This webtext is an invitation to think about composing, specifically how we learn to compose and become more fluent and expert in composing when faced with novel situations. We do this with practice, of course, but how we practice matters.

Our invitation is to think about composing as inclusive of written texts, multimodal webtexts, and all the things writing and rhetoric folks would normally be asked to help students improve in creating. But for this experience, we don't want to stop there. We want you to also think about composing other things. Think about films. Think about dance choreography. Think about baking pies. Think about music. How do humans learn to compose these things? How can a visualization aid in learning these things?

In keeping with the focus of this special issue, we believe visualization plays a powerful role in learning to compose a range of things. But to narrow our focus, this webtext illustrates the visual elements of learning to compose music. At the same time, we intentionally bring attention to our practice model, which is a visualization. The model in action is what this text seeks to visually and conceptually foreground.

Visualizing information does not always include "data" in the form of numbers per se, but sometimes instead features qualitative particulars that inform action, such as decision-making trees, timelines, visual plans, or even the very software interface used to design this webtext. While not a visualization of data in the traditional sense (e.g., a graphic presenting survey results), these examples do relay complex visual information used to help audiences draw conclusions and take some sort of action. And so this webtext is an invitation to explore how visual representation of practice helps people learn. Given this invitation, here is the argument we will ask you to consider:

Visualizations of composing practice help learners, over time, to conceptualize and consolidate their command of smaller, more fundamental compositional elements, allowing them to take command of larger assemblages of these to do their composing work.

We understand this webtext to be a kind of performance. It is an act of theorizing, largely through relating our understanding of composing written text and composing an original song. We invite you to engage the performance on a number of levels by reading, listening, watching, and interacting with our ideas in various sensory forms.

We see interesting possibilities to do more with visualization as a way to enhance learning. These insights have come to us as learners working to develop composing skills in songwriting and recording. We hope that by the time you have experienced this webtext, you will see some new possibilities too!

This webtext has a sense of exuberance that we ask you not mistake for "discovery." We are under no illusions that we are the first to visit these conceptual spaces. That we have found this occasion to visit and wonder at the connections has been, for us, a joy. But we ask that you not mistake our excitement for arrogance. Our joy is that of learners and we seek to share both what we see and how we feel with others who might also want to visit these ideas.

Making, Learning, Theory: Our Approach to Making a Practice Model

Our approach to developing the practice model—of making a theory for how practice can lead to growth in composing—is experimental, hands-on, and dialogic. We have

  1. interacted with published work on visualization and also on sonic rhetorics, sound studies, and soundwriting;
  2. developed a series of composing challenges to engage in and observe to examine the dynamics of composing from a learner's point of view—we wrote a song together, recorded it, and relied on visualizations of our individual and shared practices to scaffold our making of the song as both an idea and as a recorded performance; and
  3. documented our learning so others can sense how the model came together for us, why the components of the model relate to one another the way they do, and how we see the model as useful in situations beyond our own example of learning.

Our reflective dialogue about our learning and making processes is presented as both an audio-dialogue (listenable as one might listen to a podcast) and as a transcribed dialogue in a more academic register with visual and audio examples embedded and with sources cited.

Here, we would like to acknowledge those influences in the published literature on visualizing writing practice and in sonic rhetorics that we feel indebted to for this work.

Visualization, listening, composing

The work we present in this webtext is very much a continuation of the above line of thinking on visualizing soundwriting practices and technologies, with a focus on and a dynamic related to Ben's concept of composing as a process of inventing ideas and then selecting a performance of those ideas to share with an audience, a sensibility that comes from his work in songwriting and performing live music. Ben's process adapts the concept of presence offered by Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrecths-Tyteca (1969); that is, in selecting a particular performance of a song, artists seek to emphasize a particular sound, feeling, or rhythm over other possible configurations. In this way, the performance of a song that is shared is an argument an artist is making to their audience. The same can be said of other texts, including visualizations: They represent a performance of the ideas.

To prepare for our work together in this article, we reviewed scholarship in soundwriting and sonic rhetorics (edited special issues by Ball & Hawk, 2006; Davis, 2011; Rickert, 1999; Stone & Ceraso, 2013, and books by Ceraso, 2018; Halbritter, 2012; Hawk, 2018; Zdenek, 2015). As noted by Kyle Stedman, Courtney Danforth, and Michael Faris (2017) in their call for proposals for Amplifying Soundwriting: Theory and Practice in Rhetoric and Writing, there is clearly a growing community of scholars who ask important questions about how to best learn soundwriting and juxtapose it with rhetoric studies. From this work, we can infer the importance of visualization in several examples, especially Sean Zdenek's (2018) work on captioning, where he imagined how sonic information can be visually relayed through caption design experiments in films and television shows.

Sound studies scholars working in rhetoric and writing have also considered how visualization of sonic information through mapping technologies can help contextualize information and experience. For example, Kati Fargo Ahern and Jordan Frith (2013) discussed the role of rhetorical presence in social soundscaping, and how geo-location technologies can help people invent spaces together. Their use of rhetorical presence is particularly important as it helps soundwriters (and also songwriters, recording engineers, and producers) think about how sonic texts and soundscapes are often negotiated by the interplay between available technologies and people. In this context, presence, like agency, cannot be ascribed to a particular individual acting on their own. Rather, presence is a relational undertaking. In this way, Ahern and Frith implied that soundscaping is an emerging form of soundwriting that requires the development of a common language to support collaboratively composing the sound of common places and spaces. As Jonathan Sterne (2003) explained, language used to describe sound is often embodied by the very technologies that reproduce and make it (e.g., vinyl records, CDs, standard music notation). As well, these artifacts and symbols can be tied to bodies in very particular ways. We agree, and extend their work by suggesting that this sort of language is practice-oriented, and is useful when made visible, like we do in mapping the song in the section of this text "Composing the idea of 'For the 1979.'"

For this case, we situate ourselves as learners, but, importantly, we also approach this project as listeners. Steph Ceraso's (2014, 2018) work reminds us of the role of bodies in listening and composing, and we were particularly struck by her observations about touch and sound (see the case study about Dame Evelyn Glennie on pp. 32–36 of Sounding Composition, 2018). Ceraso (2018) noted that the vibratory patterns of sound composing open up space for different kinds of bodily and compositional participation. In our case, we focus specifically on the visual representations of sound vibration (i.e., soundwaves), which helped us approach our work as learners working with our eyes, ears, and hands to compose.

Also, we draw from concepts Byron Hawk (2018) described as the movement and assembling of different technologies that embody sound in recording studios as "microadjustments in an overall gesture ecology" (p. 138). In Hawk's work, gesture is understood as a kind of improvisational, embodied act rooted in repeated practices (e.g., the tuning of a guitar between songs of a live performance involves a series of gestures to an assemblage of gear). The visualization of sound, and all the technologies used to create it, influence how repeated practices unfold. Also, each of these assemblages are involved in composing sound. Hawk explained that "in the studio, all of these gestures are taken for granted […]. This is composing. Conscious thought is placed on the song, the performance, the sound, but none of that happens without the gestures that immerse bodies in the ecology, tacitly coproducing the ecology as it guides performative actions" (p. 138).

The gestures Hawk (2018) described rely heavily on the visualization of sound. For example, an EQ knob, whether visualized on a screen or on a soundboard, is one way learners can make sense of the gesture ecologies presented by a recording studio. In our experience, learners come to understand that certain knobs can influence performances in rhetorically flexible ways, and those performances, in turn, influence how people perceive the song (or the idea). It is the visualization of the knob that introduces both affordances and constraints for learners to navigate.

Meanwhile, we believe it is important to note that scholarship has also considered how sound can help us study other phenomena that heavily involves visual representation, such as bird migration (Sanders & Mennill, 2014), cultural and community representation (Del Hierro, 2018; LaBelle, 2010; Sano-Franchini, 2018; Wargo, 2018), history (Rath, 2005; Rose, 1994), religion (Weiner, 2013), noise pollution in the ocean (Peng, Zhao, & Liu, 2015), and more.

