Wednesday, October 2, 2013

How to sound like a human being

I like to have a little fun when I blog, including in my choice of titles. Please understand, if you are a spambot reading this, you are going to come away with nothing useful. But if you are a human person who plays the piano or some other instrument, or it you sing, well, read on.

One of the differences between someone who can really play (or sing) and someone who can only sort of play (or sing) is in their delivery. The professional is much more fluent. This doesn't mean they can play faster, though that is probably also the case, but that the way the music unfolds sounds much more natural, and can be more easily understood by the listener.

Take a basic example. When I was growing up, computers were just learning to talk. They--soun--ded--like--this--pu--tting--ex--act--ly--the--same--space--be--tween--ev--e--ry--word--and--ha--ving--com--plet--ly--un--var--y--ing--tone.

There was no rise and fall in their computerized voices, of course, but there was also something else:

Their rhythm was off.

I don't mean they couldn't keep the beat, I mean just the opp--o--site. They sounded like metronomes. Every thing was exactly, completely, inexorably, boringly on time. Now, I want you to try something.

Read the next paragraph out loud.

Typically, when a person reads in a language, they vary the pace from one word to the next, grouping some words closer together and other words come after a slight pause, as if a boundary line had been drawn between them. Periods and commas are visual indications of when and how to group words, of course, but if you are really paying attention to how you read this paragraph, and if you read well, if you can sound as if you yourself are holding a conversation with someone and are just now thinking of these words and saying them yourself for the first time, you'll note that even when there are no commas, even when the spacing of the words looks exactly uniform, you still don't speak them evenly. They don't get the same rhythmic spacing, nor do the words and the syllables of the words get the same emphasis.

The reason for this insight is that it removes our last excuse for treated music as if it were to be played with mathematical precision even if it is notated that way.

True, four identical looking quarter notes in a measure APPEAR to be exactly the same, but if you play them that way, we are going to get bored fast. That's because in a language there are always more and less important pieces of information, and it is the necessary task of the recipient to sift through the information and determine how the parts lie in relation to each other.

Now anybody who has taken music lessons for a couple of years knows that when you see a slur you are supposed to group the notes together. But a good musician doesn't rely entirely on slurs to group notes: for one thing, slurs haven't been around forever and some of our greatest composers didn't use them. For another thing, a slur can't tell you everything. The truth is that no amount of markings, unless you want the page to look like a complete mess, can account for all of the interpretative grouping that needs to go on in order for communication to be achieved. As I said, that sorting and grouping is the task of the recipient.

But when you are the performer, your job is to step between the sender and the receiver, and, in effect, tell the listener how to listen by how you play or sing. If you don't you not only make the listener's job harder than it needs to be, but you show that you yourself have not understood the message.

To try to demonstrate the relationship between what is printed on the page, and how a performer interprets that printed matter, I'm going to give some examples. Next week, they'll be musical. But for now, I want to take that paragraph you read aloud a moment ago, and try to show you how I might have read it, showing pacing by putting words together, pulling them apart, and emphasizing some of the strongest syllables in bold face:

Typicly, when a person reads inalanguage, they vary the pace  from one word tothenext, grouping some words closer together   and other words come after a slight  pause, asifa boundary line hadbeen drawn between them. Periodsandcommas   are visual indications of whenandhow to group words, of course, but if you are really paying attention to howyouread this paragraph, andifyoureadwell, ifyoucan sound as if you yourself are holdingaconversation with someoneandarejustnow thinking of these words   andsayingthem yourself forthefirsttime, you'llnotethateven whentherare no commas, even when the spacing ofthewords looks exactly uniform, you still don't speak them evenly. They don't get the same rhythmic spacing, nor dothewords andthesyllablesofthewords get  the same emphasis.

That was interesting. For me, at any rate. For one thing, it is quite a strain to accurately represent, or to fully represent, all of the things that were going on in my voice when I spoke the paragraph aloud. For one thing, I was not able to indicate slight crescendi, or accelerandi, or tiny divisions within words in which one syllable might actually be closer to its neighbor and the next farther away, and so on. I comfort myself by the fact that musical language took a long time to evolve such that indications of dynamic variation and speed variation were unavailable to some composers until at last somebody figured out how to indicate it. But even then, there is quite a bit of room for individual variation.

Which brings us to point two, which is, of course, that you might very well have read the paragraph in a very different way. You could have done a rather Christopher Walkinesque interpretation and intentionally stressed odd words and paced things in a very unnatural manner, but even if you adhered to traditional understandings of pace, syllabification, and stress, there is still plenty of room for individual interpretation.

This suggests that there are more and less acceptable ways to interpreted written language, but that there will still be plenty of space for legitimate difference, and also that the written languages themselves do not--indeed, cannot--give us all the information we need to bring them to life orally.

Next week, we'll try this with some music. The point is to notice patterns, points of emphasis, and larger and smaller packets of information. And in turn, to really speak the music, not simply read it.

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