The Write Practice

Do you ever feel uncertain of grammar or punctuation when writing reports? This is not a thing which can be fixed overnight but perhaps subscribing to a site like Daily Writing Tips  might be a help. I’ve received a daily email update from them for quite a while now and, quite frequently, things come up about which I’ve been uncertain for years. The email subscription link is at the top right of their homepage.

Here’s a link to all their grammatical matters

to Grammar 101

to punctuation

and, like, finally – here’s one for our times….

“Like” serves nouns and pronouns, not verbs

Sight-reading and expectation

I recently took part in some interesting research in that intriguing Venn diagram intersection of music/language/psychology.

To ensure that the tests weren’t skewed by knowledge of what was being studied (so called Observer Effect) I simply followed instructions and asked later. Basically I sat at a piano keyboard prepared to sight-read various short musical samples for right hand only. My eyes were tracked so that the researcher could see exactly what I looked at and for how long.
One thing which became clear was that I looked down at my hands too often, even although there was a square on Middle C and a thin Blue Tack ridge on the G above that. The span of notes involved was a 13th ( from the G below Middle C to the E above the next C up).
Once it was all over, it was explained to me that the research was looking to see whether our eyes would linger over odd and incongruous moments the way they do when we read language. For example, “the cat sat on the sat” will, unless you are a modernist poet, make your eyes linger on the final word, which doesn’t, in any conventional sense really “fit”. Musical equivalents included, for example, an excerpt in the key of D in which the sharps which qualified it as ‘being in D’ were cancelled by natural signs. Interestingly, the weren’t many rhythmically weird moments – probably because that would have made the reading tricky. What was being sought was our reaction to oddness – not difficulty.
When I find out more about the results I will ( with the blessing of the researcher) post more.

The Art of Fugue

I always look forward to notification of a new YouTube upload by Smalin aka Stephen Malinowski. I’ve linked to several here before but this one is a cracker and features: 

  • his uniquely colourful system for portraying pitch and duration
  • the option to watch in 3D – with the right specs
  • mention of the following musical concepts:
  • augmentation – doubling the length of notes in the theme
  • diminution – halving the length of notes in the theme
  • inversion – turning the theme upside-down; as he explains the M-shape becomes a W-shape
  • if you watch the hands closely you’ll also see ‘finger substitution’ – where a finger, which is keeping a note down, is ‘relieved’ by another so that it can move on to its next job; the complexity of the music comes through here as many of the notes are effectively being played twice

Musical Terms

There was a time when many used to feel that it was fine to question Wikipedia’s accuracy. I never really felt this and can’t recall spotting an error – perhaps I know less than those critics.

I’m impressed by their glossary of musical terms - particularly the iPhone version, the alphabetical arrangement of which is elegant and user friendly. A nervous pupil, en route to a grade exam, could do worse than to look check up a few of these in the car. At home on PC it is a great resource – particularly when used in conjunction with Windows search function – Ctrl+F then the first few letters of the term in question.

Of course, when it comes to SQA concepts, there is no better site than LTS’ one - where audio illustrations of the concepts are included.


great article in The Guardian (Mon 2 Jan) featured artists from various disciplines offering tips on creativity, inspiration and realising ideas. Placed in the arts section, it would be silly to criticize the piece for lacking a wider field of professionals, but I did find myself wishing for contributions from those in other areas of expertise e.g. science, engineering, social policy, education. The wider the field, the more boldly common themes tend to stand out.

In this regard I have to say that I’ve always found it something of an irrelevance that, in school life, Music is grouped together with, say, Art or Drama. As far as academic side of Music goes, I feel it has most in common with Language(s) and then Maths. Actually, on this point, let me bore you with another possibly pedantic personal opinion: it is often claimed that Music and Maths are very closely related. I think this is an overstatement. Music and Arithmetic are closely intertwined but Calculus, Trigonometry, Algebra and Geometry rarely darken my door – unlike alliteration. Certainly as regards the honing and analysis of technique, then Music has as much in common with PE as any other subject – and let’s not forget teamwork!

Returning to the article, I was pleased to see that composer, Mark Anthony Turnage, scotched the idea of inspiration allowing us to avoid hard graft. Fortifying this take on the creative life, he cited various details of working method: routine; a quiet place to work; the difference that time of day can make. He opines that “the afternoon is the worst time for creativity.” It can feel like the worst time for learning and teaching. Many pupils (and possibly staff) seem to undergo a dip around 2.00-3.00 and perk up when within sight of the home straits. In the unlikely event that I am charged with redesigning the school day, I will opt for 7.00-2.00, freeing up the afternoon for siesta, meditation, reading or sport. Turnage also feels his critical eye/ear to be more lenient in the evening, often necessitating morning revision.

Susan Philipsz, has some very straightforward suggestions: “keep it simple” and “be audacious” and, in similar spirit to Turnage, “if you have a good idea, stick to it. Especially if realising the project is a long and demanding process, try to keep true to the spirit of the initial idea.”

