Monday, December 07, 2009

Dominant and Passive

This one is too weird, don't even read it. I'm only putting it in a blog so I can find it later if I need to ask my doctor to up my meds.

I don't count sheep when I can't sleep. Instead, I try to visualize Dobro licks and how I would notate them on a treble staff. I had a couple of aha! moments the other night:
  1. The middle three lines on a staff are the same as the G tuning on the dobro: GBD. This is important because I am a reaaaallllyy sloooooooowww reader of music. I usually have to start at the bottom and say Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge or spell FACE. I also have a hard time remembering what order the letters of the alphabet are in, so if I'm looking up a word in the dictionary, I have to sing the ABC song to figure out where in the dictionary to go. Fortunately, I can start with elemenopee if I know the letter is in the second half of the alphabet and that saves some time. Now, I can read the middle lines of the staff without having to start at the bottom. That's handy in much the same way as being able to start the ABC song at elemenopee.
  2. I've been trying to decide in a certain song (Shenandoah) how many frets down to start a slide at "A-a-way you rolling river." I was doing it starting a half-step below the G and also a full step below the G. As I tried to notate the variants in my head, I realized that the choice was between going to the 7 note (F#, one half-step below the 8 note, G) or the flatted 7 note (F, one full step below). As I did the notation in my head, I realized that the full step, taking it to the flatted 7 note, was really establishing the dominant chord (G7) and setting up a nice transition from the I to the IV chord (G to C in this case). I would not have noticed that had I not been notating the phrase instead of just playing it by ear.
I've been rereading Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong in which he examines the assertion that literate societies think differently from oral ones (where there is no written language). It made me ponder, at point 2 above, if literate musicians (those who read music) think differently than folk musicians (those who have an oral tradition for learning and passing on music). I thought differently about the phrase when I read it than when I played it.

Then that led to thoughts about the dominant chord and its role in establishing transitions and the various ways we deal with transitions in written language. Joseph Williams in Style: Toward Clarity and Grace talks about using the given-new rhetoric. Make the thing or concept that is already known to the user (the given) the subject of a sentence and then make the new thing or concept the predicate or object. Then in the next sentence, you can take the concept that was the object in the first (the new) and make it the subject (the given) in the second.

For example, "The traditional newsletter is giving way to the blog. A blog (web log) allows readers to comment openly. These comments can validate or challenge the writer or even other readers."

This technique leads to an often overlooked use and justification for the passive voice: It allows us to make something the subject of a sentence (so it can occupy the "given" slot) that would normally be the object of the sentence in an active voice construction. Example, "The computer generates a configuration file. This configuration file is saved to the local disk drive at the end of the session."

One more observation about transitions. We often signal transitions with "metadiscourse," that is, discourse about discourse. For example, in the examples above (as well as in this sentence--gawd this is so surreal) I have used the phrase "for example" to signal the user what the role of the sentence is. Other metadiscourses are "On the other hand" (signalling that a contrast is coming) or "Consequently" (signalling that a conclusion is coming). I have become a firm believer that since these are signals for a shift in meaning, they should always come at the beginning of the sentence. Look at the following.

Different roles will expect different information. Engineers, for example, want to see....
Different roles will expect different information. For example, engineers want to see...

I like the latter, the metadiscourse is at the beginning of the second sentence and does not separate the subject from the verb. Not true in the first case. It seems a little less stylistic and dramatic, but technical communication is about clarity.

I'm thinking Ambien, large doses of Ambien.


Warren Givens said...

Oh, Mikey, Mikey: Reading this blog brings to mind Deep Thought, the computer in Hitchhiker's Guide.

You have obviously gained some musical insight. However, (note my choice of sentence construction) being one who easily reads music, I have a tendency to "lock" myself into doing just that and so limit any sparks of creativity that could come with a more free-flowing style. A Beethoven Sonata can be satisfying to play and maybe some people envy that ability, but I envy those who can just sit down and play anything from ear. Don't beat yourself up too much! You have an advantage as a result of that limitation.

I'm anxious to hear the results.

Margaret said...

I like the way you can analyze the way your own mind works, and the interesting insights you come up with. Looking at musical transitions from first from the way they sound, and then from the way you'd use notation to record them has ultimately given your audience a new way of looking at transitions in writing. Not wierd and dumb at all!

Ted Kuster said...

When my daughter started Mandarin immersion elementary school I started noticing how much of an information payload Chinese characters carry. Much more than letters. So much more, in fact, that the experience of reading them is really different from the experience of reading in a European alphabet. It strikes me that reading music is more like reading Chinese than it is like reading English. Probably uses a different area of the brain, even. (I suppose the studies are out there.) I always wondered why as a writer I'm focused on text to an extreme degree, but as a musician I'm almost all about the ear. I think I might be finally starting to understand this.
By the way, Mike, if you'll bring your Dobro to the STC convention, I'll bring my banjo.