The Pleasure of Writing Things Down, Part II

On the way toward discussing the things that interest me about writing music by hand, I made a brief analogy to the experience of aurally transcribing language. The analogy was meant to illustrate their similarities, but more importantly, provide a benchmark for their differences. In this post I try to pursue the analogy a little further, then for the third and final post I plan on discussing the tactile and aesthetic aspects of music orthography.

Mairzy Doats and Dozy Doats
Through attentiveness and training, musicians can develop an extensive vocabulary of musical “facts”, preference rules, and aural relationships. Even if formal training is absent (where these facts and relationships are given standardized names and symbols), classification and categorization still persists in the form of patterns, terminology, and “rules” that are independently discovered by—and unique to—each performer. But whatever the source, over time this “vocabulary” is accessed in an increasingly intuitive manner, permitting musicians to mentally manipulate its elements with seemingly little conscious effort.

In terms of language, we become so adept at manipulating linguistic elements that we can still apprehend the meaning of a sentence despite there being misspellings, missing letters, or even missing words. For example:

“Ths sntnc mssng vrb.”

Though there are some missing letters (i.e. the vowels), enough remain for us to recognize the phrase “This sentence missing verb.” Our ability to do this is explained in part by our tendency to recognize written words by their shapes rather than their individual letters, and that word-recognition relies more on the letters found toward the beginning and end of a word rather than those found toward the middle (or put another way, boundaries play an important role too). However, it’s not only the vowels that are missing: the phrase is actually missing a verb (and an indefinite article). Yet despite the missing letters and words, we’re able to quickly and intuitively grasp the meaning of the sentence. This is an extraordinarily powerful aspect of language perception and cognition.

However we’re not just pulling the completed words out of thin air; there are context-dependent pressures that influence the outcome, and something very similar occurs with regard to reading and writing music.

Music Dictation
As a musician’s aural vocabulary grows, melodies are heard less in a note-by-note manner and more in terms of motives, short gestures, and phrases. During music dictation these larger conceptual groups are recognized, then “unpacked” in order to write them down. Similarly during language dictation, larger units (words) are recognized, then “unpacked” as they are spelled. Put another way, we don’t characteristically perceive words and language one letter at a time. The same is essentially true of music.

For example, the following melody is one that any first-year college music student should be able to successfully notate after one or two hearings, given the key, meter, and starting pitch:

For readers who may not be musicians, I’m going to try and describe some of the musical concepts at play here, and a few of the ways in which a musician might interpret them:

  1. All of the pitches are connected by step, meaning each note is adjacent to one another (just as consecutive natural numbers are on a number line). Knowing the starting pitch, a musician might then describe the opening gesture of the melody as: “5 notes down, stepwise”, rather than parsing the individual pitches. You might say that this is like picking out a “word” from a series of letters.
  2. Measure 3 is a melodic sequence of m. 2. A melodic sequence occurs when the rhythm and pitch relationships of one musical gesture (called the “model”) are immediately repeated (called the “copy”), but starting on a different pitch. Even if you can’t read the pitches, do you notice how the notes in m. 2 and their direction resemble those in m. 3? An ear-training student would be encouraged to recognize m. 3 as a copy of m. 2 starting one step higher, rather than as six individual pitches across two measures. Doing so helps minimizing the heavy lifting: detect the model then apply a rule, rather than considering each measure in isolation.
  3. Let’s say that a student started the dictation off O.K., but became lost somewhere around m. 3 on the first hearing: he or she can recognize that there is a sequence, but isn’t sure on which pitch it begins. The last note of m. 3 (the note before last) is a special one in terms of context. It’s called the “leading tone”, and to our Western ears there is a strong expectation for the note following it to continue upward by step. It’s like hearing someone sing a major scale but stop right before the last note, e.g. “do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti…” (“ti” is the leading tone, and we want to hear “do” again after it). In context, this note is like an aural beacon on a musical map; once it is recognized, you can orient other pitches to it. So if the student recognized the stepwise sequence, and that it also ends on the leading tone, he or she could work backwards from there to help fill in the rest.

Like language then, our recognition of musical gestures is influenced in part by context, patterning, and the grouping of smaller elements into larger conceptual categories. But no matter how extensive our vocabulary is—musical or lexical—there will always be anomalies that force us from the “word” level back down to “letter” level. For example, imagine that I am going to read the following sentence to you, after which you will be asked to write it down:

“A bird in the hand is worth two coated in octamethylcyclotetrasiloxane.”

Unless you are a chemist, this is probably the first time you have encountered that long chemical name, and the image of how it is spelled likely wouldn’t come immediately to mind. But the first part of the sentence is a common saying, so you probably wouldn’t need to have it read to you again in order to write it down; you can “replay” it in your mind after one hearing since it is something that you already recognize. But what about the chemical name? As it’s read out loud to you a few more times, can you see yourself sounding it out syllable-by-syllable, or perhaps grouping those syllables into more familiar stems such as “octa”, “methyl”, and “cyclo”? None of the phonemes (sounds) should be foreign to you, but this word’s particular arrangement of them likely is, which forces you to deal with it in a more elemental manner. Something very similar can occur in the course of music dictation:

This melody is the same as the one above, but at the end of the third measure a figure was added, one that is as awkward and out of place as “octamethylcyclotetrasiloxane” was in the example sentence: it jumps out as a jumble of skips, leaps, and irregular rhythm. But this musical “word” can be broken down into recognizable components, just as the chemical name can be broken down into phonemes and stems. And as you might slowly sound your way through a difficult word by mouthing it under your breath as you’re writing it down, so too musicians would rehearse the figure mentally, vocalize it in some way, then “spell” it into notation.

Side note: just as we might laugh when we hear that sentence with the long chemical name in it, it’s likely we would laugh upon hearing this melody too. I don’t want to branch out into another topic, so instead I will recommend David Huron’s work on humor and music. A good place to start is the PDF of his paper Music-Engendered Laughter.

I think that being introspective about how we manage language dictation helps in developing strategies for music dictation. And while there aren’t any exact corollaries, they overlap in many intuitive and analogous ways. But for me at least, there is an aspect to writing music that sets it apart. Whereas writing language might produce a unique combination of words, the words themselves have likely been around for a long time and can be found in many other places. But when a musical idea is culled from the imagination then transcribed into notation, it might be that it’s the first time it has ever existed. Sometimes, I can’t help thinking something imaginary was made “real” at that moment, and that to me is the most captivating aspect of writing music by hand.

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One Response to The Pleasure of Writing Things Down, Part II

  1. Matthew says:

    A good analogy works wonders to explain unfamiliar ideas. Interesting thoughts…


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