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Solving a Music Mystery

by Lisa Ellison

Nearly a week ago, my sister Denise Cerniglia, a ballet teacher and choreographer in Holly Springs, NC, told me she’d started choreographing a ballet to music she didn’t have. “I mean,” she elaborated, “I’ve already started teaching the dance, whistling the music. I’ve been whistling it for everyone I know, and have even recorded it to send to a few people. I guess I’ll be whistling in the show if I can’t find it.”

It was a friend of Cerniglia’s, ballet enthusiast Phil Hanna, who helped her solve the mystery.

“If you have a snippet of a poem or a line from a TV commercial, you can Google it,” said Hanna. “If you can upload an image or a link to one, you can Google it. But if all you have is a music fragment, you are stuck. There are apps like Shazam and Soundhound, but they work almost exclusively with popular music. If your mystery tune is classical, you need to look elsewhere.”

Trying to tell me more about it, so I could ask my own friends knowledgeable about classical music, Cerniglia recalled, “I think it’s a solo violin, or possibly a flute.” Not a lot to go on, really.

When Hanna received the file, he promised to help. “I didn’t recognize it immediately, probably because I couldn’t find the time signature or the harmony,” said Hanna. “But it bounced around my head for a day or so until it snapped. I knew the piece: it was in 3/4 time, violin with string accompaniment. And I knew it was well known, but I couldn’t recall the larger context.”

Notation of fragment, courtesy of Phil Hanna.

Notation of fragment as recalled by Phil Hanna.

Instead of just thinking it over, Hanna decided to reproduce the fragment on paper. He said, “With the help of some music notation software, I reproduced four bars of melody and accompaniment.”

Actual fragment from Tchaicovsky's "Swan Lake."

Actual fragment from Tchaicovsky’s “Swan Lake.”

Hanna took his fragment to his friend, classical musician and music critic, Elizabeth Kahn. “She had a bit of trouble because I had recalled the wrong key (C major instead of E major) and the wrong time signature (3/4 instead of 6/8), but she correctly identified that it was from a pas de deux from ‘Swan Lake.’”

Regarding her process of identifying the fragment, Kahn said, “I simply recognized it. The process of identification has been the same for millennia: just ask a musician.”

“The pas de deux is pretty much a warhorse that forms an important part of even abridged versions of the ballet,” said Kahn.

“It’s kind of embarrassing I couldn’t place it since it’s from ‘Swan Lake,’” Cerniglia who is no stranger to classical ballets said after Hanna passed along the YouTube video Kahn had sent him. “I knew it was familiar.”

And that piece that Cerniglia set to whistling: “it works perfectly with the actual music.”

Here’s that White Swan pas de deux, queued to begin at the music Cerniglia couldn’t quite place.

Have YOU ever solved a music mystery? Tell us about it.

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Responses (2)

  1. Carol Collins says:

    Wonderful article–nothing like anything I have seen in e-news or paper news! But in any case this article is surely another big reason that the Greenville Guardian has a major role to play in supplying Greenville with a wide variety of news. Many thanks!!! I am so tickled!!!

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