Monday, September 24, 2007

Has anyone seen my keys?

Looking at some photos from my trip to Saltaire, this American toy reed organ jogged a memory. I used to borrow my school friend Stewart Weston's Bontempi, something rather similar to this. It had a regular polyphonic keyboard (i.e. each note would sound individually) and a cluster of buttons to the left. Each button played a chord with the white buttons playing major ones, black buttons minor ones. This organ is slightly confusing in that it uses regular (if truncated) black and white keys with a non-logical layout and the keys are numbered rather than showing the note. On reflection, I think that Stew's was similar in labelling, suggesting that they may have come with some kind of method songbook.

I fixed Stew's a couple of times as he had a younger Sister who also played with it and it got chucked in a cupboard when it was in the way. Opening it up, it was surprisingly simple inside, a number of mouth-organ type reeds covered by the keys and a fan arrangement underneath. When you pressed a key the corresponding reed was uncovered and it sounded. For the chord buttons, they uncovered a reed assembly with three tongues to play the harmony. For duff notes, the normal symptom was that a reed had shaken loose and was lying around in the innards.

You could also make it fart- you pressed all the keys at once and it audibly sagged.

I did ponder why the keyboard was laid out the way it is (five black notes in a group of two and three for each octave, being twelve notes before the sound repeats itself higher at double the frequency) and the more I looked into it the more I discovered that music theory is really complex. Indeed I can can recall a professional musician saying that it is like peeling an onion grasping the complexities of how key transposition works, especially when non-western music is studied that uses other scale structures. The language quickly becomes arcane and the lay person (i.e. me) gets lost.

Then you catch sight of a keyboard like this. It is known as an enharmonic harmonium and uses a tuning called 53 equal temperament. Rather than a semitone between notes making the twelve steps, there are very small increments making 84 steps. This is known as a generalized keyboard and just reading about it does my head in...

This keyboard, however, would do a musician's head in, making no musical sense at all. That is because it is used to control lights and the black keys are for colour change equipment.

(I've played with the Drury Lane Theatre Royal one when it was still installed, but unfortunately the dimmers were switched off at the time.)

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