Wednesday, April 27, 2005

A Musical Language

During my time in Taiwan, I was entertained on all my days off – and for free! – by the singers who lived two floors above me - they had installed a massive home karaoke system to ensure the whole city could hear them. Taiwanese people are so kind! They sang the same song every time, to give me a chance to learn the words.
They never seemed to sing any better, and I found that fascinating. I invited researchers from Taiwan Taipei National Normal Music University to test my theory. For three months my bedroom was taken over by cables, sensors, beeping display screens and mysterious black boxes. Finally, Ran Toh-Yah, senior lecturer in the Vocal Training department, presented his findings.

"It's quite interesting," he began. "Over the last three months your neighbours have made no improvement at all. It's counter-intuitive, I accept that. Most people, when they repeat an action many times, be it speaking a foreign language or hammering a nail, improve. That is to say, they get better. Practice makes perfect. In Chinese we have the idiom, 'The Mating Frog Lacks Not Patience,' which I think says it all. Improvement generally follows the Fisher-Wight curve. In the case of your neighbours, the complete lack of improvement is, frankly, contrary to all scientific notions. Fisher and Wight, not to mention Einstein and Newton, would be turning in their graves. If they are dead. I don't know if Wight is dead yet."

So what was the song about? The researchers told me that what sounded to my barbaric Western ear as one Chinese song endlessly re-butchered was in fact three hundred different songs. They downloaded and printed the lyrics of half a dozen. Seeing the Chinese gobbledegook on the page, I visited top translator Tiffany Yen in her sumptuous coffee shop office. She charged me $4000 to translate the words into English and then told me that I should have bought a $280 book which contained the English translation of many Chinese songs.

These are the choruses from the three most popular Chinese songs, as warbled indefatigably by my neighbours.

3 - I Love You

I love you
You don't love me
We are not together
I hope you'll be happy

2 - You Love Her

I love you
You love her
We are not together
I hope she makes you happy

1 - You Love Me

You love me
I don't love you
We are together
But not for long


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