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.
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 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.”
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.
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?”
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.”
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.
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.”
Michel de Montaigne’s father believed “it disorders the tender brains of children to awake them by surprise in the morning, and suddenly and violently to snatch them from sleep”; he preferred to rouse his son from slumber “by the sound of some instrument of music,” likely an early form of harpsichord called an epinette. Montaigne recalled later that he “was never without a musician for that purpose.”
While manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, Joe Maddon put his batting lineup in order for a July 2014 game using the field position numbers 8-6-7-5-3-0-9 in honor of the Tommy Tutone hit. The designated hitter served as the 0; the catcher (2) and second baseman (4) batted eighth and ninth. The Rays lost the game to the Detroit Tigers by a score of 1–8.
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.”
Researchers working with the Tsimané of the Amazon found that tribe members could tell the difference between consonance and dissonance but took them to be equally pleasant, giving credence to the idea that Western preference for consonance is not biological. “The Greeks were really into ratios,” speculated the lead researcher. “It’s possible they started making music that way and we’ve been stuck with it ever since.”
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.
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.