Daily Archives: March 14, 2010


John Keats, on leaving some friends at an early hour, wrote, “Let me write down a line of glorious tone.” But one line of glorious tone – ! Why, this short word could merit much more than that!

The tone of Keats’s poetry was, of course, lofty, but, poor lad, the tone of his muscles – and his general health – was not. His days of late consumption were cut short by early consumption (and by the doctor who treated it – the TB, I mean – with a starvation diet and bloodletting); he did leave his friends at an early hour. But I do wonder if, when he was meditating on his Grecian urn (a tacit urn, we might note: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d, / Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone” – no tone? no, not one), he might have observed the origin of this word. Or would that be a stretch?

Actually, it would be a stretch. Greek tenein, verb, “stretch”, gave birth to tonos, “tension, stretching, taut string”, and from that high-strung origin came the further musical sense (also in Greek, and then in Latin and on). You can still hear the plucking of a string when you say it: tone. But also harking back to the original came (as of the later 17th century) the muscle condition sense. This is also relevant to music, of course; a trombonist with dystonia would not tunefully intone diatonics. So, as they may say in Shropshire, what’s for the tone is for the tother.

Well, that version of tone is shortened from the one, of course, as in John Heywood’s “Went in at the tone eare and out at the tother” – but doesn’t that describe tone deafness? That and the inability to carry a tune. Of course, if you can’t handle a tone, you can’t handle a tune, not just because a note is a tone seen another way, but because tune is really tone as passed through Scots dialect. Yes, this tone has split into two words (tone and tune) in harmony with each other: if not a chord, then at least accord.

And so our accordion has tones, and tunes, but also the tone of the accordion is reedy, and its body may be painted with metallic tones, and the singer may sing words with a lively or sarcastic tone. This word has spread explosively, you see, as though detonated (which is not a cognate, by the way): it has denotated senses in not only music and muscles but meaning, colour, mood, the general elevation of society… what are the bon ton reading, and looking at, and listening to, after all?

And what are they speaking? In Toronto, cultural crossroads that it is, the speech may have not only different tones but different tones as well. Chinese, a very common language in Toronto, is well known to have tones – each syllable has a level or contour (changing-pitch) tone that identifies it just as much as its phonemes do. But the majority of the world’s tone languages are in fact in Africa, where lexical and grammatical tone can also be more mobile, shifting and altering across syllables according to context but still necessary for denotation. And why shouldn’t the tone be moving, when so many African tones get people moving, source as Africa is of so much music you want to dance to?

Of course, not everyone wants to get their Eton jacket dusty and sweaty. So be it: the tone may be more subdued, as you like. Let the bon ton pass the baton, then, to the ones who will tap the toe. Skin tone ought to be no bar (especially since skin tone is one of the most common collocations for this word); one need not tone down whether uptown or downtown. (Perhaps some worry that the tune will be taken to the whole-tone whole-notes of ring tones.)

Those of Eton, incidentally, were not attuned to young John Keats; he was seen by the upper-crust critics as too uncouth, too Cockney. One John Wilson Croker croaked, “He wanders from one subject to another, from the association, not of ideas, but of sounds.” The association of sounds! Why, it seems like a good name for an orchestra, no?

But also, why ought not sounds associate freely, to speak the truth as they may? If lie detectors may sense mendacious tension in one’s intonation, surely a link between tone and truth may be made, be that tone one of sound, or of colour, or of emotion, be it tone poem, or tone of poem, or flesh tone, conversational tone, moral tone, the gravelly tones of Tone Loc or the girly tones of Tone Damli Aaberge, the hortatory tone of the speeches of Wolfe Tone (martyred for Irish nationalism when Keats was 3 years old), or a sepia tone photograph of Franchot Tone or even the deconstructed “noise music” of Yasunao Tone? Why ought not the tone of one’s speech to signify its verity as well as its mellifluity? Or the colour tone of one’s hair be a truth or lie? Let us remember Keats’s Grecian formula: “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ – that is all / you know on earth, and all ye need to know.” The tone is the tother; they are tethered, “And full of many wonders of the spheres.”

This one is for Bill Aide, who suggested this word and whose tunes, tones, and notes on the piano encouraged my writing.