THE QUEST FOR G.

A Wordorigins.org thread started with the simple question: “The song, Sidewalks of New York has the line Some are up in ‘G,’ meaning, apparently, successful. What might be the origin of this phrase?” An excellent question to which you’d think there would be an answer, but so far all that can be said is that it goes back to the nineteenth century and was originally “way up in G” (13 April 1889, National Police Gazette, pg. 3: “The matinee actor used to be the champion masher in New York, but just now riding master stock appears to be booming in this direction, and by all accounts it is away up in G, too”), and an 1890 quote classifies it as a musical reference: “the veterans were ‘away up in G,’ as musicians say.” As I said in the thread, “There is such a thing as ‘high G’; here, for example, you can hear 14 sopranos try to hit it. But the phrase ‘way up in G’ excludes such an explanation.” So: any ideas?

Comments

  1. This may be one of those idioms that are more obscure to people who know their ostensible reference than to people who don’t. I just assumed that ‘G’ was a really high note, hard to get to, and that if you were singing way away up there you were performing at a dazzling height. ‘Cause I’m as ignorant of music as a person can well be.

  2. The phrase strikes me as the punch line to a now-lost joke, which has been liberated from its context and used as a catchphrase.
    A traditional musical skill is the ability to transpose an arrangement, by ear or at sight, to a different key in order to accommodate vocal soloists, who generally want to show off their range to best advantage. Invariably, there’s some poor fellow who doesn’t get the memo, or can’t transpose accurately, and goes charging off in a different key from the rest of the ensemble.
    So, I think the phrase is intended to evoke the sound of an ensemble all playing in the transposed key of, e.g., E-flat, while one poor fellow just goes on playing “away up in G.”
    If that’s true, then “away up in G” is a bit of back-handed complement, implying a certain level of obliviousness. I don’t think that interpretation is inconsistent with the examples given, although it does change the tone.
    This is all conjecture on my part, but I think it’s at least plausible.

  3. J.W. Brewer says:

    But who can then trace the line of descent forward from the 19th century to the modern rap usage seen in, e.g., Dr. Dre’s widely-acclaimed 1992 “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” (in collaboration with Snoop Dogg). I think the boring (and shallow in time depth) standard modern account of the rap usage is that G is from “gangsta” which one might say in context means, apparently, successful. But tracing the usage back to the Police Gazette in 1889 would be as awesome as demonstrating that “jazz” was some sort of sportswriter’s baseball slang before it had anything to do with music . . .

  4. This put me in mind of the balconies of a theater, with Section G maybe being one of the highest — but being seated way up there would be the opposite of successful.

  5. Weird as it sounds to me, pitch / tuning seems to be the answer:
    http://www.la84foundation.org/SportsLibrary/SportingLife/1894/VOL_22_NO_22/SL2222004.pdf
    “Now, this man can, if he chooses,
    field away up in G, and that is where
    Ned Hanlon proposes to tune him to.
    If one could got Dan up to a high pitch
    he can make most excellent base ball
    music. He can be a perfect symphony
    at first base if he chooses an absolute
    poem in athletics. But it appears, from
    all accounts, that he must be “handled”
    for it. Now, really, Dan is big enough
    and old enough and experienced enough
    to put forth his best skill at all times
    without “handling” to extract it, and if
    he does not do it this season he will
    certainly be classed in public estimation
    with the back numbers and end…”

  6. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    At least some people in the nineteenth century already thought the idiom came from music. There are instances of “up in G sharp” with the same meaning. Google Books has several examples back to 1903.
    And here from 1887: “the local team were all up in G sharp.”

  7. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    Difficult to read, but the Galveston Daily News, Monday, May 26, 1884 seems to print:
    “Af’r that,” he continued laboriously, “one of the boys ask’d us ‘f we’d try a drink he’d found in Bool–Boolgaria, which said we would, bein’ then up in G sharp.
    The item seems to be “Narrative of a Broker Who Had Been With Friends” reprinted from the New York Sun.

