In Western harmonic music, every student must spend some time on the circle of 5ths merry-go-round. It’s one way to learn the 12 different keys in a sensible order. C, that friendly all-white key scale (no sociological metaphor here!) is at the top of the circle at 12 o’clock and going counter-clockwise, you descend five steps (a 5th) and end up at F, the key with one flat—Bb. Down five more steps and now Bb is home and you add a new flat—Eb. Five more and guess where you end up? Yep, Eb. And so it goes until you reach Gb, which has a double identity as F#—6 flats/ 6 sharps. Now you’re at 6 o’clock and heading up the other side to B, with 5 sharps, E with 4, A with 3, D with 2, G with 1 and lo and behold, here we are back at C again. Did you follow all that?
Well, that’s the theoretical wheel and as fascinating as it is (is it?), it isn’t quite music. But from Bach to George Gershwin, much music will travel for a short time on that circle (the B section of I Got Rhythm for a familiar example). Don’t know of any piece of music that goes all the way around— too long a journey to sustain interest. But it’s theoretically possible (anyone know of one?). And if you did arrive at C again having visited all the flat and sharp keys, I imagine it would have a different feeling at the end than it did at the beginning. Rilke wrote a little poem about it, with the stanza:
Ah the ball that we dared, that we hurled into infinite space,
Doesn’t it fill our hands differently with its return.
Heavier by the weight of where it has been.
Why am I giving a music lesson here and comparing it to a boomeranged ball? Because today, I went down to sing with preschoolers and there was little Eli, the school cook’s grandson. 34 years ago, his mother Lena sat at my feet as a three-year old on her first day of school singing the ABC song and now here he is and it’s like returning back to the key of C after so many years of circling through the keys. Part of it the same, part of it so very different having been pushed down by so many flats and scratched by the sharps in all the intervening years. But always soldiering forward into the mysteries of those scaled notes singing beautiful melodies, transposing them from one key to the next as the years pile up.
Everybody—including me— seems to be wondering how long I can keep this up without being bored, exhausted, burnt-out, fed-up, wondering when the moment will strike when I stop in the middle of a song some day, lay down my guitar and walk out the door never to return. But as far as I can see— and truth be told, who can really see very far down the line?— it’s not going to be anytime soon. Not likely I’ll be singing to Eli’s child, but then again, never imagined I’d be singing to Lena’s. Who knows what the future holds?