Singer/song-writer, Martha Wainwright, confesses to a piecemeal approach: “I write in short spurts – for five, 10, 15 minutes – then I pace around the room, or go and get a snack.” Playwright, Polly Stenham, touches on the physical side, advising us to “go for a walk.” Author, Haruki Murakami (in another article) takes this much further. “When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing.”

Artist, Polly Morgan, stresses the fruitfulness of a cross-curricular approach: “Don’t restrict yourself to your own medium. It is just as possible to be inspired by a film-maker, fashion designer, writer or friend than another artist. Cross-pollination makes for an interesting outcome.” Harking back to my first paragraph, I would widen this field considerably. Morgan also seems willing to embrace the tough choices which many of us would prefer to avoid: “Don’t be afraid to scrap all your hard work and planning and do it differently at the last minute.” I have certainly found this approach indispensable upon arrival at gigs which differ widely from their description.

Director, Ian Rickson, encourages us to “embrace new challenges. When we’re reaching for things, we tend to be more creative.” This reminded me of an inspirational idea by Joe Zawinul, keyboard player and founder member of Weather Report (and incidentally one of the few who seemed able to write music which was happy but not inane). In his 7th decade, there was more chance than ever that his improvising would fall into favoured patterns. In a bid to stumble upon new sounds, he programmed one of his keyboards so that pitch ran in reverse order. Playing this, along with others formatted in the normal way, many novel ideas emerged which would not have occurred to a trained hand and ear.

Musician, Gus Garvey (Elbow), recommends the practice of bringing together two unrelated ideas. I recall coming across this in Edward de Bono‘s 1973 book, Po.

Perhaps my favourite sound bite from the piece comes from opera singer, Kate Royal who reminds us that, “art is everywhere.” Taking the word art as a synonym for inspirational practice then, with providers and consumers of public service having to produce more with less, this seems like as good a way to step into 2012 as I can imagine. Happy New Year!

You can access the full article here.

But let’s leave Joe Zawinul with the last word:[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

The Latest Scores

 It’s hardly surprising that, in a culture of written music such as the western classical tradition, the look of the music has become more complicated throughout its centuries-old develpment. If you’ve not had the opportunity to see some more out there scores, there is a great collection on the YouTube channel of the enigmatically named ch252525.

Here is an example (click the link above for more):[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

p.s. the Google Ad on screen is not part of the score :-)


I’m endebted to J. Simon van der Walt for (inadvertently) alerting me to a free, open source, music score-writing programme entitled MuseScore.  It is intuitive to use for anyone accustomed to the basic commands which feature in most programmes e.g. hitting the space-bar to start/stop playing.

The program saves in its own file format but opens a variety of other file types, including Midi files.

While it’s not Sibelius, it’s not £449.95 either and, in these difficult times, it might be the only way for some to get their foot inside the score-writing software door.

In the spirit of open source, the first thing that happens, upon opening the program, is that you are invited to join the community. The news menu of this is reminiscent of Twitter with many (shortened) urls leading to how to videos such as this one on how to transpose a score.  A quick search for similar videos on YouTube revealed about 1,000 results.

You can download the programme (Windows, Linux or Apple) here.

And, finally, congratulations to Simon on his recent PhD in composition! You can hear some of Simon’s work here.

TeachMeet 2011

This evening I’m heading up to TeachMeet 2011 chez Scottish Book Trust as one of the 7-minute presenters.

My theme is Literacy, Numeracy and Games in Instrumental Lessons. Seven minutes will allow a an average of 6 seconds per slide. So it will be a broad brush, hurried affair with the intention that people can download the ppt from here.

So here it is: Literacy-Numeracy-Games-in-Instrumental-Lessons


What better way to relax before a concert (Musselburgh Grammar New Year Concert – a neologism brought upon us by adverse weather at Christmas) than messing about with words. Driving home from school, I heard an article on Radio 4′s Open Book about Google’s Ngram software. Basically, this allows you to chart the popularity of a word between 1800 and now in books – approx 15 million of them.

It’s interesting to discover how words grow legs of their own, independent of their original coinage. For a bit of fun, try to predict (before clicking) which of the following words is the only one to enjoy a rise in popularity in last 200 years: heaven, hell, limbo, purgatory.

Can it be used to spot societal trends? Naomi Alderman pointed out, during the programme, the decline of “I must” compared to the rise of “I want.” Chart, though, the counter-intuitive progress of the word celebrity.

I wonder if one day an equivalent will appear for monitoring historical trends in music. What do you think the unit should be? Note? Chord? Voicing? And the method of input?

The use of the word music is interesting. It rose during WW2, peaking sharply around the late 1950s before falling sharply.

p.s. I suspect that neologism is not really a suitable term for a phrase, as opposed to a word. What should one use?

p.p.s I also realise that falling sharply is a musical contradiction – he said, voice rising flatly