  8. The more I think about it, it fits pretty well for most of the references if you think of it as a joke euphemism for “high toned”.
    this 1904 thing has a “joke” about a high-toned music school being “Way up in G”. Although the fact that it’s apparently supposed to be a joke means that maybe the high-toned/up in G connection wasn’t obvious…? hm.

  9. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    A musical guess on what “way up in G” could mean. The musicians in question may not have been singers but guitarists. A guitar is normally tuned in E, in the sense that both the first and the sixth string play that note (an octave apart) when unstopped. However, it can be tuned in various other ways, and particularly a third higher.
    Tuning in G (a minor third higher) was a classical idea, particularly associated with Mauro Giuliani (1781 – 1829), an acclaimed guitar virtuoso. Tuning in G sharp (a major third higher) is apparently sometimes done in bluegrass.
    I’m not sure why a higher pitch would be associated with success, though I suspect it may have contributed to Giuliani’s dazzling virtuosity. But transposing the entire instrument a third up surely counts as “way up”.

  10. I’ve been at this for what seems like hours. My eyes hurt. It’s surprising how many Google Books Search results for this phrase there are, and how few of them give any meaningful context. It just seems to mean “high” or “out of sight”, seems to be from the US, possibly the South, popular with poultry newsletters, and often construed to be related to music. This is a tough one.

  11. We do need to keep in mind a basic distinction: hitting a high G (a note that occurs diatonically in many keys) versus playing or singing in the key of G (major or minor, but major is a kind of default here). To hit a high G is not to be in G, away up or otherwise.
    Giacomo’s comment seems apt if we work with the second interpretation. A word to beginners, though: Most retuning of a guitar to make G the “native” key would involve slackening three of the six strings to yield a G chord without any use of the left hand. Not tightening for higher pitches. Wikipedia has a useful sketch of the much rarer alternative to which Giacomo refers:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terz_guitar
    Note the two ways of achieving the raised pitch: smaller guitar, or special lighter strings.
    Still, the guitar-oriented explanation seems to me implausible. First because of that more usual lowering to a G tuning. And then, unless this Terz business was in wide currency when the idiom developed (not yet shown to be so), it is probably irrelevant. Contrast the far more common use of “E flat” to describe anything small or cute, among certain band players accustomed to basic instruments in B flat, and higher versions in E flat (like the little clarinet in E flat, sounding five semitones higher than the usual B flat instrument).
    I conjecture that, if anything musical is the source of the idiom, it is a more general matter. C major is taken as the simplest key, having no sharps or flats to worry about. If a piece modulates to another key, that would most likely be to what is called the dominant key from the tonic (“home”) key: to G in the case of a piece starting in C, with addition of one sharp to the mix of notes (F sharp instead of F natural). The material in G could happen to be lower or higher, but higher would be more common; and the perception of that most frequent of modulations is indeed of hightened musical tension, regardless of actual pitches. Furthermore, the move to G is about as high as musicians would by default construe as “up”. Go to A minor from C major (another common modulation – to the so-called relative minor) and that is usually construed as a move “down”, both in likely pitch and in Affekt (to adapt an 18th-century term in musical aesthetics).

  12. The default banjo tuning is apparently something called “open G” or “G tuning”. How does that relate to the guitar information above?

  13. AG – “open” tuning means that each string is tuned to one of the notes of that chord, so for open G tuning, every string is either G, B, or D. The banjo tuning is the same as the top 5 strings of the guitar tuning, the base guitar string is a D (tuned down from the standard E.) As N pointed out, you tune a normal guitar down, not up, to G, if I tried to tune my guitar up that high the strings would probably break. (I can’t speak for the classical guitars of the 19th century, though). I don’t know how how guitars were tuned in the 1880′s, but the styles you’d play and the sound you’d get from this tuning would be folksy and old-fangled even then.

