Did Titanic’s band play music by memory?

It has been said that the musicians on board Titanic memorized and played by heart a large body of musical numbers listed in the White Star Line music repertoire book. How true is this?

Ensemble Musicians Read Music

Since the advent of three-chord popular music, chord charts and the recording industry, audiences have become accustomed to groups of musicians performing from memory, without music sheets. Because the majority of the focus has fallen on the popular music played on Titanic, it has become the assumption that the bands who performed mid-ocean played, like popular music stars, completely from memory.

In the classical world the only professional musicians who usually memorize are concert soloists. For example, in a performance of a piano concerto (a piece for piano and orchestra), only the soloist would play from memory. The rest of the orchestra, and the conductor, would rely on print music. Titanic‘s musicians were trained in the classical tradition and all of them read music. In fact, when passenger accounts are consulted, many more survivors recounted hearing the bands play classical numbers than popular. Incidentally, there were only a handful of popular tunes listed in the White Star Line songbook.

Ensemble musicians, like those on Titanic, normally play with written parts. When music is arranged for five musicians the parts are at times melodious, at times form a counterpoint, but most of the time the parts collectively play the harmony, the accompaniment, fill a perfunctory role. It is highly unusual, nearly unheard of, for classically trained musicians to put time into memorizing the boring parts.

Detail showing music stand and piano. First Class Entrance Hall, Olympic.
The music stand is reflecting the light of the window at centre.

Rare Exceptions

Some ensemble musicians can play from memory and improvise by ear, but it is not a universal talent for classical musicians to be able to do so. Most play with print music. It takes a lot of practice and trust within an ensemble to reach the point of playing together by memory or by ear.

Recently I have attended several concerts in which small ensembles performed the entire night memorized. These ensembles had written and arranged their own music and spent their professional careers together (over several decades) touring several continents. They had had time to gel as a musical unit. Their current “memorized” repertoire made up about only two hours’ worth of music.

At one of the concerts one of the regular ensemble musicians was taking a break from touring and there was a substitute performer in his place. In one piece he had a memory lapse and had to try to get back into the piece. Meanwhile the rest of the performers had to struggle on without hearing his part in the mix, trying to hold the music together. It turned out he was unable to rejoin the music, and his block, which lasted five minutes or more, went right to the end of the piece. It should be mentioned that the concert was $50 a seat, and that it was high-level music, similar to the Classical titles played on Titanic.

Titanic‘s musicians would have had much less preparation or rehearsal than that substitute musician did.

Some may argue that Titanic was a rare exception. The ship was built to impress, the bandsmen hired to impress. Surely the Titanic was the exception to the rule. But Titanic‘s bandsmen were, nonetheless, a product of their time. In 1912 classical ensemble musicians played with parts.

Detail showing music stand and piano. Second Class Entrance Foyer, Olympic.
In second class the musicians used standard folding conservatory stands.

Titanic’s Ensembles

In the situation of the Titanic there was no time to memorize. Titanic’s band members came together within days of departure and had very little time (if any) for rehearsal during the trip itself. Whoever it was who claimed Titanic’s band played from memory was suggesting they played about six hours a day, for five straight days, from memory. It would be a stretch for a solo lounge pianist to accomplish that. But it would be nearly impossible for a brand new ensemble to pull it off, especially since three of Titanic’s band members were first timers on the open sea.

The talent of a palm court musician was to be able to read at sight, able to give a convincing performance with very little rehearsal. Their performances depended on arranged print music.

Detail of music stands and piano, First Class Reception Room, Olympic.

Songbook Misunderstood

It is possible that the myth that Titanic‘s musicians memorized the entire request list originated with the White Star Line MUSIC songbook itself. The term “songbook” does not appear on its cover, but it has always been commonly referred to as such by historians. By this name one might think that the songbook is just that – a songbook, with printed words of the songs, or maybe even printed music. A more accurate name for it might have been the “White Star Line MUSIC Request Book.” It was a 9-page booklet no bigger than your hand, that listed only the titles of the pieces that could be requested of the band. It is possible that historians looked at the songbook and assumed that in the absence of printed music, the musicians must have played from memory.

But it was the passengers who carried the songbook, not the musicians, and during a performance passengers would have looked through the numbers (or titles) to request music they recognized. The musicians had sheet music for all the numbers in the songbook (about 341 listed, as well as many titles that were not listed, perhaps as many as 500 arrangements in total). In fact, the main reason the music was numbered was because the musicians’ parts were numbered for quick location. Someone would call out a number, all the musicians would find their numbered sheet for that title, and then perform it, reading the music at sight.

White Star Line Music Stands

Photographs taken on board Titanic‘s sister ship, Olympic, show evidence of music stands in all three of the five-piece band’s performance venues (photos included throughout this post). The presence of music stands offers physical proof that sheet music was in standard use on board White Star Line ships. Also, in the First Class Reception Room there was a gorgeous veneer cabinet alongside the piano for sheet music storage. If the musicians had been performing from memory there would have been no use for such a cabinet, and it would never have been provided at great expense.

Cabinet for sheet music storage beneath windows, taken aboard Olympic.

So, did Titanic‘s musicians play from memory?

No. Memorizing takes a lot of time, and musicians don’t get paid for the time they spend practicing, they get paid for performing. Had the White Star Line expected Titanic‘s musicians to play from memory, the cost to hire them would have been astronomical. Playing from sheets with accuracy and musicianship is the most efficient way for musicians to make a living, and the only way for a company to afford to hire them. The idea was to pay a low wage, and for the bandsmen to play for tips. The sheet music arrangements made that financial arrangement possible.

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Entrance and Reception Room Images from TITANIC The Ship Magnificent, Beveridge, Klistorner, Hall, Andrews. All rights reserved. Many thanks to the authors for permission. Limited Edition here shown (two volumes).

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