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What do limericks and music have in common?  No, that's not a joke with a punchline.

I suppose this is, though:

There once was a man from Nantucket
Took a pig in a thicket to **
The pig said with a gasp
Get away from my **
Come around to the front and I'll **

Personally, I find it funnier with the asterisks.  It lets you use your imagination.

Does music have semantic meaning?  Does it convey a message with some meaning.  I took formal languages in college (computer sci). We studied grammars and syntax and Chomsky and all that but never got into the deeper realms of linguistics, so bear with me if I get some jargon wrong as I waste your time by comparing the syntax and semantics of limericks and music.

First, let's distinguish between syntax and semantics.  Syntax is about form.  A sentence like the following:

My red postulated flavor flew outside a mechanical smoke ring.  

Has perfect syntax.  It has a subject, predicate and object.  The words are all in the right places, and they are the right types of words: nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, articles.  All properly used.  But it's nonsense.  Syntactically it's perfect.  Semantically, it's meaningless.

So this is a matter of some debate.  Does music have semantics?

It seems to me that music is like syntax WITHOUT semantic meaning. Just as the rhythm of a limerick (da dada da dada da dada...) has a form without a meaning before you fill in the words.

There once was a maid from Nantucket,
Who clanged darkly through a soft bucket,
   The postulate's red,
   The smoke ring has pled,
And now maple dragons have drunk it.

I suppose I could make something even less sensible.  Perfect syntax.  The words themselves have meanings, but the limerick itself has no semantic meaning.

Although I wonder... and maybe somebody who knows more about this can answer this, because I honestly don't know.  Can syntax ever create its own semantics? I think to a limited extent it can, and if it does, it does it in music, which is all form, all da dada da dada... without the words.  The words are all notes and chords organized into a form, but it's impossible to say any particular note or chord has a meaning outside the context of the musical piece it is in and the whole form it is in.  

Change the form of the music, and you change the music itself.

Now, I could rewrite a sensible limerick several different ways and convey the same meaning without the fun rhythm.  But I can't do that with music.  I can't do a wholesale reorganization of the notes and chords without making it into a different piece.

Case in point.  I made a little limerick melody as a test.  Don't criticize it.  It's just an experiment.  I tried to give it a bit of the limerick up and down flavor.

It's not exactly funny, but neither was my first example.  But there is a bit of fun to the rhythm.  6/8 rhythm (when it's played at the right tempo) has always struck me as a little vulgar and familiar and taunting.  

It's not just the association with limericks, either.  6/8 is the rhythm of children's jump rope type songs, which we talked about before.  

Bella and Jacob sitting in a tree,
First comes love,
Then comes marriage,
Then comes Bella with a baby carriage.

So does 6/8 rhythm used a certain way convey its own message, above and beyond the individual notes or words it is constructed from?  I suppose it does, but I'm not sure enough to swear to that, nor to swear I'm even using the word semantics right.

People into poetry know that sometimes the shape of a word has as much or more to do with the poetry than the actual words.  For instance, the phrase:

Piddling puppies picked apart peony petals.

Not really a poem, but it's a poetic sentence in that there is alliteration (words starting with the same consonant) and the pace of the words is fast.  It's possible to compose a sentence using slow words, too.  Let me try that.  See how quickly you can pronounce this:

Orange orangutans defenestrated Alphonso forthwith into the fjord's chasm.

Eh, not too bad.  Defenestrated was an inspired choice.  I applaud myself.  

There's a name for this kind of poetry pacing trick and I'm too lazy to google it up, right now.  You do it and tell me.  Oh, you don't want to?  Well, we're both lazy then so don't complain.

While I was making the limerick melody above, as I started to fill in the harmony, it suddenly dawned on me, hey... this sounds familiar somehow!

I rummaged through my mind and came up with this scene, from the film Copying Beethoven, the scene where the copyist shows him a melody she wrote that is almost identical in form to the one above. Beethoven unwittingly breaks her heart by laughing at it and calling it a new musical form, Fartissimo! He starts to play it and makes farting sounds as he plays.

Different notes and chords, but not very different.  The limerick rhythm is what most makes them similar.

But notice the different reaction of the (fictional) Beethoven and the copyist.  She took this so much more seriously!  It is in a minor key, the key we usually associate with sad, serious music.  Yet she and Beethoven hear the same music differently.  

