more on prose rhythm

I’ve been hitting some minor road bumps getting my ideas on prose rhythm understood, so I’ve been trying to think of new analogies and examples lately that better illustrate my argument. I think I have a really good one to share – namely, the video game Rock Band.

To offer some context before I leap into my analogy, I’ve been arguing that prose rhythm is not a primarily auditory phenomenon as sometimes thought, but a primarily visual one that is augmented by sound. In other words, when we read a passage of prose, it is our eyes working in conjunction with the brain to recognize pleasing visual patterns, usually produced by word, sentence, and paragraph length, which produce our sensation of rhythm in prose. This phenomenon does not require the auditory center of the brain, though it, too, can take part through subvocalization, and this tends to help comprehension; however, it is not necessary for the perception of rhythm. I should also note that perceiving rhythm in prose is a very subjective process; different readers will perceive different rhythms from the same passage because their experience with written English differs, and they have developed different biases over time as to what ‘good’ rhythm is.

It’s hard to convince someone of this position, though, if they think English syllables rule prose rhythm; namely, that our perception of prose rhythm is dependent on auditory/oral knowledge of how to pronounce syllables and how long or short they are when spoken. Behind this idea of prose rhythm is also, sometimes (though not always), a belief that prose rhythm is the same when experienced by different people, despite the wacky, inconsistent syllabication and pronunciation of English, of which every elementary student is quite aware. It is this position that I’m arguing against.

For those of you who have never played Rock Band or a similar game like Guitar Hero on the Wii or some other video game system, I’ll offer a simplified description. The player uses a controller that is a pseudo-guitar with five color-coded buttons on the neck and another button on the body that represents strumming. While holding this controller, the player watches the TV, where a virtual guitar neck is presented vertically, with color-coded notes descending along virtual strings in time to the music of a song. When the notes hit the bottom of the guitar neck on the screen, the player presses the appropriate buttons on the controller in conjunction with the strumming button. The object of the game is to perfectly match what is happening on the screen with the controller; in a sense, the player crudely reproduces playing the song. It’s also fun, and I say this after having played real guitars for 15 years.

An interesting aspect of this type of game, and where it serves as an great analogy to how I think prose rhythm works, is that it is very possible, and easy, to play Rock Band with the sound turned off; however, it’s very hard, and even impossible, to play it with the sound on and the screen turned off.

If you’d never played the game before, you might assume the opposite – it’s a game about music, right? Surely the sound is more important?

But as it turns out, all the information to get a very high score is on the screen. You can get a very high score with total unfamiliarity with the song being reproduced, because the player only has to time his or her button-presses with the descending visual representations of the same buttons. In other words, the rhythm of the song is represented in a visual format, exactly in the same way that musical notation allows musicians to play songs that they have never heard. Rock Band simply takes this one more step, by removing sound from the process entirely; unlike a real guitar, the controller makes no sound itself.

Now, granted, playing with the sound on is slightly easier, especially if the player knows the song well. The game provides auditory feedback about the player’s pseudo-performance by mucking up the sound of the song when notes are missed. This auditory feedback is unnecessary for success, however, because the game also gives clear visual feedback when the player misses a note.

One could object that when using a real guitar, you could just listen to the song without a visual source for rhythmical cues, and play along very well. This is true, as a guitar is capable of actually making the matching sounds instead of just being a set of abstract buttons that have no connection, real or assigned, to actual sounds. However, this doesn’t explain why you could take that same guitar and play with sheet music alone.

In short, Rock Band is a visual pattern-matching game with an additional auditory component (even though it is marketed as a music video game), and the ability to play it successfully with the sound turned off is prima facie evidence that rhythm – and by extension, prose rhythm – isn’t primarily auditory. To complete the analogy, the words in a given prose passage provide visual input, which the eye must first process. No other information is required to produce a perception of rhythm. Knowing how the words and syllables are pronounced, as well as subvocalizing – much like knowing and hearing the song while playing Rock Band – add other layers to the experience, but these are secondary layers unnecessary for perceiving rhythm.

One possible objection to this analogy is that there is no reading or interpretation of language going on in Rock Band, because matching colors and timing is not of the same order as reading words or even letters. But I’d argue that substantial information is still being passed along, and the visual cues used are actually fairly complex, though not as complex as actual musical notation, which manages to encode rhythm with static rather than moving images. If you think of the notes on the screen in Rock Band as one-sentence instructions (“Press the red button now!”) the analogy is a bit clearer.

Another objection, which I take more seriously, is that Rock Band provides a more or less objective standard for rhythm; that is, the game decides whether or not the player has pressed a button at the wrong time, and serves as an absolute arbiter of success. This observation might seem to make the analogy fall apart, because it would deny the player the independent judgment of rhythm that I like insisting upon. But anyone with experience in the game knows that its arbitrary judgments are often viewed suspiciously; the controller can fail to record a button press, the player can swear that they actually did hit a note on time, and the timing between the music and the descending visual notes can seem unglued. In other words, it is quite common to argue with the game’s rhythmical authority because the player tends to feel, sometimes with justification, that his or her sense of rhythm is superior.

In prose, a similar struggle can manifest in two ways. One, the author of a passage writes in a rhythmical style that he or she finds pleasing, but a reader does not. Two, different critics viewing the same passage can disagree about whether or not its rhythm is ‘good’. I should add that in both these cases, the standards by which each author/reader judges the prose will tend to vary, making agreement difficult. If you think such matters sound like the debates over taste in the late 18th and early 19th century, you and I, dear reader, are on the same page.

So that’s something I’ve been thinking about. More later.

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