There are many different notes in cycling. Some of them come from the bikes: the dense rumble of a set of deep section carbon rims; the pocket-watch tick-tick-tick of a Sturmey Archer hub. Some are less pleasing to the ear: the rattle of a poorly secured mudguard, or the boxy biscuit-tin drum roll of a rear derailleur dragging a chain across a cassette, which is sometimes drawn out to circusy deliberation before ending in a triumphant clunk.
Some of the notes come from the rider: the rhythmic wheeze of a set of stressed lungs that make it sound you’re Karaokeing Kraftwerk’s Tour de France. And riding is frequently a sociable activity, so often it’s the noise of conversation, encouragement, warnings and whoops that top the rhythm section of tyre buzzes, freewheels and clanks. Add in an audience, and you’ve got the most dense collage of sounds imaginable, from the rattle of Belgium’s cowbells, to hands drumming on the barriers, to the dorky electronic warning repeatedly played by the course car.
There’s a big diversity of sounds in cycling, even before we get to bells. And so it is with music. Which is why it’s so surprising that Western music is made up of just 12 notes. That’s right, 12 notes, which can be combined and recombined in lots of ways, some pleasing, some earsplitting. Listening to popular music in Western Europe, you might be forgiven for thinking that music consists of these 12 notes.
But it doesn’t. In Bali, traditional Gamelan music is based on many different scales, some using even fewer notes than Western tuning. Instead of 12, the scale is divided into 5, or 7. With a single change to the rules, the sound is radically different. For Western ears, it takes some getting used to. One TV advert for painkillers used it as a soundtrack to someone’s headache. You keep expecting it to bend, to suddenly shape itself into a form you can recognise, but it doesn’t.
In 1977, the year before I was born, the stately royal Gamelan was one of the pieces of music sent into space, pressed into a gold-plated gramophone record on the side of the Voyager space probe. It was a piece called “Puspawarna” (“The Colours of Flowers”). You can find it on the internet, if you like. In fact here, I’ll save you the trouble.
Why send Gamelan music into outer space? Why not “Ode to Joy” or “The Star-Spangled Banner”? I don’t envy anyone picking music to represent all the 7 billion-odd people on Earth. The music for the golden record was chosen by a committee, chaired by Carl Sagan. When deciding what pieces of music to send, they tried to showcase the Earth’s diversity, and its history. So they picked aboriginal songs from Australia, Elizabethan recorder music, and Gamelan, which hasn’t changed much since the 12th century. Unlike Elizabethan music, Gamelan is still very much a feature of Balinese culture, with modern pop records incorporating it into their sound, and a few active ensembles still playing the genuine article.
Gamelan had the credentials to get on the golden record, but here’s another thing. The record had 25 other pieces of music. It had Chuck Berry, Beethoven, Mozart and Louis Armstrong. And this is a record. Imagine if they’d been able to send a hard drive into outer space. Instead of 90 minutes of music and sounds, it could have been 90 hours. 90 days?
Is Gamelan better or worse than western music played in a 12 tone scale? I can’t understand why anyone would ask this question, but I bet they have. We’re obsessed with ranking, rating, determining what something is worth. I do it too. I listen to a fair bit of music, and there are some recordings that I’d gladly never hear again, and some that I’d dash back into a burning house to retrieve. But frankly, it’s not about top tens, or top forties. It’s about diversity. Diversity is important in music, and society, the natural world, and life.
What the chuff does this have to do with cycling, I hear you ask? A couple of years ago my girlfriend started a women-only ride, and tagging along (they’re not particularly strict, before you ask) I’ve been struck by the different rhythms, the unfamiliar topics of conversation, the otherness of it all. Generalising wildly, you’ll hear less piss-taking, more support, and some frankly hair-raising discussion of the effects of saddles on nether regions, all of which seem to be absent when the same women are riding in mixed company.
Add more blokes into a ride and the soundtrack changes, filling with call-and-response shouts and exhortations to get down. Our mostly male mountain bike rides probably sound, from the outside, like a bunch of white frat boys chanting along to a Dirty South hip hop record. A sparse arrangement of thuds, buzzes, brake squeals and skids topped with profanity-laced exhortations to get low, drop it like it’s hot, and so forth. Fun, but not particularly nuanced, and perhaps a bit intimidating for those on the outside.
One tedious yet frequently-expressed objection about women-only rides (or women-only anything, for that matter) is that they’re pointless. Why not join in with the men’s ride? By the same logic, you could force the Royal Gamelan to play along with Chuck Berry. It’d be a learning experience for sure, and if you could get the initial frustrations out of the way you’d probably end up with an interesting hybrid. Sometimes collaborations work, but sometimes they don’t. Or they become a tiresome cliché, like the token appearance of a rapper, dirtying up a 1990s dance-pop-by-numbers hit. Some elements can dominate and drown out the subtler counter-melodies. Why not just let them get on with it, rather than demanding to shove them together?
I like a bit of familiarity, but I like diversity too. Without it, life continues in the same ruts, and so does riding a bike.