24 January 2014

Capturing details in a speech: a musical reminder of failure

Prelude & Fugue BWV 846 No. 1   in C Major by Bach piano sheet music
Yesterday, I had my first piano lesson for 55+ years, which reminded me of something I gave up on when starting the research into political speeches that eventually resulted in Our Masters' Voices in 1984 - links to the story of which can be found HERE.

It was easy enough to collect tapes of political speeches, but many of the most significant findings from conversation analysis had come from detailed transciptions of recordings of actual conversations (for more on the methodology of which, see Structures of Social Action (1984).

So the first challenge was how to transcribe the lines spoken just before bursts of applause in the speeches. Variations in intonation clearly mattered, not least because the way speakers talked in speeches featured more (and longer) pauses and much more marked tonal shifts upwards and downwards than is typically found in everyday conversation.

I started by trying to capture such details by trying to transcribe syllables, words, sentences and phrases on the different lines and spaces in the staves of blank musical manuscript paper. But two obstacles stood in my way.

One was that it was far more time-consuming than doing the transcripts in Our Masters' Voices - which took well over an hour to transcribe each 10 seconds of speech.

The second one, as I realised again yesterday, was that I was never much good at sight-reading music anyway, so my attempts to capture details of the beat, timing and positioning of words on the lines and spaces of a stave were doomed to failure.

I'm hoping that it may not be too late to improve my sight-reading of music - but have no illusions about my chances of ever being able to write music, let alone to transcribe speeches, on manuscript paper...