Sep 30, 2012

A Tune-Dex Fakebook and Some Schillinger Symbols

Here is a little story about one of the first fakebooks, and how I finally achieved a sketchy understanding of the Schillinger System of Musical Composition.

Last week a student-dad, Randy, loaned me a fakebook that his father had used, about a half-century ago. Randy's dad (I'll call him "Dr. K.") was an aspiring songwriter in the early 1950s, who later entered academia, received a doctorate in music, and taught at Syracuse University.

This was a very cool fakebook, for a couple of reasons.

First, because it is an original Tune-Dex fakebook. These were the first bootlegged fakebooks, printed beginning in 1949, made by reproducing three Tune-Dex cards on each page. You can read about the (legal) Tune-Dex cards and about early bootleg fakebooks here.

Below is a sample of the format. With three of these little charts per page, on 369 pages, this book included over 1,000 songs. In fact, some "editions" were titled "Over 1,000 Songs" - that was the name of the book.

Tune-Dex fakebook chart

In "The Story of Fake Books," Barry Kernfeld traces the history of this product. It seems to have been owned and used by many musicians in the 1950s and 1960s - actually a very good resource in its day, although the chord changes are often kind of crude.

It turns out that I possess a Bb edition of this book, given to me by my friend Emil, a fine sax player and very nice guy who passed away recently at the age of 96. The tunes and pagination of my Bb book exactly match Randy's original concert key book. The concert-key book was in a 3-ring binder, making it an earlier printing (according to Kernfeld) - Randy thinks early 1950s. My Bb book seems to have been originally in a plastic comb binding, making it probably an early 1960s printing .

The Bb Tune-Dex book reminds me of the Bb edition of the old Real Book - hand copied, in notation not as clean as the concert book, by a "second generation" of musician-pirates who saw an opportunity to make a buck. Actually, the Bb Tune-Dex book was prepared more neatly and more carefully than the Bb edition of the old RB.

But there was something else very cool about the book that Randy loaned me. Dr. K. had marked up many of the tunes with symbols that seemed to be musical analysis, of a sort that I had never seen before. Randy thought that they had something to do with the Schillinger system. Here are three examples, among many:
Schillinger symbols?

Joseph Schillinger was a composer and theoretician who developed a mathematical system of musical analysis and composition that was popular among cutting-edge American musicians from the 1930s through the 1950s. George Gershwin, Glenn Miller, and Benny Goodman studied with Schillinger. So did Lawrence Berk, the founder of "Schillinger House," which later became the Berklee College of Music.

Dr. K. had studied composition with Rudolf Schramm, a Schillinger student who was a leading teacher of the system. Schramm was a prominent musician in his time (see his NY Times obit here); his students also included Jimmy Heath, Mercer Ellington, and Eubie Blake.

Randy's dad had used this fakebook as study material because it was, presumably, the best or most convenient compendium of popular songs available to him. The markings in the fakebook were his Schillinger-system analyses of "Great American Songbook" tunes. Maybe this was for self-study, or perhaps for his studies with Schramm, who did also teach songwriting.

After looking more closely at the way Randy's dad had used those mysterious symbols throughout the Tune-Dex book, some of them began to make some kind of sense. For example:
The first symbol above (the one that looks like a cube root sign) was used to indicate a cadence that goes from a tonic major chord to a major chord a M3 away, then back to the tonic - for example, Eb B Eb. 
The "S47" was used to indicate m6 chords that served as dominant preparation - what I would call an inverted m7b5 chord - e.g., the chord Am6 in a progression that goes Am6 B7 Em. Here the Am6 is really an inverted F#m7b5.
The third one I couldn't decipher.

Then Randy loaned me a Schillinger book that he had inherited from his father. It is a volume containing Book XI and Book XII of "The Joseph Schillinger System of Musical Composition" - the last one-sixth of a 1640-page work. After Schillinger's death in 1943, some of his students assembled and edited his teaching materials into this book. With some effort, I read through several chapters. A glossary included information on the symbols.

I suppose I might have had an easier time if I had first studied the preceding 1275 pages.

I can't say that I truly comprehend all of the Schillinger System, but I at least now have a basic sense of what it is about. It's a way of assigning mathematical or graphic structure to every aspect of music: rhythm, pitch, melody, dynamics, attacks, even emotion. The system involves a great deal of special terminology (jargon).

Here is how the glossary explained the three above examples:
The first symbol denotes root movement of a M3, as I had guessed. The "3" refers to the division of an octave into 3 equal parts - i.e., 4 half steps, i.e. a major third. I don't know where the "2" comes in.
The "S" in "S47" denotes a seventh chord. I couldn't find anything about the "47" part. Perhaps this was a way of showing that Am6 was really a seventh chord (F#m7b5), as I mentioned above. 
The third one indicates "Harmonic continuity as a major generator" - in other words, the predominant force driving and organizing the music in that song was the harmony (as opposed to melody or rhythm).

There have been some brilliant people who have created their own mathematical systems for working with music - besides Schillinger, I'm thinking of Arnold Schoenberg, George Russell, and Nicholas Slonimsky (in his "Thesaurus Of Scales And Melodic Patterns"). One could spend a lifetime mastering these systems. For my own part, I still find enough challenge in the "conventional" approaches to music and music theory. My knowledge of Schillinger, Schoenberg, Russell, and Slonimsky is fairly superficial, and probably is destined to remain that way - although it's fun to dabble.

Like the counterpoint exercises we did in college, these systems provide different perspectives on the materials of music, and help one to be more adept at working with these materials, regardless of the style of music one might pursue. Advocates of each one of these systems will acknowledge that the system is just a set of tools, and that its real usefulness depends on the creativity of the composer or improviser.

Famously, George Gershwin may (or may not) have utilized Schillinger's teachings in composing "Porgy and Bess." A number of composers of film scores have used elements of the Schillinger system. Bugs Bower, who wrote some well-known educational music books, used some elements - check out this interview in which he talks about his book "Rhythms." And I'm pretty sure that Bugs uses some Schillingerian rhythmic permutations in his "Bop Duets," a book that is widely used for teaching swing beat reading.

Some people are still teaching the Schillinger system - just check Google. I'm not in a position to say who is now the real "keeper of the flame."

If any readers have pertinent info on this stuff, I hope you will leave a comment.

Some links:

Wikipedia's article on Schillinger

A brief survey of Schillinger's life and works, in vignette paragraphs

An article on "Porgy and Bess" and Gershwin's use (or not) of Schillinger's teachings

For a continuation of this topic in my next post, click here. For a final word on these symbols from a Schillinger expert, click here.

1 comment:

  1. I have about 2,500 of these cards. If anybody is interested in them, you can reach me at 941-467-4108 .