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Back and Fourth

Claim:   Music student desperate to complete a composition assignment hands in a reversed version of someone else's work.

LEGEND

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2000]

A music student is required to write a symphony as a final exam. The symphony was due soon, but he hadn't even started it. He went to the library and unearthed a symphony written by his professor while still a grad student. He then copied it backwards, note for note and turned it in. It was returned to him with the comment, "Why did you turn in Beethoven's Fourth?"
 

Origins:   This tale is a neat twist on the "cheating student inadvertently plagiarizes his own instructor's work" Musical note type of legend (see The Old Man and the 'C', for example), with the student's intellectual dishonesty being mitigated by the revelation that not only had the instructor himself cheated on a similar exercise, but he had done so in the very same fashion as the present student.

As a literal account, this tale is too implausible to be taken as true. Even if the piece of music in question were something shorter and simpler than a symphony (since "writing a symphony as a final exam" is an assignment far too ambitious for the typical college music major), the premise employed here just doesn't
work because modern western music follows certain rules of form and sequence that are violated when a composition is literally reversed. Playing a piece of music backwards (especially one as long and complex as a symphony) wouldn't produce a viable, distinctly different composition, any more than writing out the sentences of a novel such as The Great Gatsby backwards would create an acceptable new work of literature: the results would be still recognizable as something written in English and the individual sentences would still have meaning, but the overall result would be an incoherent, jumbled flow of words that made no sense whatsoever to the reader. Even if our legendary student (or his instructor) hadn't been exposed as a cheater, he should have failed his final exam for turning in a cacophonous piece of music.

(If you're about to hit the "Send comments" button to tell us that the Beatles' song "Because" is really Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" backwards, you might want to visit this page first.)

Last updated:   20 June 2011

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