I'm more on Beethoven's side on this one, because to me, the limerick rhythm is flippant.  The sudden awkward stops at the end of each phrase contribute to that impression.  Well, they do to me.  That's my impression.

I wonder if the filmmakers realized that they too were channeling a limerick when they made that little ditty?  Maybe they said,

"Guys!  We need some little tune that Beethoven can mock and call Fartissimo in this part of the script.  What can you come up with?"

"Yo, boss.  I could do something in 6/8 with a few sudden stops where the fart sounds could go.  Let me think about it and get back to you..."

And thus, perhaps, through parallel development the limerick is reborn as music, just as bats and birds developed wings.

Future Diaries in Thursday Classical Music:  I've been getting a little burned out lately.  I suppose I could churn something out every week, but my head just isn't into it enough right now to do it properly.  So I'm going to continue doing diaries for Thursday Classical Music, but do them less frequently.  I'm not sure how frequently.  So I guess it's not REALLY Thursday Classical Music, since that implies some weekly regularity.  Perhaps it's really Occasional Thursday Classical Music.  Until I get inspired again.

Why?  Eh.  I blame daylight savings time.  It always fucks me up.  But Dumbo, it's been four weeks since the changeover!  Yeah, tell me about it.  You're all prisoners of my fluctuating moodswings.  

In the meantime, any people that have been itching to post some music diaries, now is a good time to step forward and fill in the gaps as best you can.  The only thing I request is that you PM me about the date scheduling so that I can keep two or more people from colliding their diaries into the same week.  I have *absolutely* no requirements other than that.  You can post whatever meaningless drivel you want and call it Thursday Classical Music and everybody will grateful because you're keeping the torch lit.  Honest.  Read the above diary and see what I mean!

Dave in Northridge has committed to doing something Christmasy on Thursday December 20.  We can all eagerly await that.

Originally posted to Dumbo on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 07:22 PM PST.

Also republished by DKOMA.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tipped and Recc'd for the limericks. (8+ / 0-)

    I can see you getting tired of doing a once a week post, I know I couldn't do it. I can't believe some people do daily ones. Happy Holidays. Here's my new favorite Holiday word: Schlittenfahrt.

    The free market is not the solution, the free market is the problem.

    by Azazello on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 07:28:53 PM PST

  •  Thursday December 20 (6+ / 0-)

    Yes, something Christmasy. It will be therapeutic.

    -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

    by Dave in Northridge on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 07:28:56 PM PST

  •  I'll miss them when they're not here... (6+ / 0-)

        I've enjoyed most of them, even though I don't usually comment. But then, on a musical note:

    -7.25, -6.26

    We are men of action; lies do not become us.

    by ER Doc on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 07:32:44 PM PST

  •  There once was a girl from Madras, (6+ / 0-)

    Who had a magnificent ass,
    Not round and pink,
    As you probably think,
    It was grey, had long ears, and ate grass!

    “Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are.” Jon Kabat-Zinn

    by DaNang65 on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 07:53:14 PM PST

  •  Classical Limerick Funk! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, ER Doc, Brecht

    P-Funk 1977

    We threw our suits in the garbage and wore the stuff we pulled out of the can. -- George Clinton

    Lead vocal by Clinton -- Bass vocal by the late Ray Davis, other vocalists include Fuzzy Haskins, Calvin Simons, Grady Thompson, and the late Glenn Goins + Garry Shider.


    Millions of us – the majority – must come together to insist that President Obama and the Democrats stand up and fight for the things we sent them there to do ... Michael Moore

    by MT Spaces on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 07:56:07 PM PST

  •  I've Always Heard Limericks in Standard Dotted- (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    -cut 6/8 triplets: Dotted-1/8, 1/16, 1/8.

    What I hear is:
    There | once, wuzza | man, fromNan | tucket.

    There | Once was ay | man from Nann | tuck ett.

    The K-I-S-S-I-N-G melody is not 6/8. It's common time march tempo. 4/4 not 6/8.

    Melodic music is intensely vocal but I never heard it having semantics.

    Then there's that world of timing that falls in between simple fractions.

    2 6/8 jigs half-dotted, followed by reels in cut time also half dotted.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 08:04:13 PM PST

    •  K-i-s-s-i-n-g (0+ / 0-)

      Yup you're right, it's 4/4 but with triplet stuff going on.

