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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Eric Morecambe grabbed Andre Previn's lapels for a good reason

My daughter bought me The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase for Christmas. It's by Mark Forsyth. He's proud to call himself a pedant and blogs about his interests here.

Forsyth's book explains how the secret of effective communication is an understanding of the techniques that underpinned Greek and Roman rhetoric. This applies to the making of speeches, the fashioning of slogans and even the writing of pop songs. When Ian Fleming's character says "My name is Bond. James Bond" he's using diacope. When Mick Jagger sings "she blew my nose and then she blew my mind" he's employing syllepsis. Churchill said that all he had to offer was "blood, toil, tears and sweat" but his audience's ears were so primed for the tricolon they deleted the word toil and rearranged the sweat and the tears.

It's a witty little book. The funny thing is it will mainly be read by people who understand its lessons already. That doesn't mean that they know what hendiadys is exactly but they do understand that Shakespeare's "sound and fury" is way more powerful than "furious sound" could ever have been. How do they know this? Nobody ever taught them. It's just that people who spend a lot of time playing with words develop an ear for sentences that amount to more than simply the sum of the words involved.

Like most people who write about music from to time I often wonder how I can have a serviceable ear for organising words while having none at all for organising music. I'm not completely musically illiterate. I can read music. I even know a few chords on the guitar but it doesn't matter how long I spend noodling away I can never come up with anything which sounds like a musical idea worth revisiting. That may be because I haven't played three notes that were worth repeating. It's more likely to be because I wouldn't recognise them even if I did. Learning to write effectively, much as learning to speak effectively, is first of all a question of recognising patterns. With words I can see those patterns from miles away. With music I can't.

When Eric Morecambe grabs Andre Previn's lapels and insists he's playing the right notes but not necessarily in the right order, I laugh like everyone else laughs. It's a good joke. At the same time I can't help thinking he's making a serious point. The order is the only thing that matters.