NYT Mini for Thursday, November 26, 2015

Constructor: Joel Fagliano

Relative Difficulty: Medium

Theme: None

Word of the Day: KEY

In music theory, the key of a piece is the tonic note and chord which gives a subjective sense of arrival and rest. Other notes and chords in the piece create varying degrees of tension, resolved when the tonic note and/or chord returns. The key may be major or minor, although major is assumed in a phrase like "this piece is in C." Popular songs are usually in a key, and so is classical music during the common practice period, about 1650–1900. Longer pieces in the classical repertoire may have sections in contrasting keys.

Nice...tonic note?

Nice...tonic note?

Forget the puzzle; what's up with that definition for 'key'? It sucks!!! How can you screw up a basic definition so badly, Wikipedia? A key = "the tonic note and chord"?? What the hell is that? Yes, all keys *have* tonics, and tonic chords, but they are not the same thing as the key itself. A key is a GROUP of notes, along with a set of implied rules about function. They aren't even referred to technically with the same language: While C can be a tonic, the key with that tonic is called C Major (or C Minor of course). The tonic chord is also "a C major chord" (or minor) but that is a totally different thing from the key itself. Shame, Wikipedia!

Ok, now it's time to complain about the puzzle! Joel/Will manage to screw up KEY about as badly as Wikipedia does, and for no worthwhile reason (4D: B sharp, for one). I'm assuming they are referring to the music theory sense of the term 'key' here, and the clue as written is just wrong, wrong, wrong. B sharp might be a tonic, I guess, but without a "Major" or "Minor" after it, it CAN'T POSSIBLY BE A KEY. Yes, I know, in common usage musicians often refer to major keys by just the tonic. It's a perfectly normal shorthand. But that's exactly what it is: A SHORTHAND. It is Not Strictly Correct, and that's exactly why all of us lost a point on some theory exam at some point in our lives. Words have meanings, etc etc.

Beyond that, does B sharp even make sense as the basis for a key? I mean, sure, theoretically you can spell a key that way, but NO ONE WOULD EVER DO THAT. It's C Major, stupid. You don't, as a composer, write a piece in a theoretical key entailing - let's all acknowledge - five (5!) mandated double-sharps unless you want your performers to Literally Hate You. Like, if their resulting animosity toward you and its effect on their performance is part of the basic concept of the piece. It's just an asshole to do, by definition.

Look at all those B sharps!

Look at all those B sharps!

Theory #2 is that the puzzle meant 'key' in the sense of 'piano key'. I can't decide if this is even stupider, or approximately AS stupid. While B sharp is of course a real note that one might see in sheet music, when one is referring to the physical piano key itself there is no reason to ever call it that. One doesn't refer to a piano key with a different name simply because there is a different symbol pointing to that key. Their ontology just isn't that transient, thankfully. Imagine if you were playing some John Cage piece or something with an abstract score. If you saw a squiggly line and played a C, would you then refer to the C key as "squiggly line" afterwards? You could certainly do that. You are not going to do that.

Theory #3 is that those responsible for this puzzle, like a distressing subset non-musicians, seem to forget that music is an actual field of study and simply do not care enough to research the most basic theoretical  concepts before making didactic pronouncements about their specific nature. Honestly, I think Will/Joel may have actually just picked a random letter from A to G and stuck a 'sharp' after it and assumed it made sense. Because this philosophy of putting forth the least effort possible is 'good enough' when it comes to this specific field of study. Either that or it was a Simpsons reference.

Bigger than Rex Parker

Bigger than Rex Parker

The rest of this puzzle is pretty ok. THROE as a singular noun is slightly weird, but fine (1D: Painful sensation). GRAVY is nice and topical, though an irritating reminder that Will Shortz cares more about cutesy references than basic clue accuracy, at least when it comes to musical terms (6A: Turkey topper). Though now that I think bout it 'topper' feels like it should describe a discrete object rather than a substance like gravy, so I guess there's non-musical stuff to complain about too.

In any case, I do like that we have both Thanksgiving and Christmas covered, the latter with ELVES (3D: North Pole workers). I also like the clue for POSE (7A: Downward dog or Crescent moon), because I derive a certain degree of whimsy from these silly yoga position names. Capping this all off (as a topper, I suppose) is TREK  (1A: Difficult journey). And Trek is always welcome, particularly at one-across.

So I guess this puzzle deserves, if not a B sharp, then let's say a B minus.

Signed, Jonathan Gibson, E Plebnista of CrossWorld