Friday, 29 March 2019

Name that Timbre

Name that Tune was a quiz that had a long life on radio and television. It first began as a show on NBC radio in America in 1952. In Britain, it was first known as Spot that Tune, which ran between 1956 and 1962 on Granada Television. It was next seen between 1976 and 1983 as ‘Name that Tune’, a segment of the Thames Television show London Night Out, hosted by Tom O’Connor. After that, it became a standalone quiz, hosted by Lionel Blair from 1983 to 1988.  It was then revived on Channel 5 for a show hosted by Jools Holland in 1997 and 1998. The most recent version was witnessed in 2007, as part of ITV’s Gameshow Marathon, helmed by Vernon Kay.
            The premise was simple. Contestants would compete to name popular tunes in as few notes as possible (‘I’ll name that tune in seven’, ‘I’ll name that tune in five’ etc.). Rather than playing a record, the tune would be played live by musicians in the broadcasting studio. If singers were featured, they would replace the words to the song with ‘la la las’. The show was dependent on a shared knowledge of popular hit songs. It would not work effectively unless the contestants’ musical expertise found an echo in that of the viewers and listeners at home. The quick familiarity of melodies could be startling.
            Melody is not our speediest musical recall, however. We’re much faster with timbre, particularly the timbre of recordings. If I switch on the radio and a record I know is playing, I can name that sound within microseconds. The same is true if I’m in a club or a bar, and the DJ has cued up a familiar record. I will know it and I can name it immediately. I’m not alone in this ability. Most of us are startlingly fast.
            One of the few times that this ability has been captured on screen is in T2: Trainspotting. Early in the movie, the main character, Renton, returns to his childhood home and puts a record on the turntable. From the label we can guess that it is Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’. He plays a tiny burst of the record before snatching it from the turntable as he is haunted by the memories it conjures.
What is brilliant about this scene is that the filmmakers have the confidence, not only that the cinemagoers will recognize ‘Lust for Life’ from this brief excerpt, but also that it will take them back to the more extended use of the same record in the original Trainspotting movie, where it soundtracks a scene in which Renton is chased through the streets of Edinburgh. (There is also a neat joke. In the first film the use of ‘Lust for Life’ is non-diegetic, meaning that Renton will not have heard it himself. Somehow, though, the record and its associations have seeped into his consciousness by the time of the second film.)
            We need more of these moments on screen. How about a very brief quiz show called Name that Timbre? And how about pitting it against Name that Tune? The timbral contestants would surely be quicker than the tuneful ones.
As well as being entertaining, this could help us think again about musical hierarchies. Melody is prioritised in the law and in value judgements generally. One of the reasons why classical music maintains its elevated status is because it is melodically and harmonically rich in comparison with much popular music. But popular music wins on timbre. What then, if it is revealed that timbre is the fastest, most resonant and deeply penetrating musical quality of all?