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Notes from the past

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Paul Sargeant Paul Sargeant | 18:02 UK time, Tuesday, 23 February 2010

A 16th century fluteHave you started humming the theme tune to the series yet? It can't just be me. Mind you, I'm also developing a bit of a Pavlovian response to it. Not that I start drooling down my shirt at the beginning of every programme. It's just, when I hear the music, a little bit of my mind tells me: "Sit up. Brain food time." and I get ready for my 15-minute knowledge shot.

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But how do you write music for a series that covers six continents and two million years of human history? I asked Steven Faux, the composer for the series, where he started with the soundtrack for such an eclectic group of objects.

We don't really know what music sounded like even 350 years ago. So, if we're talking about 3,000 years ago, or 30,000 years ago, we haven't got a chance. You're just trying to evoke a sense of time and place.

I used lots of woodwind instruments because they can be quite primitive; things like ocarinas and various types of whistles. Also primitive versions of the oboe and the bassoon. Instruments with reeds in them tend to make you think of the Middle East.

There are a couple of very early bagpipes. If you hear a bagpipe, not a Scottish bagpipe but a much simpler kind of bagpipe, it makes it plausible for something in ancient Britain or France.

But the human voice is the thing that pre-dates every instrument and the opening title sequence has my daughter singing four notes that we hear at the beginning of every programme.

This explains something that I'd sensed but never quite processed, which is that the soundtrack for each episode is different. But how do they bring that subtly different atmosphere to each programme?

There are two elements to the music we've done so far: the signature tune, which is a piece of music with a beginning, a development and a conclusion, and then we've got hundreds of pieces of musical punctuation.

I write a whole load of motifs and musical phrases - quite short ones - and get the people in the studio to play them on dozens of different instruments. You get very interesting outcomes from that. Not all of the instruments can play all of a phrase because of the nature of the instrument. They have limitations and the limitations of the instrument produce quite interesting effects.

So far we've used a different instrument to play the punctuation phrases in every single programme. In the first series there were 30 different programmes, so we've used 30 different instruments.

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So it looks like the music in the series will continue to develop as we move through the rest of the 100 objects. I forgot to ask Steven if that means that the 99th episode, about a credit card, will have a wailing electric guitar solo on it. (I rather like the idea.) But I did ask him to nominate a musical instrument for the website. Is there an instrument that can tell us about the history of music?

There's a medieval reed instrument called a curtal. In some of the programmes we did use a soprano saxophone - a very modern instrument which you associate with jazz - but played in a way that makes it sound quite ancient and Middle Eastern.

It suddenly made me realise that the curtal is not a million miles away from the saxophone. You never imagine that Charlie Parker's alto saxophone in New York could be at all related to the curtal but you can see, in families of instruments, connections across the centuries - or even the millennia.

Unfortunately, Steven doesn't own a curtal, so we couldn't take a photo and add it to the site. Don't suppose anyone out there has a 600-year-old bassoon lying around the house?

What do you think? Add a comment


  • Comment number 1.

    Well, some listeners really hate the music, Paul:

    Perhaps you could ask Steven to jazz it up a bit?

  • Comment number 2.

    The curtal is quite a distance from the alto sax, if not a million miles!
    Its essential difference is its double reed, whereas the sax has a single reed. The saxophone is more akin to a clarinet and its ancestor the chalumeau. In this respect a curtal is as you suggest, a bassoon-in-waiting.
    Apart from that, It is suggested that the earliest form of music was composed of drone sounds, created by mouth or using a tube. This was possibly used in rhythmic tribal dances and spirit-summoning rituals. Percussion was also used to stimulate and drive rhythms.
    Thus the instrument I would nominate for 'telling us about the history of music', would be the didgeridoo. It encompasses the entire history of music and is still played with gusto and enthusiasm to this day.
    Although 'early man' probably did not realise it, the didgeridoo is quite a sophisticated music-machine, exploits the potential for circular-breathing (like sax-players do, I think) and plays a rather ethereal set of harmonics. Early 'trumpets' found in north Europe are now considered to be more versatile when played as didgeridoos, and thus possibly were. So they are quite likely not confined to the Australian continent.
    Moreover, before man had the tools and technology to fabricate them, he turned to a rather neat form of animal exploitation; put your tree-branch on an ant-hill, and the inhabitants therein will happily eat the inside out, leaving the potential musician with a near-perfect hollow tube.
    Technology might nowadays be more sophisticated, but the didgeridoo remains much about the same.