      I tried changing the melody right now to dotted eighths and was going to try to reupload it, but it didn't strike me the same way.  I know what you mean.  But seriously, when I recite that first line, I automatically recite it

      There / ONCE was a / MAN from Nan Tucket.  

      You can do it the other way, and that might even be right.  but I found it uncomfortable to recite.  The Nan syllable, for instance, doesn't as readiily squeeze into that 1/16th note as tuck and et do.  I could see tuck and et being 1/16.  

      Wiki has the following verse to a three stanza Nantucket variation:

      /    Then the pair followed Pa to Manhasset,
          Where he still held the cash as an asset,
              But Nan and the man
              Stole the money and ran,
          And as for the bucket, Manhasset.

      "Pair followed" is definitely dotted eigth and two sixteenths, so I see it there.  "Manhasset" poses a problem though because that's a first-class model of a slow-down word.

      I guess the question ought to be, though, what's the classic limerick style.  Eh, I can see it both ways.  Yours would make livelier music, and I grant you that.

    •  The thing about children's chants (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      is the interval of the minor third.  

      Actually, the 6/8 has the feeling, if not the rhythm of a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song.

      Republicans want to make government small enough to fit in your vagina..

      by ramara on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 05:13:27 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  We definitely recognize something akin (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dharmafarmer, ER Doc, Dumbo, Brecht

    to language in the way we describe music.  The most basic example is the call-response phenomenon.  It's not just "Instrument 1 plays something then Instrument 2 plays something similar".  We seem to acknowledge something of a conversation between them, even if only metaphorically.

    There's also something to be said for the role that intonation plays in many languages, and that the comparison between intonation and phrasing in music isn't far off.

    If you're interested, Boris Gasparov has tried to apply structural linguistics to harmonic theory.  I don't know if I'd consider it very successful (and I don't even think it's English), but I have a copy I could scan if anyone's interested in checking it out.

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 08:14:19 PM PST

    •  If it's English and you scan it, I'll read it. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I've been reading (perusing is more like it) Schencker.  He may not intend it but his approach is sort of linguistic.  Every musical piece boils down to I-V-I, and everything else is elaboration on that.  It's familiar to anybody that had to screw around with BNF or CNF (Chomsky Normal Form), but it's not called that.

      I suspect somebody could, if they wanted to, write out a plain CNF grammar for traditional diatonic musical harmony.  It's probably already been done.

      MusicalPiece ::= Symmetric ! asymmetric;
      Symmetric ::= Ichordsection Vchordsection CadenceSection;
      CadenceSection ::= IchordSection Icadence;
      Icadence ::= I64chord V7chord Irootchord;
      Something like that.  Hmmm...

      I'm reading Schoenberg's Theory of Harmony now.  I'm about halfway through, so I haven't got to the really wiggy stuff yet.  It's difficult going.  The guy was nuts.  It's 50% music theory (and some of it is very well explained) and 50% diatribes against everybody else in the world, often with him referring to them "as people I will not not name so that I do not further contaminate music..." but the editor's footnotes tell you, "He means So-n-so's music theory book."

  •  The King met the Bishop. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ER Doc, Dumbo

    In English syntax, this would mean that the King exerted some effort or went some distance to meet up with the Bishop (Subject, Verb, Object). In some other language, it might mean, with each element properly marked, that the King stayed put and the Bishop found him and met up with him (Object, Verb, Subject). Syntax (word order or patterning) is not always separate from Semantics (meaning). They overlap. And they don't need music to do so. But I tend to agree with you that some linguistic patterns lend themselves to music. I believe I heard "Three Blind Mice" in some Dvorak the other day, but I can't remember which composition it was in (maybe the 13th string quartet?).  

    When you feel more like doing regular diaries, I have a couple of suggestions: Max Bruch, whose violin and cello concertos and symphonies are now on YT and lovely to listen to, Glenn Gould, whose work I have been listening to recently and am in awe of, and Glazunov, that old drunk who fucked up the premiere of Rachmaninoff's 1st symphony and nearly ruined his musical career, but in more sober moments wrote some very pretty music. Such topics seem ripe for your exploration, I think.

    W. H. Auden: "We must love one another or die."

    by martyc35 on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 08:21:32 PM PST

    •  The Bishop!! (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dumbo, martyc35

      "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White -6.00, -5.18

      by zenbassoon on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 08:39:41 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Bruch's violin concerto we've done... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I don't know enough Glazunov to write anything about it but maybe somebody else here can.  

