Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Scotch Snap: everything you needed to know, and a hundred more questions

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This is probably the most interesting video I’ve ever seen on a musical question. If you want to know why, read on below the clip. As it happens, I’ve posted this on Robert Burns Day/Burns Night, so the topic of the Scotch snap couldn’t be more appropriate.

Philip Tagg: making sense of the Scotch snap at last

Philip Tagg and his articles have kept me sane since the day I discovered him somewhere around 1999.  He gets inside the same questions that perplex me about music, and is one of the few musicologists that make much sense when it comes to understanding dance and music.  One of the things that has intrigued me for years and years is the ‘Scotch snap’.

I’ve probably thought about it daily for about 10 years, mainly because of the Waltz in the ballet Giselle (1841) and that Mozart minuet in E flat, both of which exhibit scotch snaps in 3/4 time, and because my yearly trips to Prague have given me occasion to overhear Scotch snaps in Czech music, or at least folk music that’s played in Prague (which might be Slovakian or Hungarian, or Romanian, depending on who’s playing it, and when your maps were drawn).  One pianist I know deliberately plays the scotch snaps in the Giselle waltz as if they’re before the beat. When I asked him why, he said he’s always thought that bit ‘sounded silly’ if you play it like it’s written. Sometimes I’ve wondered whether some scotch snaps in classical music are  just notational errors:  I seem to remember reading that there are  instances where copyists would write a dotted rhythm using the semiquaver first as a kind of shorthand meaning the opposite. Can’t remember where I read that, unfortunately.

The Scotch snap and stress patterns in Croatian

And there’s more: as a student of living in Zagreb, I remember being fascinated by the comment of a Croatian translator who noted that since all stress in Croatian is on the first syllable, there was no iambic poetry in that language. Considering that iambs are so common in English (think of all those children’s skipping songs) the idea that a language could just exist without an iamb to speak of seemed bizarre. But I speak Croatian, so I know that it’s not.  Then there’s the added fact that Croatian/Serbian have accents of length as well as of stress, sometimes it’s really difficult to tell whether someone’s elongating a vowel, or stressing it – so someone could tell you that the accent is on the first syllable of a word, but to me it sounds like it’s on the second, because it’s a long vowel (the same is true of Czech sometimes).

The great thing about this video is that Tagg has done all the work that I knew needed to be done, but I wondered if I’d ever live long enough to start doing it. It’s a wonderful advert for the kind of interdisciplinarity that makes me get up in the morning, and which Tagg himself advocates in his 2011 article Caught on the back foot.  By the end of the video, there are just even more questions to ask, which to me is what good research is all about. And Tagg’s conclusion – that you should be looking for class divisions before ethnic ones if you want to understand issues like this in music – resonates hugely with a great article I read yesterday on the concept of the ‘ballet boy’ (Time to confront Willis’ lads with a ballet class?) – in which the author says that it’s class, not gender that’s the issue in ballet & Billy Elliot, but gender’s an easier issue to tackle if you’re trying to pretend that you live in a classless society.

 

Give yourself a break from multi-tasking

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Just try it. Give this podcast from Headspace about the healthy use of technology 15 minutes of your time. Pause to reflect on the way you use technology, and the extent to which switching between one window and another, between email and document, text message and Facebook, music and video, might be knocking up toxic cerebral froth.

You’ll know from my anti-multi-tasking rants that I don’t have a lot of time for the idea that ‘multi-tasking’ is a good thing. Although this podcast doesn’t use the term ‘multi-tasking’, it does refer to the documented negative effects of overstimulating your brain by constant task-switching on digital technology. It’s an important message, because it’s not just kids that try to do ten things at once with technology, it’s all of us who have the means. We need, I believe, to stop buying into the idea that we have endless processing power. I might just sign up to Headspace and give myself a break.

Yet another reason not to multi-task

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Readers of this blog will know that I have a real thing about mult-tasking, so I’m delighted to read this article on cell-phone accidents in the New Scientist, though not so happy about one of the recommendations. Road signage should be improved so the obstacles to phone users are more obvious ? How about advising phone users to get off their phone if they’re crossing the road?!

The questionnaire was posted to 15,000 Finns, and got just over 6,000 responses.  How effective is a self-reporting questionnaire on a topic like this?  You have to wonder how many people, Finnish or otherwise, are going to admit that they were texting while driving, or that they walked straight into the path of an oncoming cyclist because they forgot to look out for traffice while they were on the phone.

Cyclists have to live with the knowledge that drivers do things as idiotic as coming out of a junction while texting or dialling and looking down at the phone. It’s the fact that they were looking at their phone that means they didn’t realise how close they were to killing someone, so that’s already a whole group of people who the research won’t capture.  Likewise, if pedestrians had any idea what it would feel like if a cyclist + bike crashed into them,   they might consider that they had had a ‘near miss’ in research terms.  Cyclists know that a pedestrian with a phone is only a half functioning humanoid, and therefore has to be treated as if they are an accident already happening.   It would be instructive  to conduct a survey of cyclists on one day in London to ask how many near misses they had with someone lost in telephone-space.

Conference on musical improvisation

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Interesting conference coming up in September 10th – 13th this year at Oxford University – Perspectives on Musical Improvisation.  I’m half tempted to submit a proposal for a paper, since music improvisation in ballet classes is one of those mysterious and hidden-away things that rarely gets an airing. Just not cool enough, I suppose. Just a shame that this isn’t really my area of interest as a researcher, so I hope someone else will take up the challenge.