Melisma variations

“Children are lucky if their parents have the good sense to force them to learn a musical instrument. Even if the knowledge does not stick or the child has no talent, there are important ideas and impressions that are planted in the mind by a musical education.”


My father had a secret stash of Shirley Bassey records. There was a record-player in the house. Mine. It was not a very good record-player. I was eleven and I did not know what hi-fi was. I was into noise, and catchy tunes and syncopations. I had no idea what a ‘Shirley Bassey’ was either, except that it was obviously extremely glamorous and sparkly, could be photographed with its mouth open and got hidden in my father’s bedroom closet—where there was no record-player to play it.

'Melodica'—sucky instrument one blows into to produce windy notes.
‘Melodica’—sucky instrument one blows into to produce windy notes.

Many years later I learned my father lived most of his life in another house, an apartment he kept in Collingwood, an inner suburb of Melbourne, while I reconnoitred the border of ‘Forest Hill’ and ‘Nunawading.’ His Shirley Bassey records got played—if they were played at all, I never heard them—in Collingwood.

I compensated for the lack of a musical education, from my parents or anyone else, by trying to figure out how musical scales worked with the aid of books and a strange, little keyboard called a ‘Melodica’ (which sucked, even though I had to blow in it). This ‘instrument’ emitted horrifyingly weedy, windy sounds that were supposed to be musical notes.

Children are lucky if their parents have the good sense to force them to learn a musical instrument. Even if the knowledge does not stick or the child has no talent, there are important ideas and impressions that are planted in the mind by a musical education. Exactly what these ideas and impressions are is difficult to say.

One of them, for example, might have something to do with scales. Leave aside the discipline and patience needed to practice them: every distinct culture has a distinct musical scale that is a framework upon which all its music is built. There is a Chinese scale, an Arabic scale, a Greek scale, an Indian scale, scales that are equally tempered and scales that are not. Discovering these facts through musical exploration changes a person’s understanding of what culture is and how culture shapes perception.

I listened to Mozart, and graduated to Bach. I had no idea what a Sex Pistol was, or a Clash; David Bowie, The Ramones, The Osmonds and The Bay City Rollers were all just words.

One of the popular boys in high school, who seemed to know things the unpopular boys did not know, started to mock me and gave me the nickname “Stevie Wonder”. His mockery was so gentle and, I see in retrospect, so complimentary that I wonder now whether he might have fancied me. Whatever his motive, my new nickname introduced me to the artist who convinced me that contemporary music was worth listening to. Motown. It was fresh air.

Wonder was twenty-three when he made the live studio promotional video for a new album and recorded ‘All in love is fair’. What a voice he had! Conversational and easy-going when singing quietly, it could suddenly unleash tremendous emotion. Wonder’s version of his own song is a study of contrasts between beautiful vibrato, playful melisma, and striking crescendos.

Shirley Bassey singing 'All in love is Fair'.
Shirley Bassey singing ‘All in love is Fair’.

Other singers, mainly women, took up this song very quickly, and made it their own. Shirley Bassey renders it in a sassy, wise-ass style in which her jaw really looks as though life is punching it crooked as she sings. Barbra Streisand performs it straighter, as though whispering a lesson in life and love right in your ear. Carmen McRae’s version is jazzier, seeming to plumb darker notes, but all the while keeping the melodic line under tight control. Dionne Warwick’s is the saddest version and, just by a little, the slowest.

These other artists are not merely channeling Wonder’s song. Each version seems like something completely original that is made out of the singer’s own life.

The great French cellist Paul Tortelier said of musicians, “We are fortunate. We know about happiness.” Note, though, that he does not say they are happy. And that is another mystery music teaches us, and which it is best not to explain.


Carmen McRae

Barbra Streisand

Dionne Warwick

Stevie Wonder

Shirley Bassey

Paul Tortelier