A Minor Memory

Kutatók éjszakája - Mozart-szonáta kéziratának egy töred

I’ve been using “shazam” as a verb for a while now.

Not to be confused with the interjection that expresses amazement Gomer-Pyle-style. It’s when I use the Shazam app on my phone. It’ll name that tune.

Open the app and touch its signature S to begin Shazamming. The app “listens.” You see concentric circles radiating outward the way submarine sonar looked in old black and white movies. Shazam decodes the music’s digital signal, searches databases, and, Shazam! You’re listening to Vashti Bunyon’s “Train Song” or Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C Minor.

Since I’ve begun Shazamming, I’ve stood in noisy bars and restaurants with my hand raised, lifting my phone in the direction of the music coming from speakers in the ceiling, waiting for the app to Shazam what I’m listening to. In the old days, you might ask a server or proprietor, What song is that? In the old days, listening to the radio, you would wait for the song to end, wait for a DJ to say, “That was Stephen Martin’s “Two by Three” on his quartet’s new LP entitled ‘Vision.’” If she said it, that is. Big if. Sometimes you waited for the end of the song, waited through the next song, through a few commercials after that, coming up with nothing. Now, in the car, in a bar, almost any time I hear music I don’t recognize, I can thumb my device to life, touch the icon, and, well, Shazam, it’s “Are You That Somebody” by Aaliyah.


“I’m going to ask Roxane if she Shazams,” I say to my wife one day. She’s reading news on her device.

No response.

“What do you think?”

Her device is an iPad. She does not use a smartphone. She is not a good friend of computers. She has only basic operating knowledge of the tv remote and can’t run the Roku. But her iPad she depends on, and loves. It is a faithful companion.

“Sure,” she says without looking up.  Then, “Wait, what?” Now she lifts her gaze, but just barely. “I don’t know. What are you talking about?”

“Are you reading the news?”

“Yes. What is it? What did you ask me just now?”

“You were phnubbing me,” I say.


“You’re phnubbing me.  It’s a new word. You put phone and snubbing together, you get phnubbing.”

“Stop saying these things to me when I’m trying to read.”

“I’m going to ask Roxane if she Shazams.”

She shakes her head, goes back to her reading.



The portmanteau is actually “phubbing.” Kevin Roose, writing for the New York Times, recently described his new tech regimen, which involves devoting significantly less time to tech. He says he spends more time reading, more time pondering, more time listening to his wife, “less time distractedly nodding and mumbling while checking [his] inbox or tapping out tweets.”

Less time phubbing the people he cares about.

(Phubbing is the real word–a neologism that will probably die young. I prefer phnubbing.)

“Well, I’m going now,” I say to my wife.

She’s tapping her device when I leave. So many taps. Solitaire, I  guess. When I get to the back door, from deep in the house I hear, “Bye.”

Roxane lives down the street. She’s given piano lessons to every kid in the neighborhood, our kids included. And me included. She’s an eighty-something who recently lost her husband. I thought of her a few days ago when I heard a piece of music. I was in the car on a Sunday morning, making a run to the store for milk. Local FM was playing Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. I didn’t need to Shazam it.

I called Roxane when I got home.

“I know that music,” I said to her. “They did something funny in the second movement.”  I hummed the phrasing.

She said, “Yes?”

“Do you know it?”

She made a choking sound. Her way of saying Duh.


I said I’d never heard it like that before. The phrasing seemed rushed, compared to the recording I’ve listened to on and off since 1971, when I took music appreciation. I hummed the phrase twice, the 1971, then the 2019. Would a conductor, I asked, make an interpretive decision about that phrasing?

“It’s certainly possible,” she said “ There’s so much variety in the scores as they are written and printed over time. Mozart might leave a few notes off here and there. Ravel is notorious. Then, over decades and centuries, printing, you know, the blanks are filled in.  And there’s human error.”

I hummed the melody one more time.  “I bet it’s in A minor,” I said.

“Listen,” she said, “why don’t you come down next week and we’ll look at some music together.”

I walk down the street to her house–the way I did years ago, once a week for a year of lessons, remembering the nerves, my performance anxiety. I didn’t practice enough. I didn’t read well.  I couldn’t open my hands. I sat next to her and played, feeling like Gomer Pyle.

She’s waiting. Once we get seated in the kitchen she makes us instant coffee in the microwave, cuts slices of yellow cake. She’s still getting used to being alone. She worries about falling. The stairs terrify her. We move down the agenda of neighborly topics: Squirrels, snow removal, her kids, mine. The change in the neighborhood. People aren’t as friendly. She says she has only six students now. The serious ones. It’s enough.


Her grand piano is in the next room. She’s made a pile of music on the dining room table for us to look at. A Brahms sonata, two charts, one of which she says she played when she was a girl. She opens both on the piano.

“See,” she says, pointing to one chart, then the other. “Piano here; forte there. Same measure.” She opens up a couple Mozarts. “Diminuendo here; on this piece, same place, nothing.” We go through a few more examples. I’d like her to play the Brahms; I ask if she still plays it. She says yes but does not volunteer. Back at the dining room table, she shows me a beautifully ornate book, a collection of the Mozart Concertos. She pushes a box of cd’s toward me, all the Beethoven symphonies. “Take these,” she says. “I don’t need them back.”

She also hands me sheet music for Beethoven’s Fifth, written for piano. It actually says made easy for piano. Kids stuff. It’s the thought that counts.

“You can play this,” she says. “You know Beethoven’s Fifth?”

I make a choking sound. Her way of saying Duh!

“Take this too.” She hands me an old hardcover book, Beethoven the Creator, by Romain Holland. She opens it and turns to the page where there is a small flowing handwritten inscription in black ink. To my dear friend and pupil.  December 25, 1929. “My mother’s piano teacher gave her this book,” she says. “My mother gave it to me. It’s precious. I’ll want it back.”

As I’m leaving we talk for a minute more at the front door, a little sostenuto.  “You know it is A Minor, that second movement,” she says, meaning that second movement, Beethoven’s seventh.  “How did you know? Pitch memory?”

I have to thank The Animals. When I was in seventh grade and learning to play the guitar, like everyone, I played “House of the Rising Sun,” made famous by Eric Burden and the Animals. The song began with an A Minor arpeggio on the electric guitar. That sighing, mournful opening chord of the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh, I knew, was in the same key.


That night I’m washing a couple dishes, and I ding a bowl with a wooden spoon. It rings a distinctive, unmistakable note. My gosh, I think, it’s gotta be E.

To check this, I try to recall a song in the key of E Major: the opening chords to “Gloria,” by Them (The Them, I like to say now), in the summer of 1964. “Let me tell you about my baby/You know she comes around/She’s about five feet four/From her head to the ground.” I’m singing it now, finishing the dishes. “You know she comes around here/At just about midnight. She make ya feel so good/Lord, she make ya feel all right.”

There must be an app that can listen and report out. You hum a note, whack a cereal bowl, the app listens and says that’s B flat.  Later I’m Googling around on my iPhone looking for such an app when I see my wife, curled up on the end of the sofa, reading her Salai, a sly historical fictional account of Michelangelo’s puckish friend by that name. A real book. She’s reading a book.

She looks up and smiles.  Her look says, Who’s phnubbing whom? (Although I know she would never use that word.)

“So how was your visit with Roxane?” she says.

“It was really good,” I say.  “She’s chatty. I came away with gifts.”




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