Name That Tune

“The (church conference) leader explained to us that scientists had discovered that if you slow down the sounds that a cricket makes, you will find that the cricket is actually singing the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus to Handel’s Messiah.”

Excerpt from When God Talks Back (Knopf, 2011) by T.M. Luhrmann


Of all of the fascinating things in Ms. Luhrmann’s anthropologic book about American evangelical Christians, the passage above struck me as the most fascinating. Having grown up around crickets (and besides Inuits, who didn’t?) and having sung in a chorus or two when Handel’s famous tune was the main feature, I hadn’t connected the cricket-to- “Hallelujah”-chorus dots. I should have been paying closer attention.

My first thought, after reading this passage, was that I needed to talk to the scientists and get more detail about how much, exactly, does one have to slow down the cricket’s singing before one begins to hear Handel’s work. I knew from my youth that playing songs slower or faster than normal could produce some hilarious or bizarre effects. I would play my 78’s or 45’s at 33 1/3 rpms (younger readers will have to consult your history texts to fully understand this reference). Slowing down a song thus created a dirge effect and occasionally suggested words and messages that hadn’t been audible at the correct speed. That’s how I learned from “Abbey Road” that Paul McCartney was dead, except for the fact that he wasn’t.

Conversely, playing a 33 1/3 record at 45 or 78 rpms created Alvin and the Chipmunks, which, some would argue, was the devil’s work.

Try as I might, however, I could not locate a single scientist who could confirm the cricket-“Hallelujah” chorus connection. I did have several interesting conversations and if there was a common theme it seemed to be that the scientist would first politely listen to my question and then, second, ask if he or she could put me on the speaker phone and third, ask me to repeat my question. There always seemed to be a great deal of muffled todo on the other end but it could have been my imagination or a lousy cell tower connection.

Contacting God directly for information (as some of my readers know from former posts, this is an accidental but useful ability that I have) isn’t something I do regularly. If there is one place where being a nuisance caller is unwarranted, it’s Universe Central. God has many duties and, while always patient with me, shouldn’t be bothered with information requests that are available on Google. However, on the cricket chirp to “Hallelujah” chorus issue, search engines had proven unfruitful. And besides, now that March Madness was over, victory prayers to God from millions of basketball fans has slowed dramatically. (I should point out that, except for Kentucky fans, most of these petitioners are currently re-evaluating their faith.)

And so, I gave my secret phone protocol a try.

After several seconds of inter-galactic static, a brief hum and then what reminded me of crickets chirping at regular speed, a pleasant voice answered in what I determined was Latin. Not having studied Latin, one of my many educational mistakes, I resorted to what I call my landscaper’s patois, “No habla e pluribus Latino unum”.

There was a lengthy quiet.

“Boots?”, came the eventual reply, this being my familial nickname and well known in heaven.

“Yes, exactly. Is this God?”

“No, this is Tom Aquinas. God asked me to take calls while the rules committee is meeting to decide whether the Supreme Court is due for a heart attack or two just to make the rest of the year more interesting in your part of the cosmos. May I answer a question for you? I know quite a bit, although not as much as God.”

I explained the cricket-“Hallelujah” chorus situation and expressed my skepticism, especially given my inability to get any scientific confirmation.

“Scientists are lovely people,” offered Tom, “But quite often they don’t  know squat. For instance, they are currently flailing around with their ‘string theory’ idea and we get the biggest kick out of the gobbledygook they trot out to explain the unexplainable. Anyway, to your point, the cricket-“Hallelujah” chorus phenomenon is absolutely correct.”

My next question barely disguised my smugness for its “gotcha” quality. “Oh really, then what did crickets chirp in the eons before Handel wrote the Messiah in 1741?”

“Crickets have always sung exactly the same thing. Handel stole the composition from them. Like many creative people, George experimented with mind-altering substances. He thought it would be a giggle to dose a few crickets with laudanum and see what happened. In fact, he decided to do this while on laudanum himself. The drug slowed the cricket’s chirping, George liked the resulting tune and the lyrics and quickly got it all down on paper. Viola!”

Well, this was certainly an eye-opener, sort of like discovering that Don Draper in AMC’s “Mad Men” is actually Dick Whitman of the Illinois Whitmans.

“Universe Central buries all sorts of artsy-fartsy stuff in nature and then waits for creative types to discover it and turn it into something commercial,” continued the Saint. “For instance, if you take the nature film of the frantic interior of an African ant mound and play it backwards and upside down, it perfectly reproduces the candy factory conveyor-belt scene from “I Love Lucy”. How Desi and his writers came across this connection is still unclear but we think it involved extra strong mojitos plus something they were smoking.”

“Have you had any miscues, where the nature-to creative-process connection doesn’t work out for the best?”, I asked.

“Oh, heavens yes, pardon the pun”, Tom replied. “When Little Anthony revealed to the Imperials that if you took the sound of a humpback whale, sped it up 300%, played it backwards while squinting, you got ‘Shimmy Shimmy Cocoa Bop’. Where Little A. got it wrong was the ‘playing backwards’ part. If he had just sped it up, squinted and played it forward, they could have recorded ‘Hey Jude’ years ahead of the Beatles; they coulda made a bundle on the residuals. I mean, who plays ‘Shimmy Shimmy Cocoa Bop’ anymore?”

“Your Holiness,” I asked,  “I dabble in music for fun and no profit; is there something in nature that I should tinker with in order to create a new and wildly successful piece of work? It doesn’t have to be a wowzer like the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus but, you know, something along the lines of Michael Jackson’s ‘Killer’ or Carl Perkins’ ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. ”

“Please, call me Tom,” he responded. “I’m sure you will understand, Boots, that I can’t do that. An artist needs to come across these connections on his or her own. I can suggest this: you know that annoying noise of the lone mosquito in your bedroom of an evening? Well, record that sound–you can use your iPhone–and then play around with the result. If nothing else, it will irritate the mosquito. But listen, this advice did not come from me, capice?”

I loved his tough Italian act.

“I really have to take some other calls, Boots. I’ll let God know that we resolved your question. Ciao.” The dial tone buzzed in my ear.

Since that conversation I have set my iPhone on “record” before I retire at night, hoping to capture the lone mosquito sound. So far, all I’ve recorded are faint rustlings, some intermittent snoring, a nearly inaudible swear word and something like the sound you get when you’ve reached the end of the ketchup in a squeeze bottle. I’ve tinkered with these natural sounds–well, not the swear word–but have yet to stumble across anything that  remotely sounds like a hit.


Observoid of the Day: Some of us are old enough that we knew Def Leppard when they were merely Hard of Hearing Leppard.

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3 Responses to Name That Tune

  1. David says:

    I can’t wait to hear your recording of “Fly On The Wall.”

  2. Tim McCarthy says:

    Thanks for that very creative musing on the origin of creativity. It got my juices flowing and my tape recorder buzzing.

    Great read!

  3. This is the funniest article i’ve read in a looong-time!
    Am sending it to a Musical-Genius so he can laugh too, before he plunges back into the nightmare-world of searching for his next Day-job…

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