As well, Bill has published on the topic of visualizing writing practice and how it can be useful for individuals and teams interested in enhancing their results; his work provides another example of how people rely on the visualization of qualitative information to help them achieve some sort of goal (often in collaboration with each other). In "Teaching the Page as a Visual Unit," Bill (Hart-Davidson, 1996) argued something that we are also revisiting here: that a visual approach to rhetorical thinking can allow writers to work at a higher level of abstraction and imagine different kinds of functional choices for texts they are composing. In the 1996 piece, the example focused on teaching students to see their resumes as a four-quadrant grid. Doing that, we can see where we want information to be distributed across the readers' field of vision and imagine that a "right light" resume (resume with little text on the right hand side of the grid) sends a kind of signal not through semantic meaning but via a visual gestalt (i.e., there's not much experience here…).

In "Seeing the Project: Mapping Patterns of Intra-Team Communication Events," Bill (Hart-Davidson, 2003) proposed a method for allowing collaborative teams to visually scan all of the associated documents and genres used for a large writing project to see beyond a single document—a grant proposal—to the work of coordinating what Clay Spinuzzi and Mark Zachry (2000) called the genre ecology of grant proposing. Being successful at grant-seeking demands this ability to work across multiple genres, assuring correspondence between them and, in a team situation, coordinating effort among members of the team. The move to visualize team communication is also something that surfaced in Ben's (Lauren, 2018) research on how project managers communicate. Many creative teams rely on the visualization of schedules and plans that are color-coded to help them learn where to pay closest attention that specific day (e.g., green means all is well whereas red means a task is overdue and requires immediate attention).

In all of these cases, the goal of visualizing texts and writing practice contributes to learning by 1) making the complex and implicit decisions associated with composing more explicit and 2) allowing learners to consolidate groups of decisions into higher-order, more abstract strategies.

For example, if we have multiple instances of grant projects visualized and aligned next to one another, and we know which ones were funded and which ones were not, we can start to identify patterns that tell us what a good team "kickoff" strategy looks like for a successful grant application. Does it start with a face-to-face meeting? Do we begin by drafting a budget or a project narrative? Over time, a group can get a sense of how to sequence their work well beyond writing draft sentences or paragraphs. Visualizations of writing practice make this consolidation and strategic thinking possible.

Visualizing Practice: A Model

What changes with practice? From a learning standpoint, we propose three elements that correspond with practice in multimodal composition: vocabulary, technique, and repertoire.

A static example of a visual model
Figure 1: A Venn diagram including three overlapping circles labeled “Technique,” “Vocabulary,” and “Repertoire.” The circles and their key terms overlap with the following words: “techno: style,” “phronesis,” “techne: genre,” and “techne: conventions.”

Where these three categories overlap, we see techne, invoking this term as Michael Carter (2007) has used it to name those areas of practical knowledge or art that define expertise in composition. For example, where repertoire meets technique, we have genre knowledge. In writing, this defines a space where a composer can select from relatively stable macro-structural forms (e.g., a blog post, a journal article) that include a range of micro-structural forms as appropriate to a particular composing situation. In music, similar dynamics apply. A musician's knowledge of the figures in a given genre intersects with the techniques for making the distinctive sounds and rhythms of those figures.

We invite you to think of the three main categories in the model as expansive rather than limiting categories. So, vocabulary might include more than just words when composing text and more than just notes when composing music. It also includes registers and dialects available to a composer for example, acquired by their experience, shaped by their cultural surroundings and traditions.

Using the Model to Envision Practice

We suggest that the most powerful aspect of proposing an integrated model with these categories is that they name areas for embodied practice sessions, allowing us to plan and apportion the time we spend learning. By embodied we mean things that change the body of the person practicing.

When we assign our first-year writing students a project—for example, a position paper that draws on secondary sources to make an argument (expanding repertoire)—we will usually have practice goals in mind. We want them to practice using academic discourse (enhancing their vocabulary), evaluate the validity and quality of secondary sources using conventions for source attribution and citation (performing techniques). Careful choices allow us to keep students working to build techne, enhancing their art by challenging their bodies to adapt in more than one of the two categories.

A goal we have as both teachers and as learners ourselves is to achieve a balance among the three areas so that we can draw on them equally as needed. Why?

We want to cultivate the art and judgement of knowing when and how to use them—a dynamic Claire Lauer (2009) noted as a key aspect of techne in multimodal composing—most readily captured in the overlap zones of the diagram. The overlap zones are thus areas that comprise knowing how and knowing how to think and talk about this knowing. We can also call these zones of reflective practice, or praxis. Putting time into practice in these areas is difficult. It is a deliberate challenge to the body that applies, in a positive sense, adaptive stress. The goal is after an interval of rest and recovery, the body changes to be able to better meet a similiar challenge in the future.

Rhetorical pedagogy takes as its aim to help learners not just via expansion of the three big circles, but by cultivating the degree to which the learner can best make use of their vocabulary, technique, and repertoire in order to respond creatively and effectively in new situations.

At the center of the diagram is phronesis, the term for the practical wisdom or judgement needed to act improvisationally, in a particular context, to address and respond to a particular audience and to do so with a clear sense of rhetorical purpose. Our concept of phronesis hews closely to Daniel Smith's (2003) interpretation of the idea in Artistotle:

We might say that phronesis qua praxis is the "golden mean" between poiesis (techne) and theoria (episteme and sophia), which guards against the potential excesses of both.

The model helps us think about how we ask our students to practice, where and how we ask them to allocate their time and effort, what adaptive changes we hope to inspire, and what intervals of work and rest might be most reasonable to ask students to engage in. And it helps us imagine how to keep it all in balance.

The Song "For the 1979" as an Idea

One key aspect of visualizing practice and learning is discovering the relationship between an idea and the performance of an idea. We believe that this relationship is multidirectional and often involves making decisions about rhetorical presence. To detail how this worked for us, we position our song "For the 1979" as an idea that we invented, but, also, we purposefully discuss it independently of its performance to emphasize our role as learners. This approach affords us the ability explain one dimension of our practice model: that visualizing practice helps us compose ideas while also helping to build our technique, vocabulary, and repertoire.

To listen to us discuss "For the 1979" as an idea, click below on the audio file. You can also read the transcript or access both at the same time.


["For the 1979" plays and then fades out]

Ben: In this section of the webtext, we'd like to briefly walk you through some of the creative process for writing the song "For the 1979" to help demonstrate our learning model in action. One thing we want to highlight in this conversation is our different status as learners. I can live much more in the center of the model, exercising my ability to make decisions that draw on repertoire, vocabulary, and technique to compose. I can also do this faster and more seamlessly, a function of having consolidated and abstracted some of the core bits of knowledge in each area. Bill's account will be, by comparison, much more granular and deliberate because he is much more of a novice songwriter, and so his moves are more elemental.

Throughout our account, we work to keep the drafts of the development of the song brief purposefully, as we want to focus more on explication of the model and how it allowed us to see a practice strategy for developing a song rather than focusing on the details (or decisions) of the song itself. What follows in the next few minutes is discussion about our drafting process. You can also listen to the drafts of the song individually by selecting other tracks on the playlist.

Bill: When we first began working together on the song, we approached our work deliberately as learners. In terms of the model, we approached writing the song as a series of practice decisions that would later impact how we recorded the song as a performance. We were working, in other words, on developing the idea that became the song through a series of trial and error choices, but also of familiar routines of rehearsal that had worked for both of us in the past. This is writing and revising, but it was also practicing and learning, and it involved both aural and visual work. The playlist shows how the trial

[first demo version of the song plays, then fades out]

Ben: The very first version of the song, which you hear under this clip, began with playing around on the guitar while my in-laws were in town. We were all sitting around a fire, and Liz, my partner, was chatting with her mom and dad. I was playing the guitar and listening as they talked. Later, I listened back to what I was playing and was excited about it as a possible idea for a song to emphasize my role as a learner.

For the first draft of the song, I drew on technique, or my understanding of songwriting as a series of invention strategies and practices, to discover ideas because I wasn't exactly sure where the song was going. I knew that I had to make decisions about genre and style, but those might depend on the conventions I would turn to as well, and would be constrained by my own repertoire as a musician. That is, I had developed a vocabulary for thinking about writing music in a particular way: which is a great deal of rehearsal that is recorded to keep track of improvisational, serendipitous moments that might not otherwise exist with a more deliberate approach, but I also saw that as a kind of constraint.

