Morning Music: Tiny Tim’s Stairway to Heaven

Girl - Tiny TimAt last, we reach the end of our Tiny Tim week. And we go out with a bang. If I have only one song to introduce someone to him with, I go right to the big guns — the one song that shows everything that is great about him. And that song is his cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” It’s a perfect song.

Let’s start with the music. It is a light jazz version of the song with a relentless walking bass and a wonderfully syncopated drum. On top of this, is this wonderful 1940s style male vocal quartet, which allows Tiny Tim to play around a bit. The main thing is that the song is done completely seriously. But the critical thing about it is that no one doing it thinks the song is serious. It is about as serious as Mickey the Monkey.

6 thoughts on “Morning Music: Tiny Tim’s Stairway to Heaven

  1. That arrangement is brilliant. This is not done often enough, translating rock songs into older-style formats. It’s out there, but it’s not nearly as common as rock appropriating older songs. I think both can be great.

    There’s a bit in the Herzog film “Cave Of Forgotten Dreams,” about cave art. An archaeologist demonstrates playing “Yankee Doodle” on a 10,000-year-old pipe instrument. Humans are humans and for whatever reason we respond to pretty specific musical frequencies (some other cultures include quarter-frequencies that may sound random to us — they aren’t random!)

    There was an old rap song that matched a sample of Sam Cooke with Arabian music and then had a Staten Island guy rap over it. This can be done! The possibilities are endless.

    • That’s an excellent film. There are physical reasons for the octave and the fifth. But various pentatonic scales seems universal as well.

        • They are the two lowest (and dominant) harmonics. If you blow on a flute harder, you will get the second (and then third) octave. On a clarinet (because one side is closed), if you open the register hole, you don’t get an octave, but an octave and a fifth. I am planning to write an article about the physics of the clarinet, so I’ll leave that for now. It’s easier to show with strings. The two really strong harmonics on a guitar are at the fifth fret (octave) and seventh fret (fifth).

          • Nope — still don’t get it. Thanks for trying, though!

            Why do certain sounds hit our ears the right way?

            What’s odd is I’m terrible at science and could never understand an musical instrument to save my life. But the SO — a music teacher — says I’m amazing at singing in the right notes. My voice is nothing special, but I’m always “in tune,” whatever that means, and can easily adjust to other singers sounding different so I do “harmony,” whatever that means. We all have useless talents, I guess.

            But the SO’s specialty as a teacher isn’t about making people into music superstars, just encouraging them to do music with the skills they possess. Every student has natural abilities and things that could be improved with practice. From reading music to timing to getting the sound right. It seems impossibly hard. The SO works on making it seem hard, but manageable.

            There’s an interesting movie, “Whiplash,” featuring the guy on every insurance TV ad now, screaming and abusing music-school students. It has a terrible ending where an abused student achieves greatness both to show up the abusive teacher and to demonstrate how those hideous teaching methods pushed him to become better. It’s a stupid and horrible ending.

            But the actor playing the bad teacher is really good. He gets how a tyrant of that sort can both be high on his own power and think his cruelty is serving some greater purpose.

            • Start with the octave. Let’s suppose you and a little boy where going to sing a song together in unison: with the same notes. Well, your voice is lower than his, so you would be singing the same notes, but in different octaves. That’s the most fundamental thing in music. If one note is an octave higher than another, it means that the note is twice the frequency. Similarly, a fifth has a 3:2 ratio of the frequency of the top note to the bottom note. So those are two things are heard in pretty much every kind of music everywhere. There is a physical basis to it. Beyond that, it is mostly just what we know. For example, in western music, a major chord is considered “happy” — but that’s just true to us, not necessarily to people who weren’t brought up on our music. The same is true with minor chords, which sound sad to us. But you might ask your SO, because that’s stuff I read 30 years ago when I was studying composition.

Leave a Reply