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The Entertainer is a ragtime song by Scott Joplin. Scott is also well known for the Maple Leaf Rag and myriad other ragtime favorites. An online search will turn up umpteen MIDI files of his work.

This particular song was made famous by its inclusion in the movie The Sting, and is kept famous by use a ditty by nearly every piano player in existence who wants to show off or test out a piano. It is a more professional version of Chopsticks, in a sense.

Anyway, the song is almost always instrumental. The only exception I have ever seen is when Milton Berle gently crooned the lyrics on The Muppet Show in 1977. Unfortunatly, I cannot find these lyrics anywhere. I recall it being much more tender and sad than the music normal makes you feel. If anyone knows these lyrics, I'd love to know them.

Finally, one of the strangest arrangements of The Entertainer I ever heard was on my Commodore 64, way back in 1985. The program would take over three minutes to load the arrays needed to store the arrangment for the c64's four-voice synthesizer. When it finally took off, though, it was a very impressive arrangement.

The conductor of my high school band was surprised at the increasing ease with which his students could navigate rhythmic complexity -- especially surprised, because the ease with which they could count it off was steadily diminishing. When confronted with complex rhythms, we'd have difficulty saying the appropriate numbers and ands, but when asked to clap them (or play them) did so without mistakes.

Here are two hypothetical measures as we were supposed to see them, with xs denoting notes:

1 2 3 4 
x xx xx

1 2 3 4 
xx xx xx
Counted out, this would be, "1 2-and and-4 1-and and-3 4-and".

But it's much easier if you see it thusly:

x xx xx xx xx xx
1 12312312312312
(Shift the phase of the 123 as you see fit.)

A 3/4 time signature is embedded within the 4/4 and that's what you concentrate on. Easy to clap. Hard to count because we weren't allowed to do it this way.

I had noticed a similar generation gap at a violin lesson years before. My teacher, a member of the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, had a sheet of music from The Rite of Spring out when I arrived and was having trouble with it. "The rhythm just seems so random," she explained.

It was all the same note, and it looked like this (I'll put consecutive measures on consecutive lines):

x  x
x x 
x  x
x x 
In other words (well, in words, period), there was a note on the first and fourth beat of the first measure, on the third beat of the second measure, etc.

She played through part of it, slowly and carefully, and I heard immediately that it wasn't random at all, though I didn't correct her. I thought I must have been mistaken -- how could I, a 7th-grade violin beginner, catch something that eluded a professional musician? Here's how I saw the same beat (read it like a 4 lines of prose with very wide margins, not like 4 lines of poetry; numbers in bold are notes, unbolded are rests)


Stravinsky hadn't bothered to change the time signature, but he was using polyrhythms, laying patterns of 3 over the 4/4 of the piece. He'd done so only a few years after Scott Joplin had composed The Entertainer, which at the time was attacked (along with all other ragtime) by the establisment for being "syncopation gone mad". Of course, it wasn't syncopation the way Beethoven used it, as a once-in-awhile exercise in surprise; it was syncopated because like modern hip hop-listening high-schoolers, Joplin understood polyrhythms and filled his music with them.

During the main melody, the left hand does this:

1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
(I haven't looked at it, but I suspect in the sheet music it's actually 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and, at half-time compared to what I have here. That's irrelevent for our purposes, though.)

And the right hand, the melody, does this:

1-and and-3 4-and   and-4-and-1-and-2-and and-4 1 


xx xx xx     xxxxxxx xx x
123123123       123123123
(That last 123 may be stretching a bit, but I think it's there.)

Line them up and you get

  1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1
ddec ec ec     cddecde bd c
  123123123       123123123
(The letters are notes -- italics denote sharpness, so D# would be d.)

Not syncopation gone mad, but a pattern of three that rises and submerges within a pattern of four. (There are patterns within the melody, too, but I'm getting tired of graphing stuff. Also worth noting is that though I've portrayed the song in C for convenience, I'm not sure what its actual key is -- /msg me if you know.)

The history of modern art is mostly the history of groups coming together for the first time ever, of the practices that had devolped in isolation for 5,000 years suddenly mixing into each other. Music is certainly no exception: in America, the descendents of slaves retained a surprising number of the artistic idioms that their ancestors had spent centuries creating in Africa -- in particular, a rhythmic richness (of which polyrhythms comprise only a small part) that equaled the melodic richness of Europe. The Entertainer is an early example of this cultural melding; today's music (yes, even pop) displays a sophistication of rhythmic expression at least as thoughrough.

I've only taken one class in music theory, a pretty basic one as part of a larger Humanities course in 12th grade, and nothing in this writup was touched on. Certainly none of it surfaced in the four years of high school band I had (not even in Jazz Band); the band director, though talented, considered all new music "crap" and hip hop not music at all; and some of the choir director's comments ("put the melody on top, where you can hear it") made him seem like he'd fallen out of a wormhole terminating in 1957.

