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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

If you know the words . . .

The following sentence has a problem:

Very light pressure on the abdomen is advised, if the belly is massaged at all.

Years ago, I had a friend that used to play guitar and sing at coffee houses in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. One night he got up on stage, sat on a stool at the microphone, and said, "I've been busy all week and didn't get a chance to prepare anything for tonight. So we're just going to have 10 minutes of silence." Then he just sat there with his guitar cradled in his arms. There were a few laughs scattered throughout the audience at first, and they began to accumulate the longer he sat there. Then he broke up the room when he said. "That's okay. If you know the words, sing along."

Over the last couple of years, I've been working sporadically on composing a blues opera based on the execution of John the Baptist. Now let me stop right here and say I'm no musician. I took piano lessons for a few years when I was a kid but quit because I wasn't any good. When my own kids were small we bought a piano so they could take piano lessons. (They're all good musicians. My oldest son and my daughter are fantastic pianists and can play just about any instrument you hand them, and my second son plays bass in a band.) So I played around on the piano and taught myself a few songs so that people didn't laugh any more when I sat down at the keyboard.

My first wife got the piano when we divorced, and it wasn't until years later that S and I splurged and got a piano of our own. She had never played and wanted to, so we both signed up for lessons. And that's how I got into composing a blues opera. I had a fantastic teacher who believed in letting me set my own curriculum. He also made what I wrote but couldn't play sound fantastic when he played it.

There is a point to all of this. One of the hardest things for a non musician and novice composer to do is hear the natural interplay of music and words. So one of the mistakes I kept making was throwing away strong emphasis on weak syllables, or in scoring, I wouldn't hear the incomplete measure at the start of a score. That means I would write the music starting with the downbeat rather than holding the down beat for two preliminary beats. Or I'd have the wrong time signature. For instance I'd think I was writing in 4/4, but when my teacher would look at and play the piece, it would be obvious to him I was using 5/4, and so he'd help me figure out how to correctly count the beats and re score the music. My ear got better, but I still have problems with that. And even though I would play the melody line with the proper emphasis in my head, someone else who is a musician would look at the score and play it a different way.

So what's all this have to do with the sentence at the beginning? Here's another one with the same issue.

It can take up to a year for a couple's normal sex life to return in full bloom, given the realities and stresses of early parenthood.

I studied rhetoric in graduate school with Ed Corbet, and he used to say one of the most common mistakes writers make is not reading their writing out loud. That's because, like music, language has natural rhythms. And when a writer disrupts the flow of those rhythms, that writer creates places where a reader is going to stumble. When I missed the upbeat at the start of a score, I created a place where a performer is going to stumble or at least miss the correct emphasis. And that's very much similar to what's happened in the two problem sentences, each of which was written by a different writer. If you read the first sentence out loud --

Very light pressure on the abdomen is advised, if the belly is massaged at all.

you should be able to hear the violated rhythm. Now move the phrase at the end to the beginning:

If the belly is massaged at all, very light pressure on the abdomen is advised.

The "is advised" is awkward and stilted, but at least the sentence flows more naturally. It doesn't cause a reader to stumble, and the writer gets a bonus after making the change. It's easier to see the need to think about changing "is advised" to, perhaps, something like

If the belly is massaged at all, very light pressure on the abdomen should be used. (or "is best" or is required)

Now try doing the same thing to the second problematic sentence.
It can take up to a year for a couple's normal sex life to return in full bloom, given the realities and stresses of early parenthood.
When you know the words, you can sing along; when you hear the beat, you can play the song.


  1. Sometimes I know the words and sing along and other times I don't know the words and I just hum along. Have a great day. :)

  2. Wow a blues opera - how exciting is that - good luck with it. I like you using this analogy in your lesson for today. Read you rposts aloud. I dont do that but will from now on. Thanks. By the way maybe you should put your music on your blog when you are ready for it - it would be great!

  3. A blues opera based on the execution of John the Baptist? Color me intrigued.

    Couldn't help but do the blues riff on the belly massaging passages.

    Bum, Bah, Bum,Bum ( blues riff, right here)

    Peace - Rene

  4. I'm taking your advice and reading my writing out loud. It's helping me a lot at work, writing progress notes and psychological evaluations.

  5. Bumpy rhythms are even more difficult and obvious to people who don't speak in their mother tongue.
    Unfortunately, we do create a lot of them and personnaly, I usually can't seem to straighten them out properly.

  6. Hi, Sandee. Some of us also whisper as we work. ;-)Thanks for the comment.

    Lilly, I hadn't thought about putting the music on the blog. I'll give it some thought. I'd do it in an instant if I could get my former piano teacher to record it. Might be worth talking to him about it. Thanks.

    Rene, you always make me smile. That belly massage passage does suggest some interesting possibilities for a great 12 bar blues.

    Wow, Gran. I'm glad my observation is proving useful. Reading psychological evakuations out loud can be scarry though, can't it?

    Hi, Juliah. You make a good point about the bumpy rhythms and non native speakers. I don't always get mine straightened out eitheer.

  7. Not to me, Grandpa! I've done it for a long time :)