Taking Half Steps

New York Times crossword Dec. 11 / Constructed by Timothy Polin

Is that music I hear? Today’s puzzle is another reason to thank my mom for making me take piano lessons when I was young. A basic knowledge of sheet music made me realize that various squares in the grid contain symbols pertaining to musical notes: sharps, flats and naturals. That’s how constructor Timothy Polin squeezed PENCIL (SHARP)ENERS into 26 Across (“Little shavers at school?”), crossing it with JEW(S HARP) (“Instrument played in the mouth,” 6 Down).

I found the crossword enjoyably challenging, but I wonder if the theme was too esoteric for those with tin ears or no formal music lessons. Even the title tested my memory of music terminology: a “half-step” from a natural G note would be G flat or G sharp. (I wish I could explain it better, but my last sustained exposure to music was playing the clarinet in 8th grade Beginning Winds.) And, to be honest, while I could picture the notations for sharps and flats, I couldn’t for the life of me remember the symbol for a natural note. So I just drew a box as a placeholder.

Other SHARPS: RAZOR (SHARP) (“Like trenchant wit,” 39 Across), crossing with (SHARP) SET (“Fixed at an acute angle,” 44 Down); KEEP A (SHARP) LOOKOUT (“Play sentinel,” 59 Across), crossing with (SHARP)EIS (“Wrinkly-faced dogs,” 60 Down); CARD (SHARP)S (“Bottom dealers, perhaps,” 70 Down), crossing with (SHARP)IE (“Trademarked marker,” 93 Across); and (SHARP) OBJECTS (“Dangers for children and klutzes,” 106 Across), crossing with (SHARP)TON (“Al who sought the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination,” 106 Down).

FLATS: (FLAT)WARE (“Knives, forks and spoons, 1 Across), crossing with (FLAT) TOP (“Aircraft carrier, 1 Down); O(F LAT)E (“Just recently,” 32 Across), crossing with (FLAT)TERER (“Sycophant,” 33 Down); HYPER-IN(FLAT)ION (“Economic woe,” 65 Across), crossing with (FLAT)LY (“Way to refuse,” 68 Down); (FLAT) EARTH SOCIETY (“Group that doesn’t believe in revolution?” 76 Across), crossing with (FLAT) CAR (“Part of a freight train,” 76 Down); and (FLAT) FEE (“Fixed price,” 86 Across), crossing with (FLAT)TED NOTE (“F major has just one,” 86 Down).

NATURALS: (NATURAL) HABITAT (“Where a plant or animal thrives,” 12 Across), crossing with (NATURAL) CAUSES (“There’s no foul play when one passes by these,” 12 Down); ALL (NATURAL) (“Organic food label,” 36 Down), crossing with PRETER(NATURAL) (“Extraordinary and unexplainable,” 57 Across); (NATURAL) LAKE (“Body of water in a volcanic crater, for example,” 75 Across), crossing with (NATURAL) SELECTION (“‘The Origin of Species’ concept,” 75 Down); and (NATURAL) BORN CITIZEN (“Immigrant’s opposite,” 111 Across), crossing with (NATURAL) GAS (“Piped fuel,” 111 Down).

Where In The World? Dept.: I knew almost immediately that 95 Down, “It’s found near the toe of a boot,” referred to SICILY. But my geographic knowledge failed me with 88 Across, “Walled city of Spain,” and the crossing clue at 78 Down was no help: “Samoan port.” I guessed AVILA and APIA, respectively, and they turned out to be right.

New Knowledge Dept.: I was not familiar with the terms LABILE (“Apt to change,” 97 Down) and crossing word ALETTE (“Doorway jamb,” 120 Across).

Double Dose Dept.: “Potpourri” is both a HASH (48 Across) and an OLIO (42 Down).

Short Stacks Dept.: “Links chain” is IHOP (38 Down) — the International House of Pancakes, which serves sausage links.

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