Let's Listen with Tova #1: He Mandu (after a lot of talking about things)

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Tovarisch Red Yoshi
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Let's Listen with Tova #1: He Mandu (after a lot of talking about things)

Postby Tovarisch Red Yoshi » January 30th, 2015, 7:54 am

So I got a little bit of interest, decided to try this.

My interest isn't to make these each a major weighty thing to chew through. Instead, I want to make these so that someone with no musical experience can understand. So please, ask questions, give your own opinions and your own inputs and everything. And normally I'd link the song, we'd listen to it, and then we'd go over it so we can listen to it again, but for #1, since it needs to introduce what music is, He Mandu won't be linked till the end.

So, without further ado... where to begin?

A good place to start, traditionally speaking, is to define our terms. And so, we should ask the following question: What is music?

It's... a little controversial. But it's not that controversial. There's a lot of verbiage thrown back and forth between different self-important artists along the lines of "your work isn't music" or "your work isn't music", but ultimately, it's just stupid egos being stupid egos. This is the definition that most musicologists (people who study music) go by:

Music is sound arranged in meaningful patterns.

Most of what follows is going to be a little musicological. If you just want to skip to the listening, you might want to pick up at "So wrapping that up"

So I think it would pay to talk about some general things about human music.

Human music exhibits linguistic qualities. It manipulates people, affecting their emotions and other thought. It's memetic (moves from person to person, and can change while doing so), it shows structure, and different parts are often reliant on each other. This is probably not a coincidence; many of the things needed to appreciate human music are used by our language capacities, like the need to differentiate sounds to the extent that we do. It's thought that our way of making music evolved with our ability to speak. The oldest non-controversial instruments even coincide with modern humans, and a controversial bone maybe flute was found with Neanderthals, who, while we don't know for certain, had the FOXP2 gene, inner ear bones, and hyoid bone needed for the range of sounds language needs from us.

Music has, anthropologically speaking, been used like language has, too. It's used to strike fear, celebrate joy, and express other emotions, as well as inspire the same emotions in others. But a very major important use of music has been to coordinate us. It might not be very apparent today, but humans are and have been for quite some time very ritualistic, following very exact behaviors to attempt to replicate outcomes. And for the most part, those behaviors have been really important for human survival. If you didn't seed right, the plants could grow too closely together and interfere with each other; if you screwed up the timing, you could chip away at too much of the rare stone you needed to make your spear. And in more superstitious times, this was a lot more pervasive - if you didn't sing the elephant catching song right, we might not please the gods well enough to catch the elephant.

Another thing to think about is how music exists in space and time, just to get two more words out of the way. Sound is, as you probably know, a wave propagating through air. So we can graph vertically, or spatially, multiple sounds happening together; this is called harmony. But what I want to talk about is how sounds are arranged in time – melody.

I said music is like language; that's true with melodies. Utterances are separated into phrases; and just as phrases are separated into

words that expect other words to come after them,

and words that really don't, or how questions want answers, melodies are divided into two parts: the Call, and the Response. (If you want, call them the antecedent and consequent phrases).


So wrapping that up: Music is sound arranged into meaningful patterns. It's used to communicate emotions, but also significantly it's used to coordinate us in our work and ritual. Music is understandable spatially as harmony, but I want to focus on how it's arranged temporally as melody. Melody is usually arranged like utterances are, with calls and responses.

So here's today's song:


Here's what I want you to listen for : call and responses texture in the melody, and the strong, even, together motion of the people singing.

The lyrics, believe it or not, aren't that important to the song itself, at least for its uses. This is a waulking song - originally performed while shrinking a web of newly woven tweed while beating it on a table. If you listen to the even rhythm, that's the cloth being thumped on the table top.

But the lyrics are a love song - the language is Gaelic, the main language of Ireland and Scotland before the English made them anglophones. Nota bene: He mandu, hi ri oro, and ho ro hu o are just nonsense syllables threading the music together.

He mandu - 's truagh nach digeadh
He mandu - siod 'gham iarraidh
He mandu - gille 's litir
Hi ri oro - each is diollaid
He mandu - hi ri oro
ho ro hu o

Nam biodh agam sgiath a ghlaisein
Iteag nan eoin spog na lachain

Shnamhainn na caoil air an tarsuinn
An Caol Ileach 's an Caol Arcach
'S rachainn a steach chon a' chaisteal
'S bheirinn a mach as mo leannan.

A translation I found (can't vouch for accuracy):

Alas, that this does not come to fetch me;
a messenger and a letter, a horse and a saddle.
If I had the sparrow's wing,
the birds' power of flight, the wild duck's foot,
I would swim across the narrows,
the Sound of Islay, the Sound of Orkney:
I would go into the castle
and I would bring my sweetheart out.

And that's it for number 1.
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