Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Musical Dialogue

I can sit through a musical performance and not notice sour notes that bring groans from my wife. On the other hand, cliched, stilted, or inappropriate dialogue in plays or books go right past my spouse, while I grind my teeth and mutter. I figure I'm doubly-blessed: I can enjoy music that she can't sit through, and I have a leg up in writing dialogue.

A few months ago, I was talking to ragtime composer-pianist Tom Brier, from Sacramento, and was surprised to hear that he writes a musical piece very much the same way I write a story. He starts with a theme and, at most, a general idea where it's heading, then follows where it leads him, all the way to the end. After that, he revises, cleans it up, sharpens focus here and there, and sometimes shifts a musical phrase from one part of the composition to another. And occasionally, when he gets stuck on one part of the composition, he works on another for a while.

So, at the recent Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, MO, my ears pricked up during “Perfessor” Bill Edwards' seminar on the origins of ragtime. Many people believe ragtime originated as a combination of characteristic black and white rhythms, the linkage of a regular march-like duple beat in the left hand, and a syncopated (emphasis shifted off the regular beat) melody in the right hand. Supposedly, syncopation originated in African music, and was brought to the United States by slaves.

But recently, ethnomusicologists, studying the rhythms of African music, have noticed that syncopation is conspicuous by its absence. Following up on this, “Perfessor" Bill suggested that syncopation actually might have originated in regional, possibly racial, speech patterns.

Okay. Listen to this performance of the “Merry Widow Waltz”(, then plug in these words: Please cut me some roast beef, and then pass the salt.” Nice, steady rhythm, isn't it, all words falling directly on the beat.

Now, listen to legendary ragtime performer/composer/historian Max Morath, singing a hit tune from 1909, by Brymn, Smith, and Burris. ( It's got a long title, which is also the first line of the chorus: “Come after breakfast, bring 'long your lunch, and leave 'fore supper time.” The rhythm of this speech is strikingly different, with emphasis frequently falling off the beat. Syncopation.

So, here's another arrow for the writer's quiver. When a particular character's speech marches or waltzes sedately along, that person is going to come across as pretty formal, maybe even stuffy. But a character who speaks in syncopated rhythms will strike the reader as far more lively. Something to keep in mind, particularly during rewrites.

Read all about “Perfessor” Bill Edwards' ideas on this and other ragtime subjects at


Get acquainted with Tom Brier and his music via youtube. Watch his fingers during the concluding portions of Scott Joplin's "Cleopha."

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