Screenshot of a phone with a recording application open
Visual example of how Ben records rehearsals to capture improvisation and serendipity during song writing.

The components of this vocabulary are, in text terms, more like paragraphs or sections of an article than words or letters: riffs, chord progressions, and rhythmic patterns. I started down a familiar path of trying stuff, recording it in some way, and trusting my ears as the idea formed (see visual of first version of "For the 1979," which I called "For Kairos").

Sound waves visualized on iPhone Voice Recorder.
Sound waves visualized on iPhone Voice Recorder.

Bill: When Ben sent me the song draft, my first instinct was to listen for the chord progression. In particular I was listening for what root notes defined the changes in the song. This was a familiar strategy for me when learning a song that fits well into our practice model. I was working from a vocabulary not precisely of notes-in-a-row, but rather of chords that Ben was strumming on the guitar. Each chord he was playing was composed of three notes (also known as a triad) that, for me, would be options to use to compose a bass line for the song. Composing this way exhibits a technique for bass players known as "outlining the chords," where the bass highlights and accents both the vocal melody and guitar (or piano) playing the chords. The difference is that, usually, the bass is picking out the notes of a chord, a.k.a. chord tones, one at a time in order to do another important job or technique for the bassist, which is keeping time. So finding my chord tone building blocks as a first step to building a bass line is an example of practicing what we might call the techne of style for playing bass. It's at the intersection of a technique and vocabulary.

The challenge, though [Laughs], was that I was applying a practice strategy for learning an existing song. And it would prove to be tricky to use to learn a song that had yet to be written!

Ben: In the the second draft, you hear me working out a drum pattern (that sounds an awful lot like the song "Wild Thing").

[drum pattern plays]

Ben: At this point, with the main riff of the song already in my head, I turned to thinking about the rhythm because it helped me make decisions about genre and style. I'm not a drummer, so I'm heavily limited by my repertoire. I can only take the song in certain directions given what I can play. At this point, I was already stretching my abilities just to play along to the riff in my head, so I knew a fair amount of repetitive practice in front of me. I'd watched a lot of drummers play and talked about drumming with them, though, so my vocabulary was actually pretty high. That is, I could imagine quite a bit more than I could play. The tension was that my technique was not necessarily able to execute everything I could imagine. For example, you won't hear any complex drum fills—those moments of transition between sections of a song when the drummer moves around the kit and the drums becomes a focus in the mix—I knew, though, that I could use the software we were recording in (the digital audio workstation ProTools) to help make up for this a bit later on.

Bill: Once the rhythm was established, we'd more or less made choices about genre, style, and conventions before starting to record a performance of the song. Why? We were working in an idiom of sorts—in this case, 90s alternative pop—that has fairly strong audience-oriented expectations associated with it regarding melody, the role of various instruments, and even the tempo.

Ben: Right, and we started to work the parts of the song with that in mind. Much like a writer might refine the parts of any text, we realized that the different parts weren't working together, so I began melody work separate from lyrical work. All the lyrics at this point were just sounds and place holders—sometimes actual words and sometimes just nonsense syllables—for something that would come at a later date.

[music plays that demonstrates an in-progress version of the melody and lyrics]

Bill: Yes, and that's a technique! One I didn't know until I saw Ben using it, but many other songwriters know and swear by it. The key idea of this composing technique is also one I've heard referenced by poets: hearing the sounds of the words together as an important thing rather than subordinating sound to the sense of the words. An article I read that we have linked here cites Elvis as especially good at this. If you think about the lyrics to "All Shook Up" for instance and the line [singing] "Well bless my soul, what's wrong with me? I'm itching like a man on a fuzzy tree." I mean…what is a fuzzy tree? Right? I don't know but it sounds great right there!

Ben: [Laughs] What is a fuzzy tree? This approach to writing brought all three areas of the learning model. We relied on existing technique, vocabulary, and repertoire of '90s alternative pop to write the song. And at times we both felt pretty limited in these areas —not due to the constraints of the genre but because the song was stretching our knowledge, and especially our technique!

Like most writers, we turned to model texts in these moments to help inspire us, so R.E.M., Nirvana, and Pixies were all artists we listened to for inspiration. At one point, we talked through bass lines offered by Journey and listened again to Third Eye Blind to make sure "For the 1979" didn't sound too much like "Never Let You Go." This sort of inventional work helped us move in a different direction with the melody and rely more on our understanding of genre and convention.

Bill: The Journey bass line occurred to me when I realized the song was in the same key and, at the time at least, it was around the same tempo. I was still working to invent a more interesting bass line that was not just playing the root notes of the chords, and I hit on a phrase noodling around that reminded me of the bass line from "Don't Stop Believin'." So I stopped the track and told Leslie, my partner, to listen as I restarted it from the top and I played the iconic line that Neil Schon composed and Ross Valory played on Journey's hit. We both laughed because it fit so well on that track, and I made a quick voice memo recording and then sent it to you.

[Journey bass line plays over voice recording]

Bill: But that was also a really key moment for me because I saw how I could have the bass line contribute in a more direct way to the melody of the song as it does in "Don't Stop Believin'" and it could do that and still outline the chords. After that I don't know, I was thinking differently, I was thinking more about writing an interesting, singable melody part and not just about hitting chord tones on the beat.

If you look at the standard notation for "Don't Stop Believin'," you can literally see what I'm talking about (see image below) and here's where the visualization element comes in. The bass line appears on the second row of the staff here. And the top line are the chords that the piano is playing. So you see them together. Notice that the bass hits a half-note chord tone on the first beat of each measure. Here, they are labeled with the names of the chords in the progression as well, so you can see E, B, C# Minor 7, and A in the first phrase, and E, B, G#Min, A in the second phrase. But in between, on beats 2, 3, and 4 of each measure, the bass just wanders around—it's really got a lot of motion to it —around the associated scales for each chord. And that's what makes a singable melody for the bass line. And I bet all of you listening right now you are singing it in your head! [Laughs]

Musical notation for the opening riff of the song Don't Stop Believin'
Opening Riff of Don't Stop Believin' (Perry, Cain, & Schon songwriters).

Listening to the track, I visualized the up and down movement and I literally saw, in my head, how I could do a similar thing in our song. I applied this later, both in the opening riff and later in the chorus. The chorus riff of "For the 1979" really is just a syncopated, descending line following the minor scale. I saw that it could do that and it could work that way because of the ascending lines in the Journey song.

["For the 1979" plays and you hear the descending bass line of the song]

Ben: By the time we get to the fourth draft of the song, we had made clear decisions about melody which helped us to further determine the technique of playing say, an electric guitar instead of an acoustic one, and that helped us make choices like we'll use palm muting, power chords, and distortion on the guitar. And then, we'll create this sort of quiet-to-loud dynamic from the verse to the chorus. And then with singing—I made some decisions about developing a quieter voice and singing that verse in a different way than I might sing the chorus. And in the chorus, I decided on using something louder, and pushing to distort my voice and using a kind of prechorus to help me get there to bring the energy up so that the jump from quiet to loud wasn't too much. This isn't an exclusively '90s approach, and I'm not trying to make that claim, but it was one that made sense in the context of this particular song, with the elements that we were bringing together. And so, in this way, we weren't trying to push at the boundaries of the genre so much as we started to have a vision for what that genre looked like in this particular instance. Then, I created a map of it so you could see the arrangement of it when we made our first attempt to record. The visual map was meant to provide cues for you to help support your own composing process. As you can see from the visual map, it starts off by saying what part begins the song and then moves through the song in a linear fashion to say part-by-part this the verse, this is the chorus… And then the times part on the right hand side of the visual shows how many times you are supposed to do something. So you might do the verse two times, go into the chorus two times, but the next time you go through the chorus you might go through that three times or four times, depending.

A visual roadmap of For the 1979 written on a blackboard.
A visual roadmap of "For the 1979."