Most listeners can apppreciate most modern music -- otherwise most modern music would be something else -- and for them this node may be mostly superfluous (especially among teenagers and 20-somethings; over the decades, as cultures have mixed more and more, polyrhythms have percolated more and more into the charts), but a surprising number of smart, educated, musical people think that Kylie Minogue (for example) is shite. Similar divides exist between rock and jazz, between punk and disco -- really, between any style and any other, at least to an extent; idioms of one genre are misinterpreted by listeners of another (I'm going to kill myself if I hear another reference to a "melencholy jazz solo").

Black Books Episode Guide: The Entertainer

Series Two Episode One

He's Leaving Home | Black Books | Fever

Warning: Plot details follow.

Fran takes up the piano as a hobby. Of course, this means that she must also buy a piano and leave it sitting in the middle of Bernard's shop. Meanwhile, Manny is fed up with working 73 straight hours and goes out to have lunch, demanding that the last copy of the book Blue Sands be reserved for a character named Williams as he has written in the back of the ledger. Bernard, however, is suffering from a vicious hang-over:

Manny: It's not my fault you're hung over.
Bernard: It is your fault! If I lived with a normal person, there wouldn't be so much to blot out.

Bernard's hangover disappears when an attractive young woman walks into the store, looking to buy the last copy of Blue Sands. In attempt to persuade her that he's not a total freak, Bernard give the book away, quelling Manny's protests by applying the ledger to his head. Seconds after she leaves the store, a large man in a leather jacket walks in. Bernard quickly pins the blame on Manny (currently on the phone and unaware of what is happening) and he and Fran exit, leaving Manny to acquire a black eye from an angry Williams.

Cut to the next day, when Fran is taking piano lessons from her tutor, a blind Russian named Ioseph. Unfortunately, she is not as good as she had hoped, and after ten minutes she is already fed up. However her tutor will not be beaten so easily.

Iosef: When you hired me, you hired a Slavanski. My family has taught piano for two hundred years. Of all my thirteen brothers and sisters, I was the one sent on the scholarship; the rest stayed behind in the yurt.
Fran: What's a yurt?
Iosef: A tent, made of beaver skins. It's not so good.

Meanwhile, Bernard and Manny are sitting in the local pub, having been kicked out for the lesson. Manny is still trying to get some time off:

Manny: I want the weekend off! I mean it! I want a life!
Bernard: This is life! We suffer and slave and expire! That's it!
Manny: We have needs! Fran's got her piano, I want some time to myself, you want to go out with that girl.
Bernard: Don't make me laugh bitterly. Fran will fail, you'll toil your life away, and I'll die alone, upside-down on the floor of a pub toilet.

Just then, they notice that the girl is sitting, unawares, a couple of tables away. Manny bets Bernard the weekend off that she'll say yes if he asks her out, and, plucking up his courage, Bernard does so. To his surprise, the girl (whose name is Kate) says yes.

Kate: Is tomorrow alright?
Bernard is speechless.
Kate: You did ask me out, didn't you?
Bernard: Yes, yes I did, and look what happened. I'm sorry to bother you.

Returning to the bookshop, we find Fran still unable to play:

Fran: I must be musical! I've got hundreds of CDs!
Manny: I always wanted to learn, but my parents forced me not to. I spent hour after hour playing football, all by myself. Peering in at all the other children in the neighbourhood, practicing their piano.

She and Bernard go out to get generally drunk, leaving Manny in charge. While messing around with the piano, he suddenly finds that he's a natural pianist! The next morning he makes this fact known to his friends by playing them a classical music piece...just as Iosef walks in. Quick to take advantage of the situation, Fran pretends it was her playing the piece, and that she had been practicing all night. They almost manage to get rid of the tutor, but then Bernard mentions Bach - Iosef's favourite. He will does not leave until he coerces Fran into a performance of Bach the next day. Manny is persuaded into performing for Iosef, but before he can retire for the evening Kate walks in for her date with Bernard. Seeing the piano, she asks Bernard if he plays. Unable to resist the chance to show off, he says he does so, and quickly inveigles Manny into hiding in the piano body and playing the strings with spoons, while he sits grinning at the keys. Finally the two lovebirds head off for dinner, letting Manny crawl down to the pub to drown his sorrows.

The next day, Fran and Bernard decide it's time to admit the truth to both Kate and Iosef that they cannot play the piano (and they don't have much choice since Manny's enjoying his free weekend) - until they find that Iosef has flown in not only his father Pitor but also his grandfather Anton from Russia in order to hear her play. Fran decides she cannot let her tutor's family down, and goes out back to talk to Manny. Bernard joins her when Kate shows up, wanting to here some more of his playing. Several tunes later, Manny is fed up and slips out of the piano, unnoticed by all. Bernard and Fran start on their finale, only to find the piano no longer works for them...

Hilarity Ensues

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