      Glenn Gould would be an excellent subject for a diary.

      Syntax I understand.  I had to take upper division math classes in that.  We were always warned that "nothing in this class deals with semantics."  

      It's possible to write a grammar that adds numbers together for instance, but even though it can add numbers, it's not semantically addition.  It's just symbol processing.

      Semantics and all of that was dealt with in the more liberal arts part of the world.  I never studied it and only know what I've absorbed through osmosis.

      •  Sorry! I forgot to check the tags for Bruch (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        but I have now seen Cartoon Peril's fine diary and spent a lot of time with the links and videos from the commenters there. Of course, I enjoyed the Pablo Casals, and I really like Jacqueline Du Pre doing Bruch, too.

        On syntax, I wasn't meaning to sound pedantic (but I think I did), just to point out that the separation of syntax from semantics is purely arbitrary. After Chomsky revolutionized the study of syntax with his famous sentence "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" linguists more or less dropped the study of meaning and hoped to find more meat in the study of syntax. Textbooks dutifully separated the two and usually presented the study of semantics as one (as of yet unexplained) component of human language grammar. A whole lot of people (many in France) who were busy with semantics (called semiotics by some) were simply left out of the discussion by a simple, brutal move: their discussion did not fit the model the American linguists were using. Turf wars are nowhere if not in academia, huh? I still hold out hope that someone will come up with a plausible explanation of meaning, but I doubt it will be in my lifetime.

        W. H. Auden: "We must love one another or die."

        by martyc35 on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 04:11:58 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  That's clarifying. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          I was involved in a discussion over at onlinephilosophyclub about this that somebody else started.  The syntax of music I get.  The semantics...  Out of my league.  Leonard Bernstein did start to get deep into the whole linguistics approach to music for a while -- that was one of the premises of his Norton Lecture Series that you can see many episodes of on youtube now.  I feel more comfortable with the position of teaching people how to parse music than what it means.  

          Some of what I wrote which could have wound up in this diary...

          I spend a lot of time trying to tell people how to listen better to music, and I do a lot of it by telling them what the parts are, how the parts fit together, what this or that thing makes me think of...

          But I have to face the fact that when I tell them what the music reminds me of, it's like I'm telling then that when I look at a certain Rorschach image, I see dancing bears.


          If I tell you that with enough conviction, you'll start to see them, too. Especially if I convince you that I have a lot of expertise at telling what the inkblotters REALLY MEANT when they made the inkblots. After a while, you might be able to see nothing but dancing bears. You might even start arguing with people who say they see butterflies and tell them they're wrong.

          "Oh, but Dumbo, composers are really deep people with a lot of deep feelings! I know because that's how I feel when I hear their music!"

          One of the two most influential composers of the twentieth century was Igor Stravinsky. He once said, "There are no emotions in music." When I tell people that, they sometimes visibly wince. They get angry. It sounds preposterous. But I think I know what he meant. It didn't mean he didn't have emotions when he composed it, or that you don't have them when you listen to it. It's just not built into the music as part of it.

          We probably can agree on some things about music, so there may be a small element of objective meaning, perhaps, at least within our culture. Minor key music sounds sad or serious. We can get almost universal agreement that the Moonlight Sonata, for instance, is kind of sad. But when you start trying to be more specific, which is WHAT YOU MUST DO when you are a good listener, then things get sketchy.

          And teaching people how to listen to music is a lot like teaching them how to look at inkblots. Trying to help them get something out of the inkblot experience. If you didn't think there was something there to get in the first place, you might think that is a worthless endeavour. But I don't. I've had to think hard about that.

  •  I must also repost my Christmas music diary. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White -6.00, -5.18

    by zenbassoon on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 08:32:40 PM PST

  •  It (my Christmas repost) will be on the 24th: (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    A Very Special Thursday Classical Music.

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White -6.00, -5.18

    by zenbassoon on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 08:33:23 PM PST

  •  A little seasonal musical grammar ... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me, "how good, how good does it feel to be free? " And I answer them most mysteriously, "are birds free from the chains of the skyway? " (Bob Dylan)

    by JKTownsend on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 10:18:02 PM PST

  •  If nobodys quoted Chomsky's famous sentence (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, martyc35

    of syntactically perfect nonsensical word salad,  I will:

    "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously."

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