Irving Berlin composed most of his songs in F-sharp major; the six sharp notes in the scale meant he could play the black keys of the piano almost exclusively. Eventually, for purposes of technical variety, he had a lever mechanism installed that allowed him to modulate into other keys without changing his playing.
In an 1899 treatise written while in exile, Vladimir Lenin critiqued the capitalist growth of Russian industries in which factory workers had replaced skilled craftsmen. Among his concerns was a shift toward the mass production of cheap accordions, which, he complained, “have nearly everywhere displaced the primitive string folk instrument, the balalaika.”
According to his official North Korean biography, Kim Jong Il initiated “an epochal change in the history of the modern opera” by introducing an offstage song called a pangchang—an innovation, claims the bio, “greater than the discovery of the heliocentric theory by Nicolaus Copernicus or the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus.”
Twenty-two-year-old critic Richard Goldstein savaged the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in a New York Times review when the album was released in 1967, calling it “busy, hip, and cluttered.” He later admitted the stereo he’d heard it on had a busted left speaker, but he remained unapologetic: “What can I say? If you’re not embarrassed by your youth, what good are you?”
Born on Lesbos around 700 BC, Terpander, a master of the kithara, was summoned to Sparta during a period of civil strife—an oracle had suggested bringing the “Lesbian singer” to help—and organized the city-state’s earliest civic music culture. Immensely popular there, he later returned for what was to be his last performance. While he was playing, a fig thrown by an adoring fan went directly into his mouth. Terpander choked on the fruit and died.
In 2014 Amelia Hamrick, an undergraduate at Oklahoma Christian University, noticed musical notes written across the buttocks of one of the denizens of hell depicted in Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. She transcribed it into modern notation and made a recording she posted on her blog. “So yes,” she wrote, “this is literally the 600-year-old butt song from hell.” The post went viral.
Hoping to encourage hostages held by FARC during Colombia’s civil war, state negotiators commissioned a local producer in 2010 to create a pop song embedded with a Morse-code message and had it broadcast repeatedly on the radio in rebel-controlled areas. After the lyrics “Listen to this message, brother,” the code sounded as a synth interlude: “Nineteen people rescued. You are next. Don’t lose hope.”
Paul Wittgenstein, brother of Ludwig, lost his right arm in combat during the First World War. Wishing to continue playing the piano, he commissioned one-handed works from esteemed composers, including Benjamin Britten, Sergey Prokofiev, and Maurice Ravel, insisting, for some, on having exclusive lifetime performance rights.
In her journal about life as a lady-in-waiting at Heian court, Sei Shonagon expresses her delight in men who keep a transverse flute tucked away in the breast of their robes. “There really is nothing more marvelous,” she writes. “And it’s delightful to discover beside your pillow at daybreak the handsome flute that your lover has inadvertently left behind him.”
Before the nineteenth century, a conductor’s baton was a baseball-bat-size implement that was banged against the floor to keep time. This could be dangerous. In 1687, while conducting a symphony playing Te Deum for Louis XIV, who had just recovered from serious illness, composer Jean-Baptiste Lully accidentally struck his foot with his baton, causing inflammation in his toe. He refused amputation, and an infection spread, killing him two months later.
In 2009 a twenty-four-year-old policewoman in Long Branch, New Jersey, responded to complaints about an “eccentric-looking old man” peering into a house. She asked the man his name. “I’m Bob Dylan,” he said. “I’m on tour.” Taking him for a liar, she put him in the back of her car and drove him to his hotel, where others confirmed he really was the musician. “I think he named a couple of songs,” she later recalled. “But I wouldn’t have known any of the songs.”
Hip-hop producer Devo Springsteen was once asked why he had sampled Nina Simone’s 1965 recording of the song “Strange Fruit” instead of Billie Holiday’s 1939 rendition. “Because of the rawness of her voice,” he said. “There is something really black about her voice. And when you are trying to make black music, there’s not a much blacker voice than Nina Simone.”
The medieval Occitan troubadour known as the Monk of Montaudon was a master of the enueg, “song of annoyance.” “I can’t stand a long wait,” he complains in one composition, written around 1200, “Or a priest who lies and perjures himself / Or an old whore who is past it, / And—by Saint Delmas—I don’t like / A base man who enjoys too much comfort.” The song goes on in this fashion for nine more verses.