themeIn the past it wasn’t easy to identify an unknown piece of music heard by chance, with no other evidence to hand than the melody itself. In fact just about the only hope was to go to a specialist library and consult A Dictionary of Musical Themes by Sam Morgenstern and Harold Barlow. This reference book, first published in 1950, collects together 10,000 musical themes (mostly classical works) and indexes them using a notation index based on transposing the pitches to C major or C minor (so that “God Save the Queen”, for instance, would come out as CCDBCDEEFE). To compile this dictionary was clearly a labour of love for the authors, both composers themselves. It reminds me of the efforts Victorian scholars put in to compile massive concordances of classic literature, including the Bible and Shakespeare. And similarly, all that effort would no longer be required today.

So who were the authors? Sam Morgenstern (1906-1989) was a teacher at Mannes College of Music in Greenwich Village, New York, and the conductor of Lower Manhattan’s Lemonade Opera Company, which gave the US premiere of Prokofiev’s Duenna in 1948. He composed two short operas himself, along with the Warsaw Ghetto (setting a spoken word poem by Harry Granick to background music), which was premiered at Carnegie Hall on February 10, 1946. He also composed a choral cantata The Common Man, and the latin-tinged piano piece Toccata Guatemala. Although there are no recordings of his work, a crackly radio disk transcription of the second performance of Warsaw Ghetto, made in the studio a week after the premiere, can be heard here (36 minutes in). Morgenstern’s other books included the classic anthology Composers on Music (1956).

Co-author Harold Barlow (1915-93), who devised the notation scheme, was a popular song composer who studied violin at the University of Boston and went on to become a bandleader during World War II. He wrote the comedy song “I’ve Got Tears in My Ears” in 1949 (recorded by Homer and Jethro), and the lyrics to the 1960 Connie Francis hit “Mama”. But Barlow became better known later in his career when he became a consultant on plagiarism, most famously defending George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” against the accusations that it was copied from the Chiffons’ hit “He’s So Fine”. (Harrison still lost the case). Barlow also worked on cases involving Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Elton John, Dolly Parton and Billy Joel.

A new attempt at classifying tunes was published in 1975 by Denys Parsons. The Dictionary of Tunes and Musical Themes used the contours of a melody, avoiding the need to transpose the notes into C (which involves some musical knowledge). Using the letters U,D and R to denote up, down and repeat, and an asterisk for the first note, “God Save the Queen” comes out as *RUDUU URUDDD UDDU. Parsons (1914, died circa 2000) was the grandson of the famous actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, initially a scientist, then a film maker, and from 1933-80 the press officer for the British Library – as well as a talented pianist and flautist. He was also the father of Alan Parsons, the producer of Dark Side of the Moon and leader of the Alan Parsons Project. Denys Parsons covered around 15,000 classical, popular and folk pieces in his dictionary. And in the process he found out that *UU is the most popular opening contour, used in 23% of all the themes, something that applies to all the genres.

Today all this can be done on the Internet – either by plugging an audio file into Gracenote or iTunes, or by going to sites such as The Multimedia Library (the Barlow method) or Musipedia (the Parsons method). They are still very handy resources when trying to identify an elusive melody.