Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The overlooked melodies of speech

Growing older exposes me to new experiences, often unexpected experiences, that make me wonder what I’ve actually been paying attention to, all these years.

            Hearing, for example.

            As a journalist for most of my life, I’ve needed to hear exactly what people were saying. When quoting people in the public eye, it’s not good enough to print what I think they might have said.

            There’s a huge difference between, say, “prosecution” and “prostitution.”

            But as I have aged, my hearing has declined.

            Back in university days, a professor wanted to demonstrate the range of human hearing. He told the class to put their hands up, as long as they could hear the sounds. Then he cranked up an audio frequency generator, slowly, from ten cycles per second -- below human hearing levels -- up to 20,000.

            Hands went up at around 50 cycles, went down again around 12,000 to 15,000. At 20,000, only one hand was still up.

            “Amazing,” the professor declared. “Especially since I turned it off at 18,000.”

            His point, of course, was that a lot of what we hear is our imagination. We fill in the blanks. We hear what we expect to hear -- especially from politicians.


Missing the words

            My own hearing has dropped off dramatically these days. So I wear hearing aids.

            When I remember them, that is. I didn’t remember them for a recent gathering. I tried to catch, and translate into comprehension, various people’s comments. But I found the extra effort tiring.

            Fortunately we didn’t have difficult decisions to make. We were just hearing each other’s views.

            So I tried listening a different way. To the sounds, the tones, the rhythms of speech around the room.

            It was like listening to music. Perhaps, as an example, to Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, in which he gave each animal its own combination of instruments.

            Listening to this gathering, at first I heard only the pitch of voices. The higher women’s voices, the lower rumble of males.


Hearing the music

            Then I began to notice the way they played their instruments. Some played confidently, marching their thoughts across a parade ground. Some pattered along au point, like butterflies. Some trotted allegretto, some galloped vivace, some plodded adagio.

            A few fumbled for the right notes, like beginner piano students, backing up, correcting themselves in mid-phrase.

            And I began to hear the rests, too. Those all-important periods of silence. Perhaps to let a profound comment sink in. Perhaps to let an idea germinate before it  bursts forth, double forte, demanding attention.

            I heard the melancholy bassoon, the excitement of a flute, the brash enthusiasm of a trumpet, the longing in a cello.

            And I felt myself wondering how long I’ve been listening only for people’s words, and ignoring the music of their voices.

            Of course I need to hear words. Without the actual words, I’m left only with impressions. I need words for precision, for content. But I wouldn’t enjoy music if I had to translate the harmonies, the dissonances, the flow of the melody into the black dots of a printed score.

            Try it, sometime. See what you get out of the music of speech that you won’t get by listening only for the words.


Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

                  To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca





By the way, Soft Edges will be coming out on Thursdays from now on, not on Wednesdays. 


Ken Nichols picked up both themes in last week’s Soft Edges column -- about birds, and about immigrants: “We too have a bird table in our garden and we entertain a range of birds -- robins, wrens, jackdaws, magpies, pigeons, pheasants, blue tits, great tits and probably others I have forgotten. It would be wrong to suggest that they all live in complete harmony. There are often squabbles but somehow they all manage to rub along together. (The main beneficiary is the pheasant which is not constructed to deal with the feeders and waits for the others to drop scraps for him to eat. Something Biblical here!)

            “Locally we are engaged with the City of Sanctuary movement which, beginning in Sheffield some years ago, encourages our cities, towns and villages (as well as organisations like Lions, scouts, schools, universities etc.) to be places of Sanctuary where those having to leave home and country can find a welcome and the opportunities to flourish.

            “Thetford, in Norfolk, is scarcely a city but we do have a number of different communities with people from Portugal, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Russia and many of the indigenous white population come from other parts of the U.K. Perhaps the image of a human ‘bird table’ fits here. Squabbles happen but on the whole we get on well. The logo we have adopted says ‘Thetford, Town of Sanctuary –- where all are welcome!’”


So did Tom Watson: “Regarding your title ‘These Immigrants Welcome Here,’ I long for the day when we say -- and mean it as you do when you put out the welcome mat for the two newcomers to your bird feeder -- ‘All Immigrants Welcome Here.’”


Frank Martens lives about 50 miles south of me. He wrote, “I guess the movement of birds from south to north is relatively slow. We have had two pairs of turtle doves in our orchard now for at least 8 or 9 years. They love our bird feeder filled with black oil sunflower seeds. I haven’t really looked for them here lately. I hope they are not our pairs that you have found in your part of the country -- I would certainly miss them.” 


Like Frank, David Gilchrist had ringed turtle-doves before me: “That’s an interesting comparison between the birds and the human refugees. I suppose birds, who wander out of traditional territories when climate change makes new feeding grounds more hospitable, are like people who go to other countries because they see more opportunities for a better life.

            “Ring-Necks started showing up at our feeder in Didsbury, Alberta, at least 4 or 5 years ago. They didn’t stay more than a few days each time, as if they were on a journey somewhere and just needed a stop-over.”


Bruce McLoed wrote, “Your nice piece on the avian immigrants reminded me, and maybe you, of e e cummings’ little poem [which begins]

‘may my heart always be open to little

birds who are the secrets of living

whatever they sing is better than to know

and if men should not hear them men are old…’”

            Yes, I knew that poem. I also thought of Emily Dickinson’s deceptively simple poem (again only the first verse):

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all ….


Eleanor Geen, a local friend, commented, “I wanted to say how much we enjoyed your 'Immigrant' column -- it was masterfully presented!”






The psalm for this coming Sunday is Psalm 100 -- “Make a joyful noise, all the earth…” I believe that psalms should be sung, enthusiastically. And so I’d urge you to ignore my wordy paraphrase below, and download Linnea Good’s lively and vigorous musical setting: https://www.linneagood.com. But if you must have a non-musical version, here’s one:


1          Leap and dance with joy --
The showers have ended, the sun has come out again. 

2          Splash through the puddles! 
Roll in the grass! 
Let laughter rise in the air like flights of sparrows!

3          This is God's world! 
God made it, God made us -- and it is good! 
We spoil it if we stare at it through sour faces. 
God set us free to frolic, to gambol, to celebrate the gift of life. 

4          So dance your way down the garden; 
scatter rose-petals with every step. 
With every breath, enjoy the goodness of God!

5          From the beginning of time, God has poured out love; 
God will continue loving until time grinds to a close. 


For paraphrases of most of the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.






If you want to comment on something, send a message directly to me, jimt@quixotic.ca.

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                  I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, jimt@quixotic.ca, or send a note to sharpedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

                  And for those of you who like poetry, please check my webpage .https://quixotic.ca/My-Poetry I posted some new poetic works there a week or two ago.  If you’d like to receive notifications about new poems, write me at jimt@quixotic.ca,  or subscribe yourself to the list by sending a blank email (no message) to poetry-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca (If it doesn’t work, please let me know.)






To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have blocked my posts because they’re suspicious of some of the web links.

                  Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!

                  I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.

                  Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)



                  I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)


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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Soft Edges

Tags: hearing, music, deafness



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