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Tuesday, 03 May 2016 06:53

Day Two of Our Writing Retreat - Punctuation From a Musician's Point of View

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On this second day of our writing retreat, we had a lively discussion after dinner on punctuation and its impact on the reading experience. (What else would a bunch of writers talk about?)

Several people remarked that they hated italics and exclamation marks because they felt the author was trying to dictate to them how they should interpret the text. As a musician I found this interesting as it pertains to music notation as well.

Early music has no dynamic markings. Prior to the invention of the piano no instrument was capable of producing variations in dynamics. (Because a harpsicord’s strings are plucked it doesn’t matter how hard you strike the key you always get the same volume.) Embellishments and ornamentation in early music consisted of various trills and turns and were left entirely up to the performer.

But with the piano all that changed. For the first time musicians could vary how loud or soft they played. (The name piano is short for piano forte which literally means soft-loud.)

Varying dynamics in music performance came into practice very slowly as initially it was viewed as being in poor taste, a cheap embellishment. But by the early classical period this had changed as well.

Beethoven was one of the first composers to truly embrace this new development. His symphony scores are filled with accents, sfortzandos, crescendos, subito pianos and the odd grand pause, with dynamic notations ranging from double piano (pp) to double forte (ff). Clear instructions to the performer how he wanted his music to sound.

Tchaikovski and Wagner took things to extremes with markings ranging from pppp to ffff. But as far as the listener was concerned the dynamic range remained the same whether a composer wrote one ‘p’ or ten as musicians simply adjusted their dynamic pallet accordingly.

Markings in music guide musicians in performing the piece as the composer intended it. Exactly what some writers attempt to do with certain types of punctuation. (To me a word written in italics is like a note with an accent under it.)

The difference I suppose is that with writing there is no middle man – the audience is the reader herself.
Still, as a musician accustomed to receiving the creator’s guidance in enterpreting a work, I have no problem with the odd italicized word or exclamation mark. As long as the author doesn’t get carried away and become a Tchaikowski.

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