On an Awe-Inspiring Scale: LaTallet Shares about the Rediscovery of the Therisonian or “Beast” Mode

Apr 1, 2020

The Therisonian or "Beast" Mode, recently rediscovered by Jim LaTallet. Note beast in background.
Credit Jim LaTallet

Note on April 2, 2020: If "musical equivalent of a particle accelerator" didn't give it away—this story was an April Fools' joke.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates famously highlights music as one of the two disciplines necessary for the healthy functioning of a society. The philosopher even goes so far as to recommend that only two musical modes—the old-world equivalent of modern-day keys like C Major or E minor—be allowed in the ideal state: the Dorian and the Phrygian. Other modes, like the Lydian and Ionian, Socrates dismisses as unedifying.

But according to music theorist and classicist Jim LaTallet, the whole story on modes as discussed in the original version of The Republic has been hidden for quite some time. This includes a passage about the long-lost Therisonian Mode, speculated to have the ability to bring out wild, animalistic behaviors in those exposed to it. The name for the mode comes from the Greek stem-words for “beast” and “sound.”

“It’s dangerous stuff,” LaTallet says. “So the ancient Greeks stripped out the reference fearing what might happen if people made use of [the Therisonian].”

Thus was set in motion a history of coverups surrounding the Therisonian mode and its performance. The Romans copied what the Greeks did, the Medieval church suppressed it, and Renaissance and Enlightenment-era thinkers regarded it as an ugliness to be avoided at all costs.

Yet, even in the midst of these coverups, there were those who knew about the Therisonian and its powers.

“The famous William Congreve line ‘music has charms to soothe the savage beast,’ is very likely a winking, ironic statement on an outbreak of people playing in this mode too much in the wild Restoration era, which had to be stamped out by the Master of the King’s Music,” LaTallet says.

Later baroque, classical, and romantic composers who attempted to write pieces that made use of the Therisonian met cold shoulders at best. The pattern of hostile reactions continued into the 20th century.

“Right after Scriabin’s death was Arnold Schoenberg’s development of the 12-tone technique—quite frankly not an emancipation of the dissonance so much as a continued imprisonment of the Therisonian. With twelve tones instead of seven in the modes of old—like the Therisonian—the game changes, and the conversation shifts. Not to mention the atmosphere gets polarized such that in the tug of war between the serialists and the common practice crowd….there is no room left for any discussion of Therisonian…a situation which was the case until very recently.”

LaTallet details how previously-censored passages from Plato’s Republic referencing the Therisonian resurfaced recently. Combining those references to mosaics of minotaurs playing instruments with unusual tunings and a handful of other surviving descriptions, he took his research to the next level.

“So then it was to the music theory lab [at Scherzando] where I work to run a computer program to help do the rest. This is essentially the musical equivalent of a particle accelerator like the Large Hadron Collider and fires combinations of notes at each other, generating new scales. Often enough, the results are pretty boring—lots of C majors, G Majors, an A or D minor here or there…but sometimes it will generate an Aeolian mode or even a whole-tone scale. And then one day…this was in January of last year…my colleagues and I were out to lunch, back when you could do that—anyway, and when we got back—the alert signal was just beeping away—a new mode had been found….what was new to us, at least.”

LaTallet had a hunch that this “new” mode was the storied Therisonian of old, and so decided to test his hypothesis with an experiment. A sizable sample of student volunteers were gathered and subjected to a few minutes of the Therisonian scale and to pieces making use of the mode. The beastly effects were immediately apparent.

“I get into this more in my book, but for a few examples: one student who had been average--C’s on all his exams—showed staggeringly marked improvement on a test taken afterward. Another student—an athlete who was not the top recruit, let’s say—made 32 three-point shots in a row…in under a minute. And yet another student dashed out of the lab after the study and demolished the buffet in the dining hall. Just three examples. And I should add that my team of observers had to look on from behind soundproof glass. Otherwise, there would have been who knows what kind of pandemonium on our side of the lab.”

LaTallet acknowledges that such a powerful mode of music could present ethical problems, but is confident that modern societies, unlike those in Plato’s day, are better able to handle a change in the modes of music. Still, he says that major social shifts--Therisonian social shifts, more properly speaking--are to be expected.

“I can’t imagine that any high school or college band that plays for sporting events—pep bands—would be left out and choose not make use of the Therisonian or beast-sound mode in the very near future. A lot of fight songs that are in these trite, hokey major keys will take on a new power when performed in the Therisonian mode. Take “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as an example… I mean the major-key original is simply weak sauce alongside the Therisonian. And apply that to the fight song of your choice, for something you’ll most likely be hearing soon.”

LaTallet’s discovery is certainly one of note. In fact, it’s one of seven notes. He says he’s far from finished as a music researcher, though.

“Well, I hope to do some exploring and tracking down of another lost musical mode, one that's concerning and awe-inspiring for an opposite reason—that it puts people right to sleep. That’s the storied soporflial mode. [It’s named for] sopor—meaning a state of deep lethargy or sleep, and from the ancient sources, it is aptly named.”

In this interview that aired Wednesday, April 1st, SCPR’s Bradley Fuller speaks with LaTallet about his recent discovery of the Therisonian musical mode—colloquially known as “Beast Mode.” The discovery has garnered considerable attention among members of the music theory community, and will soon reach an even wider audience upon publication of LaTallet’s forthcoming book: Metamorphoses on an Awe-Inspiring Scale: The Wild Effects of Exposure to the Therisonian Mode, from Plato’s Republic to Pumped-Up Pep Rallies, which will be available through Deldarbash Press in September of next year.