Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Rhythm and Patterns

This weekend I went to see the LA Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The program opened with Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 2, followed by his Piano Concert No. 2, performed by the very kind-looking Emanuel Ax. The second half of the show was a contemporary piece called "Sirens" by Anders Hillborg.

Hillborg's piece was interesting because, although Salanen was conducting in a very regular pattern throughout the entire performance, I don't think I would have been aware of any rhythm at all if I had closed my eyes. It was an atmospheric piece with rushes of sound followed by long sections of eerie singing and humming and whirring. I admired it for it's free form, but I kept asking myself if I was enjoying it as much as I enjoyed the Beethoven earlier.

Comparing the two made me think about rhythm and patterns, not only in music, but also in writing. I wondered how necessary they were.

After all, our lives as living things are full of rhythms and patterns: the seasons change fairly regularly, the sun sets and rises, we sleep and wake, we breath in and out, our hearts beat. Maybe there is something about regular patterns and rhythms that feel more natural to us.

In writing we often break up our stories into chapters and paragraphs and sentences. The regularity of starts and stops, at least for me, serves as a rhythm that helps me to rest and catch and my breath. Is that required for me to enjoy the book, or is it just something I'm used to? Possibly, something more free form would be just as cool once I got the hang of it.

More and more when I write I work to have variety in my paragraph lengths and my sentence structures. But sometimes a rhythm will just feel wrong. It'll bug me until I change it to suit some inner metronome that I don't really understand. It could all be random. I'm not sure.


  1. Cool post! I like a convergence of writing and music. And I love Beethoven (the 2nd movement of his 9th symphony is my favorite musical piece, followed very closely by Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb", then Mozart's overture to "The Marriage of Figaro" which is the classical equivalent of speed metal).

    I try to use rhythm and patterns in my books. On the large scale I would call it pacing and on the smaller scale it's cadence.

    My word choice is often dictated by cadence. Not a strict form like iambic pentameter, but sometimes I like the feel of the words to help illustrate a scene, almost touching on onomatopoeia but not quite.

    Here's a line from THE MAN IN THE CINDER CLOUDS that I really like for its cadence:

    Pots and pans clanged off the sides of the sleigh, their jingling lapsing in and out of rhythm as the Elfs sped up and slowed down, the disjointed melody accented by the bumps in the undulating ground.

    The tail end of the sentence mixes mutli-syllable words that have a rolling feel on my tongue with a few single-syllable words (the word "bumps" is almost literally a bump in the cadence). To me it evokes the sound of the pots and pans. Plus I really like the word undulating.

    On the larger scale of pacing, this is part of a slower unfolding of Christmas themes through the story, in this case being the first "Jingle Bells". I bring up the jingle bells again...not right away so it's not force-fed into the story, but not too far off where the relation risks getting lost in the rest of the narrative.

  2. Yeah, the scherzo in the 9th is way better than the choral final movement. Way better.

    I like Ricks's example sentence; it bounces along and has good sounds and is very Seussian without rhyming.

    I don't know if strongly marked rhythm is as importance as a steady background pulse. A lot of the music I like is highly rhythmic, as is a lot of the poetry I like, but the meters are often irregular. So hmmm about music. Esa-Pekka is a good conductor; I heard him conduct Beethoven and Lutoslawski a couple of years ago and it was pretty nifty. He seems to pair new works with Beethoven a lot. That might be a dangerous habit, because Beethoven tends to kick serious ass. Though I might not have noticed the similarities between the Lutoslawski and the Beethoven had they not been on the same program. I ramble.

    I think we talked about rhythm in writing before, with your example being something from Banana Yamamoto? I also have an internal metronome or something that makes me restructure sentences and paragraphs to improve (or something) the rhythm and flow. The order of vowel sounds seems to matter to me, and the mix of hard and soft consonants is important, too. A lot of it depends on what the local effect is supposed to be; action scenes get more short vowels and hard consonants, maybe. Maybe not. Depends on the voice of the piece, too.

  3. Scott- Do you think your musical background has a strong influence on your perception of rhythm in writing / reading, or do you think it's totally different?

  4. Rick, I could write a very long answer to that question or I could just admit that I don't know, but I can't imagine that my musical life has no influence on my prose. I know that when I was writing songs I was very aware of the individual words and the rhythms of each line because it all had to be singable and to my ear some vowels sound better than others on long notes, etc. But I've listened to a lot more chamber music over the years than I have to pop music, so I really don't know.

    I'm sure that my reading of Shakespeare and poetry and of writers who were concerned with prose at the sentence level has also influenced me, but it's always easier to list what we like than what actually influences us, isn't it? When we start listing influences, it's more "who I wish I wrote like" than "who I actually write like."

  5. It's good to point out that these beats happen on several different scales, and they can change depending on the local needs of the story. I always wonder if what sounds right to me in terms of rhythm matches anything that another reader might prefer. One possibility is that it's random.

    Rick, I like the sentence you use as your example. I definitely hear the sounds and get the feel of movement.

    Did I mention I played the clarinet?

  6. Scott- I guess what I'm getting at is how conscious the connection is. For me, when I'm writing I don't concentrate too hard on the rhythm, I go with what feels natural. I think my musical / songwriting background has conditioned me to a certain level of rhythmical awareness. When I get deeper into editing and revising I pay specific attention to cadence, mainly by reading aloud.

    Domey- You and Michelle both, right? We totally need to get a band together. I'm sure we all have tons of free time in which to do so...

  7. Rick: How conscious is the connection? Not much. I rarely think about specific technical aspects these days. When I read over my own prose I either like it or I don't. Either it "works" or it doesn't, and if it doesn't I can usually figure out why and fix it, but I almost never consciously think about what I'm actually doing; I just fix the prose. My internal monologue goes something like: "Hmm, that's ugly. What if I--no, but--yeah, okay." I'm not thinking in terms of "wrong vowel sound" or "the rhythm stutters too much" or "why don't I use an image from earlier in the scene/chapter/book here instead of what I have as a way to increase the unity of the narrative" or even "that's grammatically incorrect." Mostly I just think "Uhh, wrong...better now." So my awareness of the prose is, I like to think, pretty sharp, but my awareness of my own actions as a writer is pretty foggy.

  8. Evaluating a work's rhyme and meter is the reason I read my work out loud. It may have something to do with the years I played a violin, but I have found this practice invaluable in knowing whether a written piece is ready to be released. Of course, I haven't always paid attention. Invariably, though, when someone points out a rough spot, it was a place where my oral reading had pointed to a problem that I chose to ignore.

  9. Another musician chimes in ;-)

    Judith, I agree...reading aloud is a critical part of my editing process too.

  10. I, too, can feel it when something's off. And I love reading books where the rhythm is always spot on - like Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series.

  11. I haven't read Outlander yet, but my wife is on book three and she is totally hooked. I have the series on radar.

  12. Rhythm, especially in poetry, used to worry me until I saw a copy of the score for The Rite of Spring with its continually shifting rhythms. Looking at the score the piece looks unnatural and yet when I hear it I am oblivious to the underlying pattern; the sounds just wash over me. When you look at my poetry it is very structured but no one hearing it read aloud—not that I am big on poetry readings—would think about the structure of the piece. It is there, like a skeleton, holding the body upright; essential, yet invisible.


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