Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Words, Words, Words

My last two posts were about old wounds that had been reopened recently. Writing them was pretty cathartic, but now that that's out of my system I'm going to write something a little less intense and a little more fun. It doesn't even have anything to do with Asperger's Syndrome. It's about words and the rhythm of words.

I really enjoy the rhythm of words, especially in songs but also in prose writing and even on... signs. Let's first look at some lines from a few songs and talk about why they work, rhythmically:

"Magic Dance" by David Bowie from the 1986 film Labyrinth:

This works nicely because of the change in the number of syllables between each line.

I saw my baby, (5)
Crying hard as babe could cry (7)
What could I do (4)
My baby's love had gone (6)
And left my baby blue (6)
Nobody knew (4)
What kind of magic spell to use (8)

Relatively consistent, right? 5 to 7 to 4 to 6... but then the next line also has 6 syllables. Repetition. And back to 4. But then all the way up to 8. Somehow, the 8th syllable in "What kind of magic spell to use"changes a mostly consistent rhythm, especially in the way David Bowie sings it. I like it. It makes the song more dynamic. Imagine if instead the last line was "What kind of spell to use" or "What magic spell to use". Both lines convey the same meaning, but not with as much punch. And it has nothing to do with "magic" being an adjective but rather the fact that it has two syllables. Same deal with "kind of".

Another example of changing rhythm:

"Patch! Natch" from the 1985 film Santa Claus: The Movie.

Okay, okay. I know. It's stupid. It's a stupid movie (though I loved it when I was little) and the song is even stupider. The lyrics are cheesy as hell (and I think they were supposed to be). So... why do I sheepishly admit to having this song on my iPod? Well, look at the first few lines:

Patch! Natch! Patch! Natch!
Someone new has come to town. (Patch! Natch!)
A magic clown with eyes of brown. (Patch! Natch!)
Planned to be another Santa
And to share ol' Santa's crown,
He'll turn Christmas upside down (Patch! Natch!)
He's got a brand-new candy,
As dandy as can be.
It's puce and juicy, as you see

He plans to make it free.

What is it about this song? It's the change of rhythm with "He's got a brand new candy." Each line in this stanza has 7-8 syllables (one line has 6), but "He's got a brand new candy" sounds drastically different. Why? The song is playing a little trick on you. "He's got a brand new candy" has 7 syllables, but the words "brand new candy" have even longer syllables, tricking your brain into thinking there are fewer syllables. It grabs your attention. The actually words don't matter. The song could easily go like this and have the same effect (the line that I like is italicized):

Poop! Poop! Poop! Poop!
Poopoo poo poo poo poo poo. (Poop! Poop!)
Poo poopoo poo poo poo poo poo. (Poop! Poop!)
Poo poo poo poopoopoo Poopoo
Poo poo poo poo Poopoo poo
Poo poo Poopoo poopoo poo (Poop! Poop!)
Poo poo poo poooo poooo poopoo
Poo poopoo poo poo poo
Poo poo poo poopoo, poo poo poo
Poo poo poo poo poo poo

It's all in the rhythm!

It's not just songs that have rhythmic effects. Just string a couple words together:

"July fifteenth." Just say it aloud. "July fifteenth." Don't you love the way that rolls off your tongue? Each word has two syllables, and each syllable is long. Even "April fifteenth" doesn't have the same ring to it.

When I lived in New York City, there were two subway stops that I passed whose names always struck a rhythm for me. Near where I used to live there was a subway stop labeled "22nd Avenue-Bay Parkway." Say that aloud. The syllables progress from very short ("Twenty-second") to very long ("Bay Parkway"). And "Avenue" is a word with two medium syllables. Now say it aloud again "Twenty-Second Avenue- Bay Parkway". The other subway stop that has almost the same effect is "34th Street- Penn Station". Say that aloud, too. See what I mean?

From the song "The Hanging Tree" from the 2014 film Mockingjay, Part 1:

Pay particular attention to this line:

Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be

This is a nice use of repetition. The word "strange" (and its modified form, "stranger") is used twice in one sentence. Normally you want to avoid this sort of thing in prose writing, or even in music, but it works here. I think the reason it works so well here is simply because the second instance of "strange" is a modified form. It's repetitious, but in a stylized-- not careless-- way.

