Thursday, October 5, 2017

What's so holy about 120?

I never understood the School of Music's obsession with the number 120.  Instructors, particularly Marines, rabidly required that bands march at 120 steps per minute. Even in the rehearsal hall, a student conductor risked his career by letting a band play a march at any tempo than 120 beats per minute.

Granted, this tempo offers a few conveniences. 120 divided by 2 is 60, so each two-beat measure is one second in duration. This leads to a number of benefits. That number is 2:
  1. You can watch the seconds tick by on your watch and get an exact tempo.
  2. When planning a concert or ceremony, you can simply count the measures in a piece and instantly know its length. 
But the reality is this: 120 steps per second is unnatural. The tradition of marching at Holy 120 dates from a time when humans were comparatively short. Just 100 years ago, when John Phillip Sousa had his Great Lakes Navy band hop-skip-jumping across America, adult Americans were typically 3 inches shorter than they are today. Their shorter legs and commensurately lighter body weights could easily handle sustained marching at 120.

Fortunately, when I left the Basic Course and arrived at my first band, I found the School of Music obsession with Holy 120 did not extend to the fleet bands. In the real, grownup world of Navy music, you marched at an adult pace. A band could complete a long parade route without exhausted MUs collapsing in the gutters.

But after a few years, you'd go back to the School, where Marines with metronomes and stopwatches were waiting with glee to torture you with daily routines of huffing and puffing around the base at Holy 120.

Enjoy this short, recent clip of the Pacific Fleet Band marching at a reasonable, grownup tempo. Notice the precision. Notice the musicality. Notice how damn good they look.

Down with 120.