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 4.

    I am one of the listeners referred to above who finds the music extremely irritating. It slows the whole thing down and distracts from what is being said. There is a fad currently on both radio and TV for music or a simalcrum thereof in documentaries. I dislike this music so much that I have to steel myself to listen to each episode, even though I really do want to find out about the objects and love the whole idea of the series and its spin offs.

  • Comment number 5.

    I very much like the musical introduction, strangely haunting. I did not realise why [poor memory and 24 hours part], until reading about the instruments - made so delightfully obvious by the short recording of six such daily variations. When programmes restart on May 17th, the producer [and Roger Boulton on Feedback] should explain, or better still play the brief comparison: curiosity may then help overcome any aversion, though negative reaction might be physical, like inability to like strawberries, or to stomach peanut butter - a personal misfortune for a tiny minority.

  • Comment number 6.

    I find that the music and intro only work if you are looking at the website while listening to the program - they are televisual and consequently make lousy radio. Just give me Neil MacGregor and whatever he wants to talk about without the interruptions, please.

  • Comment number 7.

    Im sorry but I absolutely loathe the music. It is loud intrusive irrelevant and just profoundly irritating. Please please please remove it. It ruins the programme.

  • Comment number 8.

    Watch the below clip on Youtube from 5:05-5:40, particularly around 5:29. It sounds eerily reminiscent of one of the riffs in the theme tune...

  • Comment number 9.

    I adore the theme music and think the composer has achieved exactly what he set out to do. It evokes a sense of timlessness, of pre-history, that stops me in my tracks whenever I hear it.

  • Comment number 10.

    @ Lemonsparkle

    You have expressed exactly what I think. In addition, the combination of notes (I don't think it's a tune) in neither Eastern nor Western, and lends itself to modification for the different places or eras of a programme.

  • Comment number 11.

    I am amazed at the ease with which some comments strip the writer naked. A comment in 26 words can have eight propositions – all of them betraying a lack of relevant knowledge and experience. This is the danger when you expose yourself verbally. You tell the reader a lot about your perceptive ability, or lack of it. Why should a writer be ‘sorry’ to ‘loathe the music’? If it is ‘loud, intrusive and irritating’, turn down the volume. Why would a reiterated ‘please’ persuade anyone to ‘remove’ the music? And why should the comments of a few disgruntled listeners, be a reason for ‘removal’? But crucially does the music ‘ruin the programme’?
    The word ‘music’ needs some refinement. This ‘music’ comprises 4 notes – a theme, or better a motif, which is not developed, but appears in various timbre guises to create an haunting effect (see comment 5). Beethoven in Symphony 5 uses a 4-note motif developed to tremendous dramatic effect, but here the motif goes nowhere. It depends entirely for its effect on two things – the quality of the instruments playing it, and its evasion of a clear tonality which leaves it hanging in musical space. The notes appear to be Db, Eb, Ab, G (or a semitone higher). The ‘key’ or mode centres on Ab, yet the first and last notes are left unresolved. This generates tension, which together with the timbre, provides the haunting effect. Whether I like it or not is irrelevant – it’s very effective. If you happen to be otherwise engaged during the previous programme – it’s a distinctive call to listen. It’s a rare example of compression designed to enhance what follows.

  • Comment number 12.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 13.

    Love the theme music. When the series is complete, will it be available on CD?

  • Comment number 14.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 15.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?


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