Actually, I always thought that the hand signs were visual representations of the tones. The notes change I think because the meaning changes. It’s like breaking down words into individual sounds and rescrambling them to mean something different. So, you get a basic tonal vocabulary and then arrange them in different ways, couple it with hand signs and you can supposedly communicate with an alien race. So, lets say the people in india were given a five tone “vocabulary.” Then you take that vocabulary and recombine to mean new things.
Anyway…that was my take on it. Then at the end, once they’ve decoded the tonal vocabulary, the computer can take over and communicate more quickly with the alien ship.
But yeah… that’s more or less how I always saw it.
(and I still own my Close Encounters lunchbox from when I was in 5th grade).
The tones are, in solfege, RE-MI-DO-DO(8ve bassa)-SO.
The hand gestures are Curwen/Glover hand signs. They are common in teaching young children music, especially by teachers using the Kodaly or Orff methods. My elementary music teacher, an Orff devotee, taught them to us when I was a kid. I don’t use it in my teaching, but I have known many high school and middle school choir teachers that use them.
I did not remember the reference in the film, though I do remember the scene. Since I was in elementary school when the movie came out, I recognized the hand signs immediately.
I found the linked page by searching on Kodaly hand signs. In my un-edited post, I called them Kodaly hand signs, but I figured that someone would point out that the linked page calls them Curwen/Glover hand signs. [sigh] Sometimes, you just can’t win.
That’s one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever heard. Teaching children music via hand signs. That’s as alien to me as particle physics.
I always thought that hand signal/music and lights/computer-taking-over bit in Close Encounters was just a bunch of movie mumbo jumbo, hooey to just come up with some mumbo jumbo-y way to communicate with the aliens.
There was actually something to it?? Get outta here! No shit?
Btw, I love that movie. I saw it when it was first released, drove 80 miles (round-trip) to see it on the biggest screen possible. I became obsessed with the movie, and it got me obsessed with astronomy, and obsessed with UFOs (which I don’t believe in now, but I did then, big time) and I even went to a fascinating lecture given by Dr. J. Allen Hynek (who has a wonderful, non-speaking cameo in the movie) and talked to him afterwards. Now, I would be all “oh yeah, right, sure” but then I was total sucker, and he was a sucker-magnet. What a fascinating, charismatic man he was!
It makes things easier when you have to conduct a choir of many small children who have not learned to read music (or who don’t want to.) They watch you for the hand signs and (attempt to) sing the notes. It makes sense when you see it, I promise.
The idea is to link knowledge and/or skills. With the hand signs, you’ve got the aural tones, the visual looking at the hand signs, and the kinesthetic of forming the hand signs yourself. It can actually be very effective when used by a skilled teacher. Many music teachers use American Sign Language when teaching for much the same reason. Elementary music education is more than simply teaching kids to sing or play an instrument. It is a whole-body experience involving voice, instruments, movement, visual cues, language, and other techniques.
The way I always thought was that the Indians are repeating the sequence over and over, and we come in at the middle of a repetition. So, we hear the second half first, and the first half second. If we came in at the beginning, they would sound like :
da [sup]DAA[/sup]-ay, [sub]da[/sub] DAAA,
da [sup]DAA[/sup]-ay, [sub]da[/sub] DAAA,
da [sup]DAA[/sup]-ay, [sub]da[/sub] DAAA …
Of course, I could be wrong, as the entire film seemed like incomprehensible nonsense to me.
Thanks all for the informative replies. Hearing the chanting start “in the middle” changes my perception of the melody just enough that it’s hard for me to mentally adjust it to line up with the tones played on synthesizer (and aren’t the notes still a little off??), but I understand what you’re saying.
A couple of our Indian interns gave me a little inside info when we saw that scene. The chanters are saying the verb “to arrive” in two different tenses in that chant. So they’re saying, “Arrival. Has Arrived.” over and over. Then the leader climbs up on the hill and asks, “Where did these sounds come from? TELL ME NOW!”
I gleaned this info from the 20-minute rant about how “Everybody-thinks-we’re-a-third-world-nation-but-we-aren’t-we-have-a-space-program-for-Pete’s-sake.”