Bill: Yeah, and what's cool about that is the arrangement you provided me looked a lot like an outline for a text. If we were collaborating on writing something, we might do the same thing. We might say, "All right, here's the intro, here's the methods section, the methods section has two parts to it: data collection and data analysis," or whatever… And, so, visually its kind of a–it does the same thing, right? It helps us organize our work, and it helped us allocate who would do what. So, you showing me the arrangement map like that said, "Okay, here's what you have to do." I wasn't totally sure what arrangement decisions you had made ahead of time, and frankly, here I'm confessing: it was a little bit overwhelming because this is where my novice songwriting status is really showing. When we sat down to record for the first time, you suggested I just play the whole song through, but I did not have a good idea for a chorus part. I had played a few options I think. But I had no idea about the bridge. I didn't even know if there would be a bridge until that moment really. I assumed there might be, but I hadn't thought about "What would a good bridge section sound like?" So, you suggested I should play along anyway, starting with what I had for the intro and verse, and then improvise. But for me this was where the song as an idea and the song as a performance kind of crashed head on into each other. I did not have the knowledge I needed to keep recording that day! And so I'm glad we weren't in an expensive studio because we would have wasted a lot of time and money. I had to go home and practice more, but in this case that did not mean go home and learn a part but rather go write a part that did not yet exist. That sort of blew my mind as a way of thinking about practice. So I did. I went home and in a couple of hours I wrote the descending chorus part that now is kind of an important part of the melody.

closeup of one author, Bill, playing electric bass
Scene of composing: Bill playing bass.

Ben: I would say it's a crucial part of the melody, because that led to the next take, which was a few days later at my house and we wanted to get that chorus right, so we tried to make something louder and more powerful and that bass line helped us get there.

["For the 1979" plays with palm muting to illustrate arrangement taking shape]

Ben: In the last draft, we worked mostly then on arrangement, after we had some of these parts put together. We wanted to make sure everything was flowing together. Much like somebody when they finish writing an article together might try to make it sound like it's cohesive and coming from a single author rather than from several different voices unless, of course, that is the point. And it's a kind of a dialogue.

Bill: The word arrangement is really great here because it's just like the rhetorical canon of arrangement. It isn't only moving parts around, it's saying "Hey, I came up with something later in this draft that readers are gonna need to hear earlier." And so, I have to put it up there instead. So, you're making not really a stylistic change or anything, you're just arranging things in time of the experience differently.

Ben: Right, one of the things we did was cut the first pre-chorus in half, and instead of making it the first half of the pre-chorus, we made it the second half of the pre-chorus. And we were trying to be a little bit clever in doing so. Something that might be unexpected that people would understand on a second or a third listen, but maybe not fully understand on the first listen.

["For the 1979" pre-chorus plays to illustrate clever approach]

Bill: That's still my favorite part—that and another move you made later on which we'll talk about in the performance section, where you dropped a lot of the pieces out so it's just the vocal and the bass. Those are my two favorite details that you—decisions that you made.

Ben: So, in the next section we discuss our learning model and visualization in the context of recording the song "For the 1979." In this section, we will also work to emphasize the role of the DAW in visualizing our performances and supporting our work as writers and learners.

Composing a Performance of "For the 1979"

In this section, we discuss how composing a performance of "For the 1979" relied on maintaining a balance across elements of the learning model. We note how we worked to make decisions about the recording of the song and struggled with making compositional decisions that were limited by our existing abilities across repertoire, vocabulary, and technique. We also discuss the decisions we made about recording the song that also relied on our abilities in these same areas, once again emphasizing the multidirectional relationship between practice and learning, composing an idea and a performance of that idea. Furthermore, we introduce a term—interval rest—to explain the importance of recovery (and growth) when practicing in ways that stretch a writer's abilities.


["For the 1979" first chorus plays, then fades out]

Ben: In this section of the webtext, we discuss how we moved from the idea of the song "For the 1979" to recording a performance of the song. We situate our recording process by using the learning model to explain our approach. Just as with "The Song as Idea" section, we describe recording a performance as a process of discovery that draws from and in some ways expands on our existing repertoire, technique, and vocabulary. And here, visualizing performances are crucial to the process of composing a recording, revising it, and bringing the idea of a song to its full potential.

Bill: I found it really interesting that recording the performance was similar to writing the idea. That is, there were really important decisions to be made about what "the song" is (or at least what it is today) that happened throughout the recording process. Even before the song was a more or less coherent "idea," we had to choose how to share that song with other people. Since there were just two of us, (and one of us did not know what he was doing!) [Laughs] the workflow we decided on started with a click track with scratch guitars and a scratch vocal. We were also, I want to point out, relying heavily on Ben's extensive technique and vocabulary, and at the intersection of these two genre, for making songs of a certain kind.

Ben: Right, I started out by trying to find a tempo, which overlapped a bit with what we were doing in composing the song as an idea. The tempo was the hardest part for me because I was limited by repertoire! Meaning, I couldn't entirely play as fast or as smooth as I wanted. When I finally chose a tempo—138 beats per minute (BPM)—the speed was at the very limit of my ability to play. Actually, 136 BPMs felt good to me when I was originally setting the click, but my experience tells me that when recording, you almost always wish an uptempo song were just a little bit faster. Even so, I knew edging past 138 BPMs would be impossible for me to play the drums on because I was not skilled enough to play so fast. I considered playing it slower inside of ProTools, but I've never done that before, so I wasn't sure if it would work. And honestly, it just doesn't feel "right" to work that way. I don't mind fixing mistakes, but speeding up performances… I don't know.

drum set with four drums, seen from above
Scene of composing: Ben's drum set, which provided a constraint because of technique limitations.

After setting the click, I then recorded a scratch guitar and a scratch vocal for you, Bill, to reference. "Scratch" means that the sound were placeholders for the real thing that would eventually be recorded. I do this when I'm composing other texts too. In a wireframe, for example, I'll put a box with an X through it. On a memo, I'll leave space for a heading. Even when writing an article, if I want to drop in a citation but don't know the detals, I'll put the person's name and write the word "year" or leave four X's in the year spot. In our work together, Bill, the scratch tracks were just a way for you to assemble a bass line and to hear the melody. They were a kind of way for you to work across the model in the ways you needed to… as a way to invent ideas. And then to practice them. And they also gave me a visual reference for your performance later on, particularly for how the ideas aligned and didn't align—not just in terms of time, but sonically.

Bill: Yeah, a lot of the choices you made come, at least from my point of view, from you sitting in the sweet spot in the center of our diagram—phronesis, this space of practical wisdom where you're exercising judgement—drawing on vocabulary, technique, and repertoire to pull many audio files together into a performance. Can you talk through one of the examples of that?

Ben: Definitely can provide an example. So, after setting the click, I began by recording somewhere around eight different takes of drums and then worked to create a single performance using all the best parts. This is how I make up for a lack of technique and repertoire in terms of my playing. I record a lot of stuff and then piece it together. It's like freewriting ideas and then later worrying about how to structure them and how they might fit together. My experience tells me that I may not be able to play what I imagine in terms of vocabulary, but that a bunch of repetitive attempts will help me assemble something close, or something I hadn't imagined or foreseen initially. It opens up the recording process to serendipity. I repeated this process for the bass and vocals too… each had somewhere between six to ten takes, but not the guitars. In the end, I kept the scratch guitars because they sounded gritty and sort of off, but in a good way, so that was something that happened that I didn't anticipate. That's the moment of serendipity. I did fix a few things on the guitars, but they are mostly the original takes (see image below). The goal for working this way was to provide options to make the idea of the song into a performance of the song that we would be happy to share with an audience. So, as a drummer I was working through constraints of my technique, but as someone who was composing the performance more like a producer would, I was thinking about genre and trying to balance each area of the model.

Screenshot of ProTools displaying the tools for implementing a crossfade.
Example of how ProTools helps us assemble multiple performances into one by using a crossfade.

Bill: Ok, so right there, you are hearing and seeing details, right? You're using the visualizations in the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) to see what options you have?

Ben: Yes, but when I started working with the drum tracks in the DAW there were a few issues with the drums in the song. I don't think I played the song all the way through without making quite a few mistakes. As I talked about in the previous section, my drumming abilities are somewhat limited, so I had to spend time imagining a sustainable, doable, and fixable technique, or drum pattern. In other words, I had to find a rhythm to suit the song and the genre—one that I could actually play well enough to piece together after the fact.

