on clarity

Allow me to rant for just a moment about clarity.

I am the instructor of an introductory linguistics course at my university, and I have been recently grading my latest round of homework papers on semantics and pragmatics. This is the unit on context and meaning. My delightful students (they really are delightful) had a problem set on their homework asking them to propose hyponyms and hypernyms of certain words. For example, if I give them the word dog, a hyponym would be poodle and a hypernym would be animal. It's all about sets of words and meaning relations -- all poodles are dogs, and all dogs are animals, but it doesn't work the other way (all animals are not dogs, and all dogs are not poodles).

So I gave them the word soda (pop, for you locals). I expected them to suggest a hyponym like Pepsi, and a hypernym like beverage. (All Pepsis are sodas and all sodas are beverages, but not all beverages are sodas and not all sodas are Pepsis, as the makers of Coca-Cola would attest.)

Three of my students gave me the hyponym grape. I'm assuming they mean grape soda, but sorry kiddos, grape is a kind of fruit. All grapes are not sodas. If you had written grape soda, that would have been fine, but no, you couldn't have been bothered to write out the extra four letters to convey your meaning, and thus, you lose your points.

How does this relate to trombonery, you ask? Well, let's ask Eric Whitacre and his publisher, who thought it would be a great idea to combine the first and second trombone parts into one 1st/2nd Trombone part in his piece Equus.


Oh, yes, and check out what we had to do in order to compensate for unclear printing failures in perhaps the coolest part of the piece.

Yeah. Spend the extra ink, and for the love of whatever you hold dear, make sure your parts are written clearly.

And better musical directions would be great, too, like this one:


  1. Whitacre is a composer of a great deal of choral music. Divided parts on a single line, with stems up and stems down indicating which voice sings what, is quite common in choral music. Seeing how the parts dovetail together in the passage shown could easily be perceived as a benefit. I can't say I blame him for choosing to do it that way.

    I find it interesting to observe the different expectations of people with primarily instrumental experience versus people with primarily choral experience. Coming from a choral background, I was used to having the complete music on paper, seeing the relationships between parts, and using the visual relationships as a means for aiding sight-reading. Instrumental people seem to develop a means of hearing relationships between parts during rehearsal, and of making certain assumptions from their parts regarding how things line up in the overall music.

  2. I do agree, Brian, I see the benefit of writing the parts this way -- and if it were just this one section, perhaps I would be more accepting. However, about a third of the piece looks like that and, in practice, having the two written together just creates chaos. We had to spend sectional time (and time in every rehearsal, too) saying "Okay, seconds, you play HERE... firsts, you play HERE".

    Interesting point about the differing experiences of choral music versus instrumental. I've had the most limited of experiences with choral music, and have never had a problem reading divided parts. (Singing the correct pitch, however, even if I know what it is... that's another story.) I wonder how the different reading styles might be beneficial to experience for those in the other genre.