On the Prosody of Twiddles

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Okay, so this one is pretty niche, and delves into some nitty-gritty. But it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about just recently, so I’m going to share anyway. If you can’t be doing with the detail, you can always go back and have a bit of a laugh at the comments on my post on mansplaining instead.


If you play the piano, you will know that of the three following motifs, (a) and (b) are easier to play than (c). There’s a bit of a knack to rapid repeated notes, but once you’ve got it, you’re sorted, whilst adjacent notes are always relatively straightforward because you can use adjacent fingers and don’t need to change your hand or arm position. Mixing the two, though, requires you to switch between the two techniques mid-twiddle, incurring a disproportionately high cognitive overhead for the duration of the material.

Wind players are using a different selection of body parts to play these twiddles, but will have a similar hierarchy of trickiness. For repeated notes you keep your fingers still and move your tongue. For adjacent notes you will usually be moving adjacent fingers, and whilst you may still choose to tongue them, this kind of musical shape would more often be slurred. Mixing the two for (c) is probably less complex than it is for a pianist, but still takes more thought and coordination in the articulation than either (a) or (b)

I’m not a string player, but I imagine the experience is comparable. Repeated notes allow you to keep the left hand still while the bow hand articulates them; adjacent notes can be done in a single bow while the right hand changes notes. Mixing the two for (c) needs both hands to be actively involved.

I started thinking about all these after singing through a twiddle I had written for voices and discovering that (c) was strangely tricky, whereas changing to either (a) or (b) made it much more singable. This involves a different set of body parts again: the lips and tongue are involved in articulating the words whatever the notes are, and the vocal folds either remain in the same place or marginally loosen and tighten to change notes.

Now I don’t know if it’s just because the vocal folds do their work hidden from direct observation (out of sight, out of mind and all that) but, from a technical perspective, it surprises me that the voice stumbles on this in the same way that instrumentalists would. Adjusting the length of the vocal folds to manipulate pitch operates on a continuum rather than all that discrete wiggling of different fingers that happens on instruments. It’s more like, say, a saw than fiddle.

Which makes me think that it’s not just the physical complications of twiddle (c) that are the issue: there is something about the musical shape itself that is inherently stickier than (a) or (b). Indeed, if you have been dum-diddly-um-pumming the twiddles in your head as you read, you will have noticed that your brain needs more practice to render (c) fluently even when you’re not making any sound.

Likewise, if you have been gesturing to yourself to help you think about the shapes, you’ll have found that (a) and (b) have a more easily sketched shape to them; (c) requires a direction change mid-twiddle that makes it feel that bit more stilted and awkward. It also gets you funnier looks from your fellow bus passengers than the other two.

This seems to me to say something interesting about the embodied nature of musical thought, though I’m not sure entirely what. But the White Rosettes may be interested to know that it’s why the baritones double the leads rather than the basses on their last notes of bars 41 and 135 in their new contest uptune, and the leads have that chromatic note at the end of bar 99. Tiny changes like these can save so much rehearsal time.

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