The piecing together process is mostly visual in ProTools. I can use the software to zoom in to the soundwave and find a place to bring two, three, or four different takes together (see Video 1 below). I'll move hits around or replace a snare hit that was wrong or remove a fill that was out of time. Doing that work requires careful listening, but it also includes seeing what you are listening to so you can make good decisions and make the right cuts. If you make the wrong ones your ears tell you, so I toggle back and forth. I work with the visual and then listen to what I made. It's a different kind of composing that's more akin to editing a text globally, and then seeing how it looks on the page. So, asking questions like: is this paragraph too long? Are the sentences too long or too short? Similar questions might occur in the design of something: is there too much scrolling? Too many images? It's a question about feel, or what we think about as the interplay between style, genre, and conventions. One other example that I tend to use is when I write an article or when I write an essay, I'll often have to print it on the page to see what it looks like. That seeing helps me make better decisions about what I'm writing. And if one area in our model has too much emphasis, like say style, then the drum pattern may sound interesting but it doesn't necessarily serve the song. If it is too genre-specific, the drum pattern may come across as generic. So, balancing these areas is really important… and visualizing the sound waves is a vehicle for keeping balance.

Bill: So, would you say that the way you could use the drums to write was more limiting than the way you can use the DAW to write in this case? I ask it that way because I'm kind of unsure myself… Using the drums to write, I mean, that's a pretty interesting idea. And, more importantly, perhaps for our model, what set of techniques do you feel were helping you make the idea of the song that you were trying to turn into a performance, more accurately reflected in the result? Were they the techniques of your drumming on the drum kit? Were they the techniques you were using in the editing process? Or some combination?

Ben: I would say it was a combination of both. I knew that the DAW would help me make the things I couldn't actually play sound like I actually played them. When you listen to the song "For the 1979," for instance, it sounds like somebody played it from start to finish. I don't know that I ever successfully played it from start to finish. Now recognizing the ethical dimensions of editing music or writing in this way (I mean, imagine software that helps us write in a nonlinear fashion or helps us check for spelling and grammar—oh wait, Microsoft Word already does that!), ProTools, like any software, has quite a few tools to help us improve our performance by making it more even or more in time. It helps us recognize patterns or issues by visualizing sound or by showing us that if we moved all of the sound waves just a tick or two back that they would sound somehow a little bit more even and a little bit more in time (for a discussion of the ethical dimensions of editing sound that problematizes this approach, see Chambers, 2017). Now these tools are automated through algorithms, and they can't make a performance perfect, but used sparingly and effectively, they can help to make it better. But there is someone behind the DAW who is helping to make those decisions—somebody who's implementing the software, so you can't let the DAW think for you, you have to think with it, and that's where visualization becomes so important. The interesting element of (sound) editing tools is that they are mostly visual.

Bill: I'm really fascinated and I would guess that other people are too because this article—but also the community of readers for Kairos is composed of people itself who are interested in digital composing and the tools we use to do that work. So, could you talk more specifically just for a minute about what you literally see on the screen and interact with on the screen when you are working in ProTools and helps you do the composing work you just described for us?

Ben: Sure, the first way sound becomes visual is through the production of sound waves. So, when you start recording something, like the bass, you can see feedback right away. Bigger soundwaves means a stronger signal. Smaller soundwaves means you probably need to boost your signal, and the best way to make a great recording is to start with the signal. Whatever you record—trying to make it sound as good as possible. There are other ways to check levels that are visual too. We have monitors inside of ProTools that will tell you how loud something is. If it's in the green, it means everything is okay. If it goes to yellow, then that means that you are almost close to peaking. And if it goes to the red then you are peaking and that's bad. That means that the sound is too loud. Once sound is recorded, the soundwave is there to reference what was recorded. So visualization aids your listening, and helps make something auditory into a visual in ways that helps you, then, analyze sound with your eyes. You can see what you are hearing, which is sort of like when something tastes how it smells.

Screenshot of ProTools showing the process of Bouncing a track to an audio file
During bouncing files, a purple wave form demonstrates a great deal of modulation in the dynamics of the performance.

The sound wave seems to help me in a few ways. I can see modulation, for example. Changes in performance. Something goes from really loud to really quiet. We like to see performance be a little bit more even than that in rock music because we can control modulation in other ways. I can also see mistakes or changes in rhythm. The wave affords me the ability to then address any of these kinds of issues through things like normalizing volume, moving sounds around, or even automating volume, pan, etcetera in certain parts of the vocals or bass line, like I did in "For the 1979."

If we look at the short video of me editing vocals, you can see some of what I'm mentioning above. In this short clip, you see me editing vocals and moving different performances together. I select a performance from one track and move it to another, what I term Final Vocals or VOX for short. What you see me doing is grabbing one phrase because I like the way I said that phrase and moving it up to the Final Vocal phrase. This is how I use visuals to cobble together a vocal performance. There were six takes, and then I did a few punches as I edited the sound because I didn't like the way I sang something—I wanted to change up the style to help keep the performance in balance a bit more. I tend to like vocals a bit more raw and imperfect, so I kept all the notes that were slightly out of tune.

Bill: Something that occurs to me that I'll make as a comment about what you were just speaking about related to waves is I think waves are a fundamental way we also experience sound. That is, sound physically is moving air, so a sound wave goes through you or hits up against you and that's how we register it in our ear drum and so literally, it's a performance, or it's an event anyway, so it makes sense when you turn to this moment of performance you have a very basic representation of what we are doing or what we have already done as a kind of experience and that's the sound wave. So as of now, at least count, which I think you updated last night, we have about 13 versions of the full song! And those are just the ones you've sent me. I suspect there are more. But, I think somewhere around the seventh version or something that I saw anyway, we started sharing it with a few friends and family—just people that were near our laptop at the time or something. Anyway, what I want to ask is what that looks like to you now as something to work with and further revise? So, what shape is this song as a performance and song as an idea—bringing those two together—in right now for you? When I see it, and, you know, if we played it for someone else or if sent it to someone else it'd be one little file on their computer probably. And I listen to it and go, "Okay, he changed that, now I have to repeat that part three times," so I'm listening to it to practice a future performance, in a way. But, you're still seeing something different when you look at the song. It's kind of, for you, a big visual stack now, a full arrangement with many tracks, sound levels, effects… what does that view help you do from here to help you shape future performance?

Ben:That's a really good question. I think I've done the best I could with mixing and mastering… in other words in composing a performance or a series of performances that make one performance given the quality of the sound. Part of what I did is I spent some time in mixing thinking about, "How can I make all this sound better?" There were certainly moments where both of us didn't perform the best, probably to our abilities, even though, you know, I still think that everything was really well done. One of the things that happens to me ultimately is I have some interval rest, as we've called it, I have some moments where I recover—let my ears recover and let my brain recover—and I go back to the recording and I think to myself, "Oh that could be better" or "This could be better" or "I hear something I didn't hear before," so it always sort of starts with me listening, right? And imagining, as Steph Ceraso (2014, 2018) and others tell us to think about how our listening is felt in the body—that listening is an embodied practice. And so, as I start with listening, I immediately go, "Hmm, I don't like the way that makes my body feel." Like, that note sounds harsh in my ear. That makes me cringe a little bit. And well then, I think, "Well, let me fix that one thing," and then I fix that and it leads to fixing something else, kind of like trying to remodel an older home.

One of my learning goals for this project was to spend some time thinking about how to improve my mixes and my masters of music in particular because this is something that I just really enjoy doing and is something that informs all the work that I do in one way or another. And then I'll read about some new trick or I'll go to YouTube and I'll watch somebody do some interesting mixing or mastering thing and then I'll want to try it and then I come back to our song and I try it. I've done this many, many times throughout this project.

