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THE TRUTH ABOUT TUNES, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 4th June 1955

A composer sits at the piano and plays a pretty tune,—“why don’t you publish it,” say all his friends,—“why don’t you, and live in luxury for the rest of your life?” A composer’s world is thought to be as simple as that: publish a tune and rest on perpetual laurels.

Perhaps it would be edifying to consider this apparent bed of roses (or laurels) and see how vigorous is the growth of attendant thorns.

In writing a good popular tune, I imagine, inspiration takes a back seat. Calculation is at the helm with Banality at the prow. This is inevitable. A good popular tune must be easily assimilated, easily remembered—by people who are not wholly listening. The only way to catch their attention is to use something they have often heard before. Hence the most popular tunes are those which are most reminiscent of previous successes—even if those successes are not consciously remembered.

It would make a fascinating subject for a thesis, to trace the distillation or seepage of a cliché from one popular tune to another. A contemporary instance can be found in one of the most successful West End shows. Its hit theme is (for the first musical phrase) note for note the same (and in the same rhythm though a bit slower) as one of the very popular tunes from Oklahoma in 1947.* Familiarity breeds contentment.

But in his calculation of how to spell-bind his public, a composer has other considerations. There are national tastes in tunes. To succeed on Broadway, an element of impotence and jewry has apparently been necessary in a tune. Such an element is conveyed by the banal use of certain intervals, in which one note is flattened.

Some sections of society prefer their tunes lavishly orchestrated. Some prefer the tune to be subordinate in interest to its accompanying rhythm. A composer must find the lowest common factor, to succeed in every direction.

But though plagiarism is a neat way of taking advantage of bygone plugging, there is a copyright law which forbids, I believe, the unauthorised quotation of more than four bars at a time. Consequently a little rudimentary musical knowledge is required, to alter a few notes here and there in the quoted bars to avoid their being “legally” recognised. Composers who cannot read music are advised to insist on their amanuensis being up to at least grade 2 (Associated Board). It is interesting to note that some composers (serious ones) have not used bar-lines. Each piece lasts in effect one bar. But it is easy to talk of the composer and his public in a facile way. In actual life there is between them an abyss of agents, impresarios, bandleaders, arrangers and publishers. All of these have to be ingratiated, but not trusted.

The agent is the man who claims to negotiate all the composer’s business (for a commission of 10 per cent.). But since the same agent is agent for all the people with whom the composer may negotiate, it matters little to him who gets what money, for he (the agent) takes his 10 per cent. from both sides, and is not interested in its distribution among his various clients.

The impresario is the man who promises the composer “reasonable” or even “complete” artistic control of his show—but who is well enough off to be able to afford a law suit, should the composer sue him for not doing so in the event. The impresario is a man who talks about gentlemen’s agreements, after promises of tasteful production in a suitable theatre, may (with many specious excuses, of course) present that show in the Albert Hall—on ice, making much money, of which the composer is lucky to get 2½ per cent.

The bandleader is the man who is “persuaded” to “plug” the tune in his various dance-hall appointments and on the B.B.C.

The arranger is the man to whom the copyright of the “arrangement” belongs. Should the composer allow an arrangement to be made without a specific agreement as to the sharing of proceeds—the arranger will naturally take all, and the tune will have benefited the composer nothing.

Now every bandleader has his own arranger, whose work he uses exclusively. These are in liaison with the publisher, who prints band parts from the “arrangement,” and in general encourages the dissemination of written versions of the tune.

But the publisher is usually on a financial string. He is under contract to an American publisher, to the effect that should an American tune wish for “plugging” in England, it shall receive priority over all English material that might interfere with its popularity—that is, the English publisher is under contract to suppress the English composer’s tune.

So when friends say to me “Why don’t you publish that tune?” I reply “One has to have a special talent for this sort of thing!”

Peter Tranchell

[This article clearly reflects the difficulties he was having at the time with Donald Albery and the colossus of agents, Music Corporation of America (England) Ltd., over the commercial production of Zuleika. See the letters of the period and the subsequent Zuleika Saga. Ed.]

* In a later article for The Caian touching on the same topic, he identifies the two tunes as ‘We said we’d never look back’ from Julian Slade’s Salad Days and ‘Everything’s up to date in Kansas City’.