you love, the money will follow, and that what comes around goes around.  I especially believed them if they were grownups.  The piano didnít lie, I concluded, it was way too much of an institution, way too revered by all of the grownups in my life.  But it turns out that North America and Europe and Australia and maybe a couple of other places are the only places where the octave system is in place.  I wouldnít learn this until maybe three months prior to right now.  Clearly a case of me being stuck inside the box.  I brought it up to one of my friends who seems to have a bottomless well of knowledge pertaining to music, and he filled me in on the truth.  Musicians in most cultures have never even seen a piano, and they have never heard of an octave in the sense we use it.  Music as we know it is a thing unique to our culture.  The notes which we think cover the entire spectrum of music really only make barely a dent in the true scope of what music can be.  It reminds me of when I went to Barcelona and discovered the architect Gaudi - this whole world existed, parallel to mine but completely different, as if Barcelona had indeed evolved in an alternate universe.  A staircase, for example, had always been just a staircase.  Then I saw a Gaudi staircase, and I realized that staircases could exists in a million different forms, and I simply had never realized it because I had never seen a staircase outside of the kind I was familiar with. 

I look back to the anxiety of my childhood, and I actually applaud myself for even considering the possibility of a note between the notes, even if I did wuss out in the end and accept the standard notions about the whole thing.  Of course, I would like to think that I was one of the more precocious kids out there, but apparently this may not be the case.  The friend of mine, the music expert, had similar worries as a child, only after he got to thinking about it he starting researching, and he concluded that heíd "thought about it a lot and I'm convinced that there's enough potential in variation of harmony and rhythm to make up for reuse of the simple chord progressions and similarities in melodic phrasing..."

Right. 

I never got beyond thinking Why canít my fingers go down between the tape?!

And then I worried about it. I worried a lot. And I eventually learned that the worrying was futile. And it turns out thereís a reason why the sky is blue after all.
 

 

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