For me, I see this model as something that helps remind me of the balance across considerations—of the elements—of vocabulary, technique, and repertoire. This reminds me that when I'm working on, say, stylizing backup vocals, that I don't take any one specific direction too far. That balance across these areas is really important. That style and convention… that I have to think about, "How can I balance across these areas?" And that's where I really find that practical wisdom or phronesis being sort of central to my future praxis is that I spend some time thinking about balance and keeping things in balance is part of my composing practice. Unless the point, of course, is to be out of balance in a particular way. And in "For the 1979" that was sometimes true. The point was for the song to be kind of garage-bandy. It wasn't meant to sound perfect, like it was done in a ten thousand dollar a day studio (if those even exist anymore), but it was also, sort of, meant to sound like we knew what we were doing even though, you know, it's supposed to be imperfect in places. That's kind of what '90s rock was about.

I can't make up for poor technique, I've learned that, but I can think about keeping poor technique in a balance with vocabulary and repertoire, and this project, most importantly in all my composing projects, I see that there is an opportunity for me to gain more experience from repetitive practice—and I think the more I try something and take an interval rest and then try it again and take more interval rest, and that interval rest might include things like not thinking about the thing that I'm doing, that that actually leads to better outcomes and more balance, and I make better decisions about what it is that I'm composing.

This model demonstrates that for me. And after this thirteenth mix—really probably the twenty-fifth mix and master of the song, I think I finally have something that is better than the first mix and master, even though if you ask me tomorrow, I'll probably disagree with that.

["For the 1979" fades in]

Ben: Here's where Bill and I end our discussion of composing a performance of the song "For the 1979." We invite you to listen to our reflections about this project and making the song "For the 1979" in our learning model in the next section of the webtext.

["For the 1979" fades out]

Interactive Model

As our practice model gained explanatory value for us as teachers and learners, we began to consider its heuristic value for planning practice. As learners, we have been interested in setting tasks for ourselves that would prevent learning plateaus, those moments when you sense that you are not advancing your ability much in any of the key areas. As teachers, we are even more interested in this idea of both setting and evaluating practice routines for students so as to be confident they are making progress as learners.

During these discussions, we began to talk more about the ways the different areas of the model interact. For example, when teaching a course in web authoring, Bill noted that students can become too focused on technique—mastering html, css, or javascript—because they are often most anxious about these skills. And a certain amount of technique is, in fact, indispensable for web authoring. But if that "circle" of the model gets too big it can crowd out all the rest, and students leave the class with limited knowledge of the compositional elements that make up the web they use every day, the vocabulary of web pages such as headers, footers, divs and embedded media objects, and the vocabulary of whole sites: landing pages, navigation areas, list and detail views, etc. Repertoire suffers too. A variety of genres circulate on the web, some with correspondence to print media such as news items or product descriptions and others more web-native (e.g., FAQs).

Below we present an interactive version of our practice model that helps to illustrate how we might use to forecast and design routines for practice that are balanced across all of the knowledge areas.

Using the Model

To use the interactive model, use the input areas to change the number values in the model learning areas. Think of each value in terms of "practice units"—these could be, hours in a three-week project, perhaps, or minutes in a workshop or class session.

Try changing the values to emphasize one area dramatically over another. You'll see the circles in the map move. This visualization has a kind of "gravity" in the sense that larger objects will "sink" and smaller objects will rise to the top of the display.

These dynamics are predicated, as we argue above, on a preference for balance among the three main areas. This model presents this preference in a visual way. Balance might be achieved over time, though, such that some segments of practice—like an intensive workshop or even a whole course—could deliberately emphasize one area over another.

We invite you to test the logic of this model out by changing the values and weighing the result as a possible course of practice that you might undertake or ask others to do.

Here are a few things to try:

  1. What happens to phronesis if you increase the three main circles—repertoire, technique, and vocabulary—to double their practice units? This scenario corresponds with a course that follows a heavy "coverage" model, with lots of content that must be addressed. Does the model react in the way you imagine it would? Does this seem accurate to you?
  2. What happens if you make the practice units in one of the techne areas—try it with conventions—equal to the main circles? Can you think of a scenario where, as a learner, you've experienced a practice routine like this? Are there circumstances where it is desirable?
  3. Can there be too much of a good thing? Try allocating a large number of practice units to phronesis. What happens to the other areas? Now try imagining what this kind of practice might look like in a multimodal composition class. What would be students' reactions in a situation like this?

Reflections and Looking Forward

Our position as learners in this project afforded us a chance to reflect, as we often ask our students to do, on the composing decisions we made and how they influenced our learning. We try, in the dialogue below, to look ahead to understand how our work on this project helped us in future composing situations across media.


[For the 1979 introduction plays, then fades out]

Ben: In this section of the webtext, Bill and I spend some time reflecting on our work writing and recording the song "For the 1979," while also situating our work in the context of the learning model we introduced. Our goal with this reflection is to spend some time making sense of what we learned, and to think about how what we learned will influence our composing work in the future.

Bill: So, Ben, we are engaged in two composing processes here. We are writing an article, and we are also writing an original pop song. Our learning model aims to describe how practice drives learning in both kinds of cases, so I want to ask you a few questions about that if I can?

Ben: [in the background] Yeah.

Bill: I found it interesting that you saw my inventional work for the article—creating a kind of heuristic as a frame for invention of the core theoretical contributions of the article—as a new way of working for you. Could you say more about that and describe how it asked you to practice differently, like did it help you build repertoire? New technique? Extend your vocabulary?

Ben: One of the ways I found the model new for me is that, like many practitioners, I never stopped to really think about my process. I just worked. What the model invited me to do was spend more time trying to explain what my work looks like at the level of practice. So, for example, after writing the verse and the chorus, I spent some time generally thinking about the arrangement of the song. This is where I drew from my repertoire of knowledge about pop songs in general, which tend to average around 3 minutes in length. My first attempt was a bit longer at 4 minutes, but by playing with the arrangement a bit, I was able to cut the first 30 seconds and then later another 30 seconds because I sped the track up from around 118 beats per minute (bpms) to 136 bpms. This was also partially because I began thinking about my technique, that is, how was I going to actually play the song? I knew it was a pop rock song, but I was thinking about pop like R.E.M. and Pixies used to do it, and some more recent stuff like OK GO, The Kooks, and The Fratellis… which all seemed to have more of a new wave indie rock feel rather than an alternative rock feel, and so that was a conscious decision to speed up the song to sound poppier. I was then thinking both about genre and style too, as I wrote the song a half step low on an acoustic and then tuned it to standard and sped it up again on the electric. This last part, about the tuning, was more or less about my vocabulary, because I recognized, once I had the song sussed out, that I had to explain it to you, Bill, because you were going to play on it too.

[Bill laughs]

Ben: So, I have my own vocabulary for thinking about songs when I'm writing, and it isn't rooted in words necessarily—more like shapes, sizes, colors, and emotions—but I realized that I'd have to find a way to explain those shapes and colors to you. In all my previous experiences, that worked by breaking the song down to parts like A, B, C and saying how many times to do each part.

All this to say, I've never actually thought about my songwriting practices so concretely. I just do them. I just make something where the shapes, sizes, colors, and emotions seem to fit together. I let my ear and intuition lead. The model showed me that I have processes that are more practical than I actually thought they were. It also showed me that space is an important part of my practice. We chatted about this over text the other day as we were writing.

I feel like we need a term for taking a break as part of invention—to create enough distance that something becomes new again. You call it a time to recover, and note it is where growth occurs. The term we settled on, interval rest, seems to relate to Casey Boyle's (2016) idea of "serial practice" where growth or improvement is not necessarily linear.

How do you see interval rest connecting to the model you developed? Did you try taking time away? What did that time do to your understanding of the song and your ability to write a bass line?

Bill: I take the idea of a rest interval very literally and it comes from my experience with athletic training where you come to understand that a workout is a way to apply adaptive stress to your body. You are trying to subject yourself to something that your body is so unprepared for that it will change to be better prepared the next time.

When you see things this way, you also understand that you don't get better during the workout, you just suffer.

[Ben laughs]

Bill: You get better when you recover from it. And that takes time. And… as you get older, it takes longer too!

So, you can teach an old dog new tricks. It just takes a lot more time for the old dog!

