Grace Notes

I learned about grace notes when my daughters were studying music. Here’s one account:

A grace note should perhaps be thought of as an extra bit of flourish by the composer and player. Many call a grace note an “ornament” to be used in the ornamentation of music.

In music notation, a grace note is printed smaller than a regular note, sometimes with a slash through the note stem (more slashes can mean more grace notes from the same stem). Although grace notes are written in a particular way for a particular effect, the way they are played is often left to the discretion of the player (or conductor). Normally, a grace note does not take up a place in the music’s structure. In other words, it neither adds or detracts time from the notes around it and isn’t a part of the total time value of a particular line of music.

In symphonic music, grace notes are used to help express the music’s (and composer’s) intent. To create the effect, a flute player, for example, may very quickly press and release a key to create a grace note. A violinist may make a short, sharp movement of their bow the add the effect of a grace note. Playing a grace note on a trumpet could mean pressing a valve and releasing it almost instantaneously.

Many other genres of music use grace notes but in many different ways. A Blues guitarist, for example, will use “hammer ons,” “pull offs,” and “bends” on the strings of the guitar to add a vocal-like effect to the music. The music resulting from these effects (call them grace notes for lack of a better term) are very expressive and moving. As most Blues music is highly improvised, written music (and the grace notes that might appear in the music) is not common.

I have a sense that much of the richness of life consists of grace notes, little flourishes that we add, that in some sense count for nothing, but which elevate everyday occurrences into something special. It isn’t the trip to Disneyland that we think back on when we remember our parents, but little things like making cookies or standing on the front porch watching the storms develop.

Yesterday I was sitting in a meeting; I kept noticing that I wasn’t listening all that closely. And I’d look at my friend, and he would be shaking his head in agreement. He regularly remembers conversations better than I do. It’s hard for me to tell whether this is just laziness on my part, or stupidity, or because I attend more to different things in a conversation–the music of the conversation rather than the propositional content, the larger context, or what we might call the politics of the moment.

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5 Responses to Grace Notes

  1. Keith Brown says:

    I very much like the metaphor. Such a notion helps elucidate the difference between clock time and lived time. While the grace notes do not change the measurable time, they can change the experience of how long something takes to happen.

    My own experience was one of waiting for certain cue words that would tell me when I should pay closer attention. Doing introductory remarks always turns me off until specifics begin to be different from the last time I heard a spiel. New specifics catch my attention as do movements from one focal point to another in physical space. At the point of hearing a word that I don’t usually here, my attention involves me and the experience is different. What was dragging out is suddenly over. What I had thought would have another 3o minutes to go, suddenly… c’est finis!

  2. Adam says:

    I am not sure how far this beautiful metaphor travels, but it does seem that something like grace notes are the first victims of institutionalization and bureucratization. They sound like “inefficiency” to me, especially because they are hard to concretize in writing let alone become attuned to orally. One must become deaf to such things if one is to succeed…unless one has the rare gift of both hearing grace notes and awakening others to their presence. Then, one becomes an inspirational leader who makes the rest of us feel like whole humans again.

  3. Britt Holbrook says:

    Would be interesting to think about your points about grace notes in connection with what Bataille means by “strong communication.” Your friend was understanding the content of the conversation, yes (an approximation of what Bataille means by “weak communication”). According to Bataille, strong communication takes place when weak communication breaks down – moments of profundity, for instance: an inability to express the depth of one’s feelings; alternatively, the feeling of the sublime.

    Grace notes are a kind of quasi-communication (neither weak nor strong in themselves, perhaps). They are not part of weak communication, since they are not necessary for understanding, nor do they add anything to our understanding — at least of the propositional content. On the other hand, they are not, as in the case of strong communication, the sort of wrenching inability to communicate in the normal (weak) way. Grace notes are play, not struggle.

  4. Kelli Barr says:

    Would “grace notes” include not just linguistic subtleties in a conversation, but also phenomena such as body language, tone, facial expressions, social relationships, etc? We notice when these things enhance a conversation (for better or worse), when they are especially poignant (a particularly memorable gesture, a pointed look) and they absolutely influence our perception and feeling about the communication. A verbal comment may seem profound because of grace notes in the delivery, and yet that is something different from the comment itself – the experience of what someone says or writes is quite different without these subtleties.

    Maybe this is part of the reason why communication technologies (i.e. phones, texting, instant messaging, etc) can be so unsatisfying and socially alienating: the grace notes of a conversation are arguably less significant when divorced from the visual and physical experience of that communication.

    So to Adam’s point: if the institutionalization and bureaucratization were accompanied by an increasing divorce from face-to-face communication, then perhaps the human experience would be in big trouble.

  5. Keith Brown says:

    Oh freddled gruntbuggly
    thy micturations are to me
    As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee.
    Groop I implore thee, my foonting turlingdromes.
    And hooptiously drangle me with crinkly bindlewurdles,
    Or I will rend thee in the gobberwarts with my blurglecruncheon…
    see if I don’t!

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