John's Jottings

124. The Music of the Rails - Oct 2016

Posted on October 1, 2016 at 2:35 PM

Last week we were discussing how many musicians also have an interest in railways, both real and model. Pete Waterman, Joules Holland and Rod Steward are well-known, but there are countless musicians up and down the country, both professional and amateur, performers and their audiences, who also take great pleasure from model railways. They are not all builders by any means, but they all appreciate the hobby as a craft and as an art.


We decided that there are several similarities between these two forms of art. At the simplest level, there is the rhythmic four-beats-to-the bar chuff-chuff-chuff-chuff, chuff-chuff-chuff-chuff of steam locos and the trickety-trock, trickety-trock of bogie coaches over jointed rail, and the clack-clack, clack-clack of four-wheel wagons over points in continuously welded rail. But they are just the percussion section.


At a station, there are busy times and then periods of calm, just like the changes in volume and mood of music. There are express passenger trains and lumbering goods trains, equivalent to different tempi. Fast and slow trains can appear together, moving independently, each on its own track, just like some composers can have fast and slow melodies sounding simultaneously, each complimenting the other and interweaving in delicious counterpoint.


One person likes jazz while another prefers symphonic music. They use similar instruments, much the same staff notation, and weave intricate tapestries of melody, motif, modification, modulation, harmony and rhythm. But the effects are quite different. Likewise, one model may be of a bucolic rural branch station, while another is a realistically grimy but bustling metropolitan terminus. Classical or jazz, rural or urban, each has its own appeal and beauty.


“But what’s the railway equivalent of pop music?” Jane asked provocatively.


“Brio” was the swift reply from Adrian. “Both of them are crude, basic, limited in scope, and provide undeveloped minds with transient pleasure.”


“It’s just a pity that some minds don’t actually develop any further,” Bill added, with a wry smile. Neither Peter nor Paul realised that it was their minds he was thinking about.


Now neither Peter nor Paul could see any similarity between music and railways – no resemblance at all. But then they refuse see the inter-linked passage of trains as corresponding to either choreography, or counterpoint, or to the interplay of characters in a drama. They do not see model scenery as constituting a landscape. They are ardently not into aesthetics of any sort. They do not recognise model railways as an art form. Indeed, they take any such suggestion as an insult. Showing the slightest interest in any of the arts would compromise their view of themselves as being serious scale modellers, wouldn’t it?


But the rest of us are more open. We may not be artists in the narrowest sense, but we appreciate that creating models of railways has many affinities with the more widely recognised art forms. And we do what we can to encourage other people to adopt this broader view.


“I wonder,” the chairman mused, returning to our starting point. “Is the similarity between music and railways that both are based on sets of rules, but rules that allow for a myriad of variations on a theme, with everything working in harmony?” And with such a philosophical analysis, who could disagree?


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