[Ben laughs]

Bill:: For this song, I think I did need some time off. Not so much to refine technique, per se, but to get to a higher level of understanding than notes-in-a-row about how I wanted the bass line to actually work. After our first session where we tried to do a little recording, which was really still where I was trying to figure out ideas and get a sense from you about what I should be doing, I had almost nothing decided for sure. It was humbling for me because I felt I might have wasted your time, but I just couldn't go faster or try things out. I didn't have enough of any of the three things—vocabulary, technique, or repertoire in this particular case (with this style of pop song) to be able to improvise and then record. So I had to work things out a bit more ahead of time. If this were a piece of writing I would say I need a really strong outline to work from I can't just sit down and count on a lot of experience with the macro or micro structures of the genre to carry me through. If it were a genre I knew more about, maybe I could have. Like if you'd have said let's make this a funk groove or a blues, or something, maybe I'd have had more to go on. But mostly I left that first recording session thinking I had homework to do! Or I left that first recording session thinking I got to get in the shed and work this out.

Ben: One of the other rhetorical concepts we talked about was rehearsal as an essential component of revising. The basic idea was this: through playing the song over and over again, we learned where it could improve or change. We discovered its possibilities. What is your take on rehearsal as a kind of revision process? Especially considering we just finished recording the song and rehearsal was kind of a part of that too, right?

Bill: Yeah, well, first I think of rehearsal as distinct from the kind of workout—practice, whatever you might call it—that you do to create adaptations. A rehearsal is more of a deliberate repeat, where "deliberate" means you are engaging in doing the thing again to try to be attentive to polishing up a performance in some way or like you were saying, maybe trying to find a different performance. This is usually done with a future performance in mind: a specific time, place, audience, etc. For recording I guess it is a future audience. Practice is not always like that. Sometimes I practice to create that adaptive stress, not with any specific performance in mind but to change my body in a way that will make a future performance possible.

So, can I ask you another question about this whole composing experience?

Ben: Yes, of course.

Bill: Because it is fascinating for me. When it comes to making the song, which, you know I've never done, I want to ask you… I felt like I was working at the very edge of my ability, like all of the time, in all of the model's areas: technique in terms of performance, trying to get that right, but specifically performance for recording, not making a lot stray noises, and then all the decisions that comprise the techniques of recording were completely new. I was working on repertoire in terms of pop songs of a certain era ('90s-ish), and then vocabulary which I could fill a page describing. But what I want to ask you is what if anything, do you feel like you might have learned from this particular process? And did you set this challenge for yourself in order to try learn something specific?

Ben: Well, I used to think that when I wrote music I worked exclusively in and with sound. Now I would think of myself as a practitioner of sound, so to speak, but you know I was a musician more or less, and that's how I felt most comfortable, picking up an instrument and playing and seeing what would happen. Today I realize that's not entirely true. Much of what I make relies on other kinds of genres, a lot like professional writers. Like the project managers I've studied, for example, some of those genres people will never see because they are part of a staging process. All the spreadsheets. The to-do lists, you know. The different kinds of boards they assemble to make sure that we can visualize work. That is all a part of a staging process, and for me, this is the kind of visualization of the song that I made for you.

Bill: Oh yeah, so I could figure out the parts.

Ben: Right. And in your work with Mark Zachry and Clay Spinuzzi (Spinuzzi, Hart-Davidson, & Zachry, 2006), you called these "helper" genres, texts put together to help someone do their job. I actually think those helper genres are no less powerful than the target genres, or in this case, the song. I needed all those helper genres to make the song a song. So I'm doing a lot more writing of words on a page and mapping of concepts visually than I ever really considered.

I also didn't realize how quickly I toggle back and forth between technologies that help me visualize the song that I'm writing. So songwriting is already a visual process for me because I "see" the music so to speak, but spending so much time thinking about how a smartphone and a computer visualizes sounds, and how much those visualizations contribute to my decision-making, was startling. For example, the first version of the song being 4 minutes and knowing that I wanted to cut that down to 3 minutes or 3 minutes and 30 seconds… The computer told me that—it told me that it was 4 minutes long—it wasn't my ears. I may need to think about whether or not that's a good thing at some point. And then, seeing how the drums line up with the bass and guitars, how hand claps and vocals live together and occupy the same sonic space, and how the digital audio workstations literally visualize that for an author shows me that no matter what, sound is always made somehow visual for us—whether by associating it with records, CDs, playlists, mixtapes, or the printing of soundwaves on our screens. Even the file name of an MP3 is a kind of visualization.

So, I'm curious, Bill, how you might respond to this same question. What do you feel you might have learned from this particular composing process?

Bill: Oh [Laughs]

Ben: And did you set this challenge for yourself in order to learn something specific?

Bill: Ugh, I feel like learning overload, I feel like almost everything I did in making my part of this song is a new lesson, and I really only contributed a small piece. I'm a little overwhelmed by it, in fact. In a good way. So I'm not quite sure I really can say all the things I have learned just yet. But one thing I realized yesterday as I finally got what I felt like were all the parts of the bass line worked out so that I could repeat them is that every other time I'd learned a song, I had an existing song to reference and it acted as a really strong scaffold to my practice. So I could say "well, there are three bits I have to get under my fingers: the verse, the chorus, the bridge—whatever" and then I'd go pick one, listen to that, and start working out how I wanted to play it on the fingerboard. You know I had some choices but it was all laid out for me already.

Here, I didn't have that. And, I mean, first I had to decide how many parts there were and then I had to figure out, based on the song demo you'd given me to work from—which had, like, drums and guitar and later the vocals—what I wanted to do. All of the parts were in flux while I was trying to learn them, and so the only place the bass part really existed was in my own head! And that was continuing up until the minute we recorded it.

So, I'd play it one way and kind of like it or not, and then maybe try something different the next time through. What I eventually did is if I hit on something I wanted to do that was at the level, vocabulary-wise, of a note or a phrase I wrote a few of those, what I would do is I would write them down, make a visual, so as not to lose them because otherwise I would forget it the next time through. And I wasn't writing notes like notes on a staff, I mean I could have done that, but I was writing the letters or a little note to myself like "descend minor scale from D on the A string"—so I'd just make a little note right there when I was figuring out "what did I like about what I played?""

So, the first breakthrough for me that I would say in terms of learning something was actually something you had reminded me of a long time ago when we were first working on a different piece that we wrote and that was the way other songs can be inspirations without having to be kind of direct quotes, and I realized the key center of the song and the tempo were close to "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey. And so, just for a lark, I played the scratch track for Leslie at home, and instead of playing the line I'd been working on I played the Journey bass line just to show her and she laughed about it. But then, that made me see that I could outline the chords in the song like a bass player is supposed to do, but I didn't have to make just a boring pentatonic box—oh and there is another visual, right? Box on the fretboard.

Ben: [Laughs] Right.

Bill: I could make a little melody line with more movement than that. So that's how I found that intro bass riff that I think now becomes a little motif in the song. And a similar analogy led me to the descending line in the chorus, except it was "I Want You Back" by the Jackson 5, which has a descending line in the chorus of it's song too.

Ben: So while you weren't learning other people's songs, you were using other people's songs to make your own!

Bill: Yeah, like I was thinking about it, and going "Oh you know that descending line might sound good here." I mean it's a completely different key, different tempo, nothing really is the same about it except that going down the scale sounded like an interesting complement to what you were doing vocally and what you were doing with the rhythm track.

Ben: Right!

Bill: So I want to come back to this learning bit because I'm fascinating by another thing that you said when we were texting back and forth, and we were sending these clips—voice memos and so forth. You noted that the venn diagram that we made for the learning model helps you to envision the pathway to learning and composing as a kind of spiral through those various areas.

Ben: Yes!

Bill: And for me, this invoked a foundational idea in composition studies, really, and in design too, when you think about it, or UX and that is the idea that the composing is a recursive process. I haven't really dwelt on the idea of recursion—of a thing recurving back onto itself—as a visual metaphor, but it certainly is one! So, do you think that it is important to have something to spiral towards? When we are thinking about learning? Or is it enough to spin endlessly through those circles or do you have to work towards something like we did here with the song?