  14. On which instrument is G high?

  15. From 1822 (Conduct is Fate by Lady Charlotte Campbell Bury, Vol. 2, p. 184):
    “There is a theatre there [Edinburgh], and I believe they have races too; besides, they love music, and, when they don’t drawl their songs through their noses, or screech them up in G sharp, there is something of melody in their ditties which I don’t wholly dislike …”

  16. CMBrown says:

    The earliest reference I have seen is 1883, in a story in Drake’s Magazine entitled “The Ague”. In the story, an Arkansan used the expression to describe a chill he had stopped a train. “Arkansas” certainly suggested banjos to me. But after looking at numerous uses, I wonder if “G” could just as easily be “Glory”. Even if it was often used by musicians, it does not necessarily refer to a tuning, but to the transcendent experience of a high quality of playing or getting lost in the music. Just a thought.
    “It may not come amiss to say right here that the late compositions of Thos. J Armstrong for Banjo and Piano, are “Away up in G,” and are “Selling like Hot Cakes.” — Stewart’s Banjo and Guitar Journal, Feb/Mar 1881

  17. CMBrown says:

    Oops. Stewart’s Journal should be 1891.

  18. N’s explaination seems quite plausible. There is also the point that G’s the lowest setting on a violin (but the highest on a double bass)…. There’s been odder etymologies.

  19. J.W. Brewer says:

    You don’t need to overtighten the strings of a standard (modern steel-string acoustic) guitar to get the E’s up to G’s and everything else moved in tandem; you just put a capo/”cheater” on at the fourth fret. Wikipedia claims the use of capos for stringed instruments goes back to the 17th century. Not that this makes this version of the guitar-etymology probable, just not ruled out on purely technological grounds.

  20. From 1822
    Great find!

  21. Third fret, but capoing the guitar serves a different purpose. You use the capo to transpose a song to a key you can sing it in (I think singing still sounds like a more likely source, but I don’t know much about it). Retuning the guitar is only for playing finger-picking patterns or riffs that would otherwise be out of reach. (This no longer has anything to do with the question that was asked). For N’s explanation, I wonder, what key were the pop hits of the 1880′s written and performed in?

  22. CMBrown says:

    Additional info:
    1893: Journal of Orificial Surgery, V. 1 (Pratt) “Did you ever see a man that today is away up in “G” and tomorrow away down below the one hundred and tenth lower leger line?” …implying that “G” is the space above the treble clef. Perhaps reinforced by Wright’s Golden Monitor (1890) with diagrams labeling this space as “Space above G”.

  23. Oh, that’s a great find, too. So the metaphor may be more about music as it is written down.

  24. Yes, I think the staff theory is the best so far.

  25. marie-lucie says:

    Interesting range of subjects covered in the Journal of Orificial Surgery.

  26. If it were about instruments, I think in the 19th century the violin would be the most likely candidate. The highest string is an E; it could plausibly be tuned up to G. People did tune higher than standard to get more volume, but G is pushing into territory where your strings are going to break. I have seen violins tuned as much as a fourth higher without any apparent problems, although that was with modern strings.
    Rule of thumb for amateur singers is to stick to the range of the treble clef, so G above the staff is a bit high for many people. Not a problem for a trained voice though.

  27. s/o: Open G was a popular tuning for amateur guitar arrangements in the late 19th century, but it was DGDGBD.

  28. Interesting range of subjects …
    I just googled this Journal of Orificial Surgery. I had been imaging that it was concerned with the mouth, the nose, and so on. Not so much.

  29. Adelfons says:

    A SMART LITTLE BIT OV A MAN
    My name is McGinty, ov influence I have plinty,
    With the gang I’m away up in “G;”
    Whenever they meet me they always do treat me,
    And we often go out on a spree….
    19th c. Irish song, from this book:
    http://www.itma.ie/digitallibrary/book/six-hundred-seventeen-irish-songs-and-ballads
    My hunch is “away up in G” first had to do with singing.

