Music is all around us—whether we like it or not. Even when you take the buds out of your ears, you still hear music from the loudspeakers at the mall, in the elevators of office buildings, and at the gas tank when you fill up (usually underscoring a pitch to sell you something else). But as musicians, we can learn from “uninvited music,” even when it’s not to our taste, and we can always keep our critical ear perked for inspiration and ideas. Even being able to identify the musical components of the ordinary, non-musical sounds we hear in everyday life can be revealing.
Recently, I found musically useful material in three common, everyday, and seemingly non-musical objects: a child’s whistle (the wooden Thomas the Tank Engine train whistle), the tea kettle on my stove, and the wind chimes that do their thing just outside my front door. Unlike, say, a doorbell, which uses a very definite musical device (singing out the melodic interval of a descending major second), these three devices don’t emphasize their musical origins. But they definitely draw on music to bring about their psychologically desired effects, however different those may be.
Anyone Can Whistle
The toy whistle sounds just like a steam-powered train whistle it’s emulating, especially when I enhanced it with a little reverb (hear it here: TrainWhistle.mp3). When I first heard this, I thought, “This is a child’s toy?! I’d use it in a film score in a heartbeat!” But upon closer inspection, it’s just a straight-up Cm7b5 chord (C Eb Gb Bb). I recognized the chord-quality immediately, and then (surreptitiously wresting the whistle from the vise-like grip of my sleeping nephew) checked the individual valves by blowing through them one at a time. Not only were the intervals perfectly in tune with the equal temperament scale, the pitches were referenced to A440. This can’t be an accident. Yet when you hear it in context (that is, from the mouth of a child sitting amongst toy trains), you don’t think music, you simply think, “Wow, how realistic that whistle is!”
Polly, Put the Kettle On
The tea kettle also emits a whistle, but not to evoke an image of “the real thing.” Instead, its job is to loudly call attention to itself and let you know the water’s boiling. And how do you best do that, if you’re a kettle? By cooing out a harmonious perfect 5th? Not bloody likely. Rather, the tea kettle screeches out the most annoying interval possible: a minor second (hear it here: TeaKettle.mp3). This is music’s equivalent to a crying baby: You can’t ignore it. A minor second, from a musical perspective, is dissonant and harmonically active. It makes a spectacle of itself in any situation, whether musical or not. The tea kettle’s designer may have been an acoustician, a musician, or both.
Wind Beneath My Chimes
Wind chimes have the opposite mission of a tea kettle: they want to provide soothing sounds, fueled not by angry, boiling steam, but by the gentle nudging of the wind. On my dog walks and any time I’m in a residential neighborhood, I always keep an ear out for wind chimes. Why? Because it’s a fun and challenging exercise to identify the collective quality of their clanging pipes. You don’t need perfect pitch to do this; you just have to be able to identify intervals delivered in a random sequence, because that’s how chimes play. (The wind never learned to play its scales from low to high as music students throughout history have.)
In my sampling, I have noticed that most wind chimes use the pentatonic major scale (1, 2, 3, 5, 6 in any major key) for the same reasons guitarists do: You can’t play a wrong note. Because a major pentatonic scale contains no half steps (provided by the 4th and the 7th of the major scale, which are missing in the pentatonic version), you never hear a minor second—a dissonant interval, and the same one played by my tea kettle. (Hmm. Are my wind chimes talking to my tea kettle? This “smart house” concept may be going further than they’re telling me!) Not all wind chimes use the pentatonic scale (though my next door neighbors’ do): the ones on my porch (heard here: WindChimes.mp3) play another soothing sequence: the whole-tone scale. This has been used to great, gauzy effect by Debussy—usually as a harp glissando—and it works on chimes because, again, it avoids the minor second interval. You may not be expecting such “harmonically educated” thought from a device that makes no claim to produce music (only “pleasant noise”), but careful musical thought is at the very core of its makeup.
It’s a fun exercise to use your musical chops when you don’t have an instrument in your hand, when your eardrums are getting a break from the ’buds, and when you’re not even listening to “actual music.” Music exists in life, and sorting it out keeps you thinking and helps you understand all the sounds in your environment. You just have to listen for clues and possibly apply a little musical deduction. Staying attentive to all the music that wafts and zips in and out of daily life keeps our ears oiled and our musical brains active.
— Jon Chappell