Another beautiful example of repetition, from the 1983 song "Hold Me Now" by the Thompson Twins:

(Starting from 2:41)

So I'll sing you a new song.
Please don't cry anymore.
I'll even ask your forgiveness
But I don't know just what I'm asking it for.

Look at the last two lines and the creative use of repetition:

I'll even ask your forgiveness
But I don't know just what I'm asking it for.

I love this. "Ask" is modified into "asking" and "forgiveness" is shortened into "for", a completely different word. The repetition of these sounds give the lines more impact and emphasize the desperation  and sorrow that the singer feels at having broken up with his girlfriend. Would the line have as much impact if it were written like this?:

I'll even ask your forgiveness
But I don't know just why I'm asking it.

Even with one instance of repetition ("ask"), the line has considerably less impact.

And by the way, forget about what your teacher said about never ending a sentence with a preposition. Does this line captivate you?:

I'll even ask your forgiveness
But I don't know just for what I'm asking it.


I also like when a song occasionally does the unexpected.

For example, in "Castle on a Cloud" from the 1985 Broadway show, Les Miserables:

Pay attention to this line:

"There is a room that's full of toys.
There are a hundred boys and girls."

You expected "There are a hundred girls and boys", right? Probably, since "boys" and "toys" rhyme. Well, that would have been boring. "There are a hundred boys and girls" works so much better since you don't expect it!

There's another slight deviation from the expected in "The Merry Old Land of Oz" from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.

Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion are getting cleaned up in preparation to see the Wizard. When the citizens of Oz sing to the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, they end each verse with "That's how we [insert action here] in the Merry old land of Oz." But when they sing to the Cowardly Lion, he sings the end of the verse himself, with "That certain air of savoir faire in the merry old land of Oz." You just expected another "That's how we... in the Merry old land of Oz", didn't you? The song wants to make sure you're paying attention!

Then there's allusion. I'm going to use another example from the Thompson Twins' 1983 song "Hold Me Now":

You say I'm a dreamer
We're two of a kind

You know damn well what that's alluding to. Whether or not the songwriters intended it, the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear that line is:

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one

It is, of course, from John Lennon's song "Imagine". And what's interesting about this allusion is how something about the tone in the "You say I'm a dreamer; we're two of a kind" sounds a little more blunt. It's almost like that line is saying, "Yeah, I get it. I'm a dreamer. So are you." It's almost like the song is "self-aware" of what it's alluding to. And it works. Why? I couldn't tell you. It just does.

Finally, I want to end this blog post not with song lyrics or even subway signs but with a line from Steven Pinker. He wrote a book called The Sense of Style, about why different writing styles work and why writing rules are meant to be broken. I haven't read it yet but I have a feeling that the book likely addresses a lot of what I said here. So, at the risk of being divisive, let's look at a line from another Steven Pinker book (The Blank Slate) that nicely uses a rhythm of sorts:

People who say that IQ is meaningless will quickly invoke it when the discussion turns to executing a murderer with an IQ of 64, removing lead paint that lowers a child’s IQ by five points, or the presidential qualifications of George W. Bush.”

Aside from the obvious jab at Dubya, the line does a few things:

1) It's a list. And it's a list of three. Somehow a list doesn't have as much impact unless it's a list of three things or more. Why? I don't know. We seem to be attracted to lists of three or more. Maybe it's the very basic counting system of "one, two, and many".

2) Change in parts of speech. The first two discussion points on the list begin with verbs ("executing", "removing"). The third one is a noun ("the presidential qualifications").

3. The term "IQ" is used in the first two discussion points but not in the third. Overall, what makes this work is the way the third discussion point is set apart from the first two. All three discussion points have 16 syllables (I didn't count "or"), and yet the third discussion point gives off the impression of having fewer. But it doesn't. The phrasing is enough to make the rhythm seem more different than it actually is.

Well, that's my little observation for today. I hope everybody enjoyed reading this. And if you write, have fun (jeez, it's supposed to be!).

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