Directory of Tunes

You know that frustrating thing when you have a tune buzzing round your head, and you just can't put a name to it? You can hum it, but that is as far as it goes. You can go round humming it to your friends, who may know it, but is there a more scientific way of identifying tunes?

Well, back in the 1940s, there was a book published in America that did just this. The authors were Barlow and Morgenstern, and to identify an unknown tune you had to transpose the tune into the key of C, and then write down the actual notes. This gives a sequence of letters, and since different tunes can then be arranged alphbetically, you could look your tune up in the book. However this method requires a certain amount of musical knowledge.

Enter Mr Denys Parsons. Back in the 1970s, this ingenious man made an extraordinary discovery, and moreover it requires no musical knowledge whatever. Think of a tune in your head - there is no need to write it down. Is the second note higher than the first, lower, or the same? Write down U if it goes up, D if it goes down, and R - repeat - if it stays the same. Now ask yourself if the third note is higher than the second, lower, or the same, and again write down the corresponding letter. What Denys Parsons discovered was that 16 notes was enough to distinguish more than 10,000 classical themes, and that most popular songs can be identified in only 9 notes or sometimes even less.

Remember that you don't count the first note, so to give an example, Happy Birthday comes out as *RUDUD DRUDU DDR, where the * represents the first note, and this entry will be found a little after *RUDDD DRURD DDD, which of course you will have realised is 'Nowhere Man' the famous Beatles song written by Lennon and McCartney. (The gaps between groups of 5 letters are simply to make it easier to read, and have no musical significance.)

Denys Parsons' idea was so blindingly simple that quite a few publishers turned him down, until Spencer Brown & Co published this extraordinary book in 1975. Entitled The Directory of Tunes and Musical Themes, if you see a copy in a second hand bookshop it is worth buying, since copies now change hands for GBP50 - 100. The main section covers themse from classical music, there is then a section on populat tunes (bear in mind this book was written in 1975, so you won't find any songs written since then), and there is finally a short section containing National Anthems from around the world.

A final footnote to the story is that as he was compiling his directory, Mr Parsons noticed that some openings were a lot more common than others. *UU is the most popular opening, used in 23% of the time, while *DR is the least popular, used in only 2% of themes. And that this held true whether you looked at famous classical composers, pop musicians, and even 240 Teton-Sioux songs from North America fitted the pattern. Why should this be so? No-one knows.

So let's hear it for the late Denys Parsons, musician, author, chemist, film-maker, professional piano tuner and repairer, Press Officer to the British Library, and psychic researcher. The musical world has not really fully appreciated his eclectic genius, so we do so here.