Sunday, July 18, 2010

Paul Simon was Right

"When I think about the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can even think at all" sang Paul Simon in one of his more insightful moments. The trouble is, these days even the crap I learned is proving less and less useful.
I used to be pretty good at using mathematical tables; log tables, sine and cosine tables, logs to the base e. I'm not sure they helped me to understand mathematics exactly, but I could pass exams.Then I graduated to the slide rule. My Dad gave me his special one when I went to university. I still have it somewhere, along with the highly expensive electronic calculator that replaced all of those. I think I can now do all of those calculations on my mobile phone, if I can only work out which sequence of buttons to push.
Then there was the arcane equipment of the chemistry lab, large unchanged since the days of medieval alchemists. It's many a long year since I, or anybody else in the western world, was required to use a beam balance or perform a titration, or fiddle around with stuff made of complex tubing filled with mercury which splurted into the sink if you turned the taps in the wrong sequence. Now it's all done with machines that go ping.
It was in my high school years that I first attempted to learn the guitar; not actually in school of course because in those days guitars were the territory of social deviants like rock-and-rollers and unwashed folkies. A few of us battled along with American how-to manuals and some mutual solidarity, but learning to tune by ear was an issue in the absence of classical training. I recently took up music again, and having an interest in things with large numbers of strings, bought myself one of those newfangled electronic tuners. "How do I program it?" I asked the leather jacketed, silver studded and pierced helpful youth behind the counter. He gave me a blank stare. "How do I make it go?" "You push the little red ON button." he replied, still bewildered. "But how does it know which note I want to play?" He twanged a guitar string in its general direction. "It tells you what note you're playing, and here it tells you whether it's sharp or flat." He obviously thought I was lapsing into senility, but no, I was just delving into ancient but no longer necessary bits of knowledge. Now if I had had one of those things when I was fifteen, perhaps I might have learned how to play the guitar better, rather than spending half my life tuning it.
Music helped to put another nail in the coffin that contains my useless knowledge. In order to maintain my multistringed instruments, I went to buy a Vernier caliper for measuring string gauges. The very helpful salesman handed me something that looked like a Vernier, but had no calibrations on it and no Vernier slide. I must have been staring at it like a complete idiot, because he said, very kindly and gently, "It's got a digital readout." Then he pushed the little red ON button. That's it! Even my esoteric knowledge at reading obscure calibration instruments is redundant.
I do think that with all our highly precise machining of strings and other instrument parts, as well as digital measuring equipment, we might be getting rather more fussy about tuning than about the music itself. I have wondered whether those medieval musicians really played largely out of tune most of the time. A hurdygurdy maker I met once claimed that the precursor of the hurdygurdy was used in the monasteries to teach the melodies of Gregorian chant. As the hurdygurdy is a notorious beast to keep in tune even with modern technology, I suspect I may be right about that.

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