  30. First some replies:
    1. The capo way of retuning seems to me irrelevant, if we are to focus on guitars. We do not speak of a guitar being in E, when it is tuned in the most common way, even though the bottom string is an E and the top string is an E two octaves higher. Playing an E major chord requires that three of the six strings be stopped, after all. Applying the capo at the third fret raises the pitch three semitones; but the instrument is not then “in G”. It is not natural to say it is “in” any key unless the relative tunings of the strings are changed to fit a certain key well, as described above for the so-called open-G tuning. A similar stricture applies to the Terz hypothesis (find “Terz”, above). This differentiates the guitar and similar chromatic fretted instruments from the wind instruments I mentioned, for which there is a native scale that determines a name: the B flat clarinet is called that because it plays most easily in B flat, though its lowest note is not B flat but D.
    2. The association with G above the treble clef is interesting, but the logic is not tight. That G does not occupy a space in the stave, and does not figure in the popular line-and-space mnemonics based on the sequences EGBDF and FACE. This explanation also disregards my caution to distinguish notes and keys (you cannot be “in” a note, like that high G), as do some later comments also. (Hey: I don’t mind, really!)
    Here is a new hypothesis, prompted by that clef hypothesis from CMBrown. Another name for treble clef? G clef! It was traditionally called that most often, just as bass clef was traditionally called F clef. The marks for these are a stylised G and a stylised F, and their “points of focus” pick out the line or space that is a G or an F.
    Similarly, the less used alto and tenor clefs are called C clefs; these two have a common marker, whose centre sets the position of middle C depending on the marker’s vertical position on the stave. The clefs I mention are a subset of the full range of possibilities, most of which have fallen from use. But always the treble clef, the G clef, has been the highest – setting aside recherché anomalies.
    Just as one can sing or play in a key (but not in a note), one can sing or play in a clef. This is no longer a matter of which notes (natural, sharp, and flat) one uses; it is a matter of range, or indeed tessitura. This especially applies to voice, and the traditional vocal ranges are aligned with the four clef types I named above: bass, tenor, alto, and treble (or soprano).
    To sing “way up in G” would then be to take the highest part in an ensemble performance. One thinks immediately of the barber-shop tradition, but the application would be far wider than that in folk acceptance. I now think this very likely to be the core motivation for the idiom; but the “G sharp” variation hints at multiple causation. It makes no musical sense grafted onto the other reasons, but smacks of a whimsical or catachrestic gilding. A sharpening is a raising in pitch by distinct means, and the idea is kinda cute. I still think my earlier account (modulation to G, as pretty widely understood and spoken of) adds something to what now appears to be a classic case of convergence, or etymological overdetermination. Just as we make many conjectures here and now, those who actually developed the idiom contributed with their own mix of understandings and misunderstandings, to produce a typical semantic hybrid.

  31. Of course, if it is the G-clef, that’s the clef for the violin; highest in a string quartet, which were very popular back then in chamber music &c. The first violinist is most successful and most senior and plays in the G clef.

  32. Excellent comment, N! And I think you’re right, as far as present evidence permits any conclusions about this messy tangle.

  33. The singing thing seems unlikely. I just flicked through the Creation and literally opened it on a D two octaves above middle C, and the first note (in some editions) is a tone above. G is, frankly, in practically every soprano/treble piece I’ve sung; it is in no way special.

  34. CMBrown says:

    Excellent summary, N.
    I think the range of uses points to convergence. Also, the use of (what may well be) a musical metaphor in very nonmusical contexts suggests that it was very widely understood. Taking into account the limitations of the Google corpus and other than the 1822 case, the expression is not found before 1880. The Arkansas story (1883) I referred to earlier was republished in a number of publications. I wonder what happened in the early 1880s to popularize this expression — a song, a speech, a short story.
    In 1902, the expression appeared in “The Virginian”, a very widely read novel; the usage seems very nonmusical and more a reference to class or sophistication. It’s easy to see how a colorful, if vague, expression from such a source could become popular. This might explain the spike in usage in the early 1900s and an increasing distance from its original context.

  35. H – I’m not a singer, but the reason I think that that might be the source is because it seems like a couple of the writers people have linked to understood the phrase (or thought they did) well enough to riff on it. The sources are trending middle class and middle-brow, so the context probably isn’t very technical, sophisticated, or obscure. In the late 19th century, I suspect most of the middle class would have some familiarity with reading music for singing and maybe the piano, but not necessarily the tuning or playing of other instruments.

