A Matter of Timing – Repost

Trent on trumpet - phot by Trent P McDonald

(Sorry for another reblog.  This is one of my earliest posts, slightly edited)

“Ha!  That sounds so ‘Trent’!  It’s like whenever you play fast runs you get excited and speed up.  Relaaaxxx.  Stay in the groove.  Flow with it.”  She was right, I’m rhythmically impaired.  Since my college days when Teresa made that observation, I’ve worked hard to bring it under control.  I’ve used a metronome, improvised over wildly diverse music and often scat to anything with a constant beat.  I’ve vastly improved but still tend to accelerate on fast parts.

Having a good sense of rhythm and tempo is very important when playing an instrument.  It’s also a much needed skill when composing.  Each phrase needs its own groove.  Themes based on those phrases must have a certain rhythm.  At each higher level the feel and tempo needs to not only incorporate those of the smaller units, but have a large scale sense of rhythm of its own.  The pacing of the different parts help to create unity in a large composition, creating a wholeness from the interrelated rhythms.  As a simple example, look no farther than the typical fast/slow/moving/very fast relationship between movements of a classical era sonata.  It’s a well-worn structure that holds everything together.

Tempo, beat and groove.  These ideas transcend music and influence all of the arts.  Just look at the art of the written word.  Our very language is rhythm based.

Does it need to be said, a poet needs rhythms and tempos for those words in her head?  Whether the pittter-patter of nature, the cranking of an urban scene or the pace of the poet’s soul, rhythm creates feeling,  that’s greater than the parts of the whole.   A poem may slow its rhythm, or accelerate, but this, this is purposeful, created by the poet to bring meaning in motion, to go beyond the simple word, beyond mind for your body to relate.  To highlight, to underline.  To make it more visceral.

A writer of prose also needs to be aware of the groove.  Rhythm can happen on the sentence and paragraph scale, shaping the flow of the words.  Think staccato sentences.  Think terse phrases. Harsh words, tough ideas.  Compare that style to the grandly flowing, lush words that slip form the pen of some of the more romantic writers, weaving their magic on the pages of books and the in minds of readers.

The larger scale pacing and flow of ideas is also important.  Although in places you need a quick succession of thought, a rapid discussion of new ideas, be careful not to rush it.  Larger scale rhythms are needed in chapters, sections and whole books.  A serial should have an overreaching rhythm spanning the volumes in much the same way as the movements of a symphony.

I’ve read books that worked in most ways but have had tempo problems.  Often a work feels choppy.  Sometimes the ideas just don’t flow together correctly.  Maybe things just move so dreadfully slow, nothing happening, cobwebs growing over the words on the page, that you begin to lose interest.  Or how about when things happen so fast there is no time to savor a delicious thought?  Harder to pin down is when a book just doesn’t feel quite right.  Something is amiss in the overall structure yet the plot works fine.  What is it?  What’s wrong?

When a book takes months or years to write and days or weeks to read, it’s often hard to come to terms with the tempo, particularly that long term rhythm that shapes the whole.  Many of the best writers have a natural ability to hear it in their mind, the proportions just seem to come out right.  Most of us have to struggle with it.  I, for one, can sometimes feel my lack of rhythm on the page just as easily as I can hear it in the ether while playing an instrument.  I know I need to go back and think of pacing.  I need to find the beat.  But while it seems so obvious, there are many who don’t think of it in musical terms, who don’t see it as a problem with staying on beat.  They don’t get that it’s an issue with tempo and rhythm.  An issue with groove.  With feel.

When editing an article, story or even a book, do yourself a favor and reread it as if it were a piece of music.  Feel the beat.  Listen for the pauses.  Pick up on the small scale and large scale rhythms.  Hear it.  Feel it.   I’m sure you’ll find new insights.

OK Teresa, I think I have it under control.  I’ll set the tempo and we’ll start: one, two, three, four….


Piano Sonata in g minor 1st Movement    More traditional sonata

Piano Sonata in c# minor 1st Movement   Less traditional, many tempo changes, rhythmic variation

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