Message from the stars
05/12/2014 12:00 AM
05/12/2014 1:13 PM
This Dave Barry column was originally published Sunday, July 30, 1995
We are not alone.
I make this statement in light of an article sent to me by alert reader Steve Kennedy, who found it in an academic journal called Popular Music and Society. The article, written by a college professor named Cherrill P. Heaton, is entitled "Air Ball: Spontaneous Large Group Precision Chanting."
The article concerns a phenomenon that often occurs at basketball games when a visiting player shoots an "air ball" -- a shot that misses everything. Immediately, the crowd, in a sportsmanlike effort to cause this player to commit suicide, will start chanting "AIR-ball AIR-ball."
Prof. Heaton, who teaches English but is also interested in music, noticed an odd thing about the "Air Ball" chant: The crowd members always seemed to start at precisely the same time, and in perfect tune with each other.
"As any director of a church choir or secular chorus knows, " Prof. Heaton writes, "getting a mere twenty or thirty trained singers to sing or chant together and in tune is not always easy. Yet without direction thousands of strangers massed in indoor auditoriums and arenas are able, if stimulated by an air ball, to chant 'Air Ball' in tonal and rhythmic unison."
But there's more. Using his VCR, Prof. Heaton taped a bunch of basketball games; he discovered that, no matter where the games were played, almost all the crowds chanted "Air Ball" in the same key -- namely, F, with the "Air" being sung on an F note, and the "Ball" on a D note.
This is an amazing musical achievement for Americans, who are not noted for their skill at singing in unison. Listen to a random group of Americans attempting to sing Happy Birthday, and you will note that at any given moment they somehow manage to emit more different notes, total, than there are group members, creating a somber, droning sound such as might be created by severely asthmatic bagpipers, so that the birthday person, rather than feeling happy, winds up weeping into the cake. It's even worse when Americans at sporting events attempt to sing The Star Spangled Banner, because not only does this song contain an estimated 54,000 notes, but also the crowd has only the vaguest notion of what the words are, so what you hear is a vaguely cattle-like sound created by thousands of people murmuring uncertainly, in every conceivable key, about the ramparts red gleaming. And yet according to Prof. Heaton, somehow these same sports fans, all over the country, almost always spontaneously chant "Air Ball" in the same key, F.
I decided to check Prof. Heaton's findings myself. Under the carefully controlled scientific conditions of my living room, I chanted "Air Ball" out loud several times. I then picked up my electric guitar, which I keep close to my computer for those occasions when, in the course of my research, I develop an urgent journalistic need to sing Mony Mony. Using this guitar, I figured out which key I had chanted "Air Ball" in: It was F.
Still skeptical, I called my office at The Miami Herald. The phone was answered in a spontaneous manner by a writer named Meg Laughlin.
I said: "Meg, I want you to do the chant that basketball fans do when a visiting player shoots an air ball."
And Meg, with no further prompting, said: "Nanny nanny boo boo?"
Meg is not a big basketball fan.
Continuing my research, I called Charlie Vincent, a professional sports columnist for The Detroit Free Press, who claims he has never sung on key in his life, and who immediately, without prompting, chanted "Air Ball" smack dab in F. Then I called professional musician and basketball fan Al Kooper; he not only chanted "Air Ball" in F, but also told me that, back in the 1960s, he used to spend hours eavesdropping on people and painstakingly writing down the musical notes that they used in ordinary conversation.
"Hey, cool!" I said. "What did you do with this information?"
"I lost it, " he said.
Finally I decided to try the acid test: I called my current and former editors, Tom Shroder and Gene Weingarten, who are the two least musically talented human beings on the face of the Earth. These guys could not make a tea-kettle whistle; it would indicate that it was ready by holding up a little sign that said "tweet."
Because Tom and Gene are severely rhythmically impaired, neither one could actually chant "Air Ball"; they both just nervously blurted it out a few times very fast -- airballairballairball -- and there was no way to determine, without sensitive instruments, what, if any, musical key they were in. But it could have been F.
Anyway, my research convinced me that Prof. Heaton is correct: Something is causing Americans to chant "Air Ball" in F. But what? I believe that the most logical explanation -- you probably thought of this -- is: extraterrestrials. As you know if you watch the TV documentary series The X Files, when anything weird happens, extraterrestrials are almost always responsible. In this case, beings from another galaxy are probably trying to communicate with us by transmitting powerful radio beams that penetrate basketball fans' brains and cause them to "spontaneously" chant in the key of F. I imagine that eventually the aliens will switch the fans to another key, such as A, and then maybe C, and so on until the aliens have musically spelled out some intergalactic message to humanity, such as "FACE A DEAD CABBAGE."
Or it could be something else. I have no idea what they're trying to tell us; I just know we'd better do what they say. And now if you'll excuse me, I'm feeling an overpowering urge to do "the wave."
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