Musical harmonies disrupted by miner's 'revolutionary theory': Tim Kelsey reports on an attempt to convince musicologists about a new form of notation

Tim Kelsey
Tuesday 01 June 1993 23:02

IN THE music room, Duncan Thorburn has two guitars, an upright piano, and several huge scrolls of paper on which he has plotted his compositions.

One day, this little room may become a point of pilgrimage for musicologists. Because it was here that Mr Thorburn invented what he says is a new theory of music. He asserts his claim with confidence: 'We're still using the same chord progressions as Bach. Well, we've done it now and it's boring - this is a whole alternative to traditional harmony.'

The music room is in the extension to Mr Thorburn's aluminium bungalow in Ollerton, Nottinghamshire. He has lived in this house, built after the Second World War using metal from scrapped RAF bombers, for most of his life. For the past nine years, he has worked at the local coal mine; before that he was a jobbing builder. He became a miner in order to raise the money to build a recording studio on to the pre-fab. This is still his plan.

Mr Thorburn has been playing the guitar since he was a child but he has had no formal musical education. Twelve years ago, he had his first inkling of Structure in Sound, the theory which he says will revolutionise western music. He has failed since to persuade anyone to listen.

Five years ago, as the theory matured, he travelled to London to ask EMI publishing for their help. 'I went there, admittedly without an appointment, and told them I had a new theory of harmony and the man said, 'Get out] Everything's been done'. ' He wrote to another publisher. 'I received a snotty reply asking why I didn't send a stamped addressed envelope so that they could send my demonstration material back.'

Pete Townshend, the guitarist, then agreed to consider the theory. Mr Thorburn made some models and travelled to London to give them to Townshend at his studios. The pop star's minders warned him that Townshend 'received many things - including exploding Christmas trees. I still can't understand why people sent those to him'.

Finally, Townshend's aides told him they had not received the package; so he went with a second one. This time he tacked tiny pieces of sticky tape across the models to see if they were opened. When the package was returned later in the post, he noted that none had been. There was a letter from Townshend which explained: 'I don't know about chords.'

He sent a pack to Paul McCartney's recording studios, and this was returned even before it passed the door. 'Apparently they thought it was a bomb and returned it unopened.'

Mr Thorburn approached his employers, British Coal, who put him in touch with an enterprise consultancy in Kettering, Northamptonshire. It suggested the time had come to try the idea out on some professional theorists.

Mr Thorburn asked one music professor if he should go and explain the project: 'I can explain this in an afternoon,' he wrote. 'You can't explain the modulations of Mozart in a year.' Mr Thorburn did not intend to be rude, but the professor took offence and refused to consider the matter.

Recently, Mr Thorburn contacted computer companies making musical software to see if they were interested. He is waiting for their response.

Mr Thorburn claims that he has identified a whole new variety of chords, and to map these he has created a new system of musical notation which encompasses traditional theory. The chord C Major, for instance, he describes as T58. He invented two devices which transcribe his system into regular musical notes: the slide scale, and the circle scale. He has built cardboard versions of these and patented both.

Using these devices in conjunction with his dictionary of scales - he has collected dozens from all over the world, like the Chinese Ming Dynasty scale and the Hungarian Oriental scale - he says he is able to create new harmonies which have only been heard previously by accident.

The theory has enabled him to dabble with sounds that he once found jarring. 'There is one song which involves a sound I hadn't heard since I was staying near a building site in Hamburg. There were some Turks next door who played the oriental music from the mosques, and then I couldn't stand it.'

He added: 'The composing side is so revolutionary that the mind can't play it without being extremely skilled. I can't even use other musicians.'

He is not dejected by repeated rejection, nor by the lack of sympathy among his colleagues at the pit. 'I'm 35 years old, living with my mother, which is a joke in itself. They think I'm weird, but then they always have.'

(Photograph omitted)

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