  36. marie-lucie says:

    N: treble clef = G clef: The marks for these are a stylised G and a stylised F
    The G clef = in French clef de SOL. The mark for that clef is a stylized S, not G. Its main feature is the old, vertical “long S”, fancied up with flourishes at start and finish. The F clef = clef de FA, so the mark is a stylized F. I am not sure how to justify the mark for the C clef = clef d’UT (the note is normally called do). I think that the names of the notes are the same in French, Italian and Spanish, deriving from the first syllables of a Latin hymn that started with a different note on each line, each line starting on a higher note than the next.

  37. This isn’t particularly relevant to the larger conversation, but it’s related to what marie-lucie posted and it’s too cool not to mention.
    The six original syllables — ut, re, mi, fa, sol, and la — that would later evolve into modern solfège do indeed come from a hymn, “Ut queant laxis”, whose musical phrases start on the successive notes of the scale:
    Ut queant laxis resonare fibris,
    Mira gestorum famuli tuorum,
    Solve polluti labii reatum,
    Sancte Iohannes.

    Those six syllables made up what was known as a hexachord, which was a sequence of six notes separated by the right sequence of tones and semitones that formed the basis of European music theory back around the year 1000. There were three kinds of hexachord, as the same sequence of intervals was allowed to begin on C (C D E F GA), F (F G A Bb C D), or G (G A B C D E). These three hexachords, overlapping and repeated in multiple octaves, combined to describe the full range of sung pitches in hymns like “Ut queant laxis”. The lowest hexachord of the standard set set down by a music theorist named Guido d’Arezzo began on G, so the lowest note in that standard set was a low G, which functioned as the lowest note (“ut”) in the hexachord to which it belonged. Since the note one octave above was already referred to as “G ut”, the low G was called instead “gamma ut”, a term which eventually shifted to refer to the entire range, rather than the lowest pitch, and got contracted to “gamut”.

  38. Ah, Marie-Lucie:
    Of course the note G is called sol in French, but I beg to differ on what letter the treble clef marker grew from. The English Wikipedia article Clef is defective in not touching on the issue at all, though it offers a fine survey to fill out the sketch I present above, for clefs generally. The French WP article gives less detail overall, as usual; and it too is silent on the point at issue. But I commend to you the German:
    http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Notenschlüssel
    See especially the section on the G clef, which is explicit and shows obvious historical G forms in one of the article’s invaluable images. They could not be forms of S. The rest makes fascinating browsing too.
    Now, the German article is supported in several books visible on Google – though decent coverage is surprisingly sparse. I have seen no support for your French take on this, anywhere (though I am away from my own extensive musicological resources; and the online Grove is beyond my reach just now). I suspect that many Francophones take it to be an S, along with you. ‘Tis backed most like an S! Then I ask you: How to account for the C clef, which by parity of reasoning ought to be based on U (for ut)? But see, once more, the German article for the evolution of that marker. The F clef, of course, decides nothing either way: fa by chance coincides with F.
    And then again: perhaps there is some kind of convergence operating here also.
    { }:
    Yes yes. The Guidonian hand. But it is not the final word on anything much. Older musicology might have exaggerated or distorted its influence; and it takes many forms, like the one in this luscious manuscript:
    http://mt.wiglaf.org/aaronm/2013/02/mc318-an-early-music-manuscript.html
    See the hand, and examine the detail in other images closely too. All very subtle and mixed.
    H:
    Fine. Recall that there are two violins in a string quartet. Second violin plays lower in the G clef; first violin typically plays “way up in G”.

  39. marie-lucie says:

    {}, N : I see that both the German and the French articles derive the treble clef from “G”, so I won’t argue differently. To my mind the design looks more compatible with S than to G though.

  40. marie-lucie says:

    If Guido d’Arezzo invented the basics of European musical notation and used those syllables for the names of the notes, how did those same notes come to be called A, B, C, D, F, G (and H for some) in the Germanic tradition?

  41. Marie-lucie:
    Yes, I missed it. French WP does explicitly give the clef marker as a G. (I am still left admiring the more expansive German article.) As for Guido’s exact part in a very complex story, I’ll pass on that – for now at least.

  42. My guess is that the Germans used the letters because they didn’t want to be French. There are different systems for the chromatic notes too: the names “sharp” and “flat” are peculiar to English. See Wikipedia on note names for details.

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