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Luray Singing Tower

It was during “America the Beautiful” that I noticed the minor third. We were seated outside the carillon tower in Luray, Virginia, when, at precisely 8:00, as advertised, David Breneman began his elegantly played 45-minute program with this piece.

There’s something about the sound of a carillon that heroically refuses to be disinfected. I’ve been mindful of this funkiness before, but never considered it further. Yet it has to be that minor third; yes, definitely it’s the minor third. And then the carillon flier explained it: every strike of a bell causes not only that bell’s pitch to ring, but also the undertone (an octave below the pitch), and the fifth above the pitch, and the minor third above. The partials are, of course, the same that are present in every note from any instrument, but with carillon bells the nearer partials are almost as loud as the actual pitch. This gives them their distinctive quality of—what is it?—emotional texture.

But it’s that minor third that gets me, in a major-key tune such as “America the Beautiful” or “Shenandoah” or any of the other tunes floating across the valley that night. It clashes, there’s no getting away from it, but it’s a surprisingly delicious clash, like a vertical-striped satin vest peeking out from under a soft chocolate paisley jacket. I started attempting quietly (there were other people around, after all) to hum the thirds, skimming along the crest of a parallel organum Mr. Ives must have coached son Charlie on, and was surprised by how easily it came.

How quickly the ear adapts. A major triad sounds, well, just dandy with that minor third thrown in there, and with all those other non-triad tones from all those other partials mixed in, it strangely doesn’t sound like the mess we might expect. It sounds like a party. We make allowances, and it’s a good thing we do. We like to think we have high standards, but at every instant we allow for all sorts of imperfections. Tuning is never perfect, even if we can agree on what tuning system to use. Tempo is never precise; might as well face it, we’re addicted to rubato (even when we insist we’re not). The greatest performers always strive for greater performances. Composers are never satisfied (or, they never should be).

The twin wondrous aspects of music are its power continually to draw us forward by its ideals—humbling us—and its power continually to engage us by its humanity—elevating us. The minor thirds sing from on high; I hope I always hear them.

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