Ben: I think as a metaphor for learning, spiraling makes more sense to me than scaffolding, even though I imagine that I do, and I did, in this particular project, both. One thing I did see is that I tend to separate the song from the performance of the song, so I suppose I see spiraling to have an end when you're saying, okay I'm done writing a song, and now that song is written. At some point you have the components and you just say I'm gonna call this song good, and move on. But, for me, the performance of a song is a very different inventional process. Take for example Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," which is an amazing song, but the performance of it by Jeff Buckley really stuck with me a lot longer than the original recording by Cohen. The song was the song, with verses, chorus, melody, time signature, chord progressions, etc.… but the performance of those elements can vary.

In writing, I think we can do something similar by separating our ideas from the performance of our ideas. I think over time we learn to perform ideas better, or that we have a particular kind of performance we feel better executing. We call these "moves" or rhetorical moves. In other words, our first take is rarely our best when we're recording. In this way, I see writing as largely performative. Sometimes ideas are good, but the performance isn't right. Sometimes the performance is right, but the ideas are lacking.

I suppose what I'm getting at is that we spiral towards some sort of conclusion or ending, but that's mostly arbitrary in my experience. We continue to refine how we define our ideas over time as we learn how to perform them for different audiences, purposes, and situations. And we do that through rehearsal while we are inventing or discovering ideas, but also while we are thinking about how to perform the ideas for others.

So, you had some good ideas, Bill, on how this translated from writing music to composing more broadly. Explain how you saw this connection.

Bill: Well, I have to credit you for showing me that it seems now obvious in retrospect… that, you know, in my life I do write and rewrite the same idea in order to increase my own understanding of it. I suppose that has always been true but it was never really very obvious to me. I want to say one more thing about the song before I go back to this idea about how making the song reflects on how we learn to compose, but the thing about the song that I want to say is it does feel to me now like we wrote a song, although that wasn't true yesterday.

Ben: [Laughs]

Bill: And its also not necessarily true that I feel like we've ever performed the song…

Ben: [Laughs]

Bill: … because we haven't sat together in a room while you are singing and I'm playing and you're playing and we've performed it. So it's weird to think about how yeah we wrote a song but we never performed the song. Maybe that, to a musician, that's a natural idea, but it's kind of a new concept for me. But here's one thing that's really true is that it did change my vocabulary for writing songs, so now I think it's a little more reasonable that I might one day write a song. Because building vocabulary, for me, means more than just learning new words or a new notes or a new kind of scale. It also means consolidating smaller bits into larger ones and making those available to yourself as compositional tools. So words and sentences and paragraphs, for instance, become "sections" of an academic argument, these rhetorical moves that we can use to lay out a macro-structure for an argument and that will move the dialogue forward in a given academic discussion. So, these are the moves you are talking about and we use them all the time as experienced writers, we're like "We'll do this, then we'll do that…" We don't strategize about every word we put on the page, though. We'll say, "We'll have a little lit review here and then we'll go to add a methods section there."

We do this visually, by the way. Or at least we use visual formats to facilitate these acts of consolidation and transposition, is what I want to call them. Think of an outline or a wireframe, for instance. I could pass you that on a document and it would function as a kind of gestalt (see Hart-Davidson, 1996), so you could be like, "okay I'll take this section and you take that section," and we've done that when we've written other stuff.

Ben: Right. That's true.

Bill: So, for example, how does this apply for music though? I think notes become larger structures like chords, chords become chord progressions, and then you can use to invoke whole genres such as the blues. So, you can learn to play the individual tones in the minor pentatonic scale on a guitar, it's often the thing we learn first because its pretty simple to just—every other fret in a box shape, and we can consolidate those over time by associate them with a shape on the fretboard. You talked about composing songs before and thinking really just about shapes. It's a little like Tetris. When I was first learning I was like "oh this is Tetris." An L-shape or a T-shape or whatever. The ability to move that shape to a new location or a new key means we can use not just the notes but the whole scale as an element to compose with in a chord progression or a pattern like the 12-bar blues and we can play the blues starting with any key. A musician need only shout out "Blues in G" and we know this means we have the notes of the minor pentatonic scale, with an emphasis on the flat seven in each key to work with and then we'll move from the key of G for four bars, on to C and then to A. And that's because we follow this I, IV, V progression that is the blues. And that twelve-bar pattern becomes another vocabulary element all by itself that consolidates rhythm and melody and establishes when the key changes happen and in what order and all that stuff, and we can get it all just by saying "Let's play the blues" and I don't even have to tell you that, and you know at the end will come a turnaround, right? The signature little bit that always comes at the end of that twelve-bar phrase. I can get all that just by saying "Let's play blues in G."

So, any of these things can be called out as compositional elements. That's what I mean by your vocabulary developing. If I say, "hey folks, let's play the ascending line on the turnaround the first time through and then we'll let the guitar play the descending line the second time through." So then we can talk about variations and that's all because they are in our vocabulary in a different way. We're not thinking about tiny little bits, but we are thinking about whole patterns. So, that's what's pretty amazing to me is at this level, I think, especially with this song, you were working at that pattern level. And I felt like all the way along I was running behind as fast as I could note for note, one note at a time.

Ben: Right, right—that makes total sense to me. I think, you know, one of the things I find kind of interesting, kind of reflecting back on it now too, is how much of those patterns occur in basically any genre of music. You are talking about the box pattern, and when I was writing and choosing chords, and I was using power chords, I wasn't thinking of the scales, but I was thinking "oh naturally this chord follows this" because that's what fits the pattern. Right? Similar to when you are making a list in a document. Right? In which case you are trying to visually design information in a way that makes it easily digestible. Right? And so, I see myself drawing frequently on those patterns even if I'm not stopping to go "Oh I'm using a pattern here. Or I'm using this move." It's just I understand that that's one of the moves that can be made.

Bill: I think the revelation for me—the first visual-auditory connection when I started learning to play the bass was this notion that you can have a chord in a single-voiced instrument like I learned on a saxophone. I was only ever one note on a chord. Playing the guitar you have these notes laid out for you on the fretboard, and all of a sudden a chord isn't just three notes it's a shape and you are like "Ohhh." And the cool thing is changing keys before with a single-voiced instrument was always a pain because if I'm in the key of C, concert C is great. No sharps, no flats. That means every note you're going to play the natural version of that note. But then if you start changing that around all of a sudden I've got to transpose in my head and move things up and down. Or I have to play all these notes—even in musical notation they are called accidentals. And that's because what you can do pretty easily on the fretboard or on the keyboard of the piano which is just slide your hand over one little bit, takes mental gymnastics on the saxophone.

["For the 1979" outro fades up]

Ben: Here is where we end our reflection—for now. If you haven't already, we invite you to listen and respond to other parts of this webtext. We hope that you found our orientation to learning as demonstrated in the model useful for your own composing practices.

["For the 1979" outro fades out]


This webtext illustrates our experiment collaborating on learning and practicing the composing of a pop song, and describes how our process was guided by a visual model as a way to make sense of our experiences. The visualization of the learning model was a useful touchpoint for us because it assembled a framework for thinking about and discussing individual and collective learning and practice using rhetorical concepts. Even more, it helped us to see how finding a balance across different elements of the model can be useful, but for varying purposes at different times. Also, the model's conceptual focus on vocabulary, technique, or repertoire helped us understand how the interplay of these concepts—and balance across them—impacts our learning. We see value in this for individual learning tasks such as writing, composing sound, making films, and so on, but we also see value in its collective application in classroom settings as a guide for reflective writing in active learning environments. An important contribution of our work is the utility of visualization to aid writing and rhetoric students in both learning to compose and learning how and when to practice composing. As our own reflective work made clear to us, visualization can allow writers to compose and practice composing at higher level of abstraction, which can make complex and implicit decisions associated with composing more explicit, and can also allow learners to consolidate groups of decisions into higher-order, more abstract strategies.

Some of the concepts we found particularly useful that other writing instructors might consider exploring in their classroom practices are the ideas of applying adaptive stress and interval rest, and using visual models to help students make sense of that work—that is, inviting writers to work at high levels of abstraction in writing situations that are perhaps beyond their current abilities, but to "see" these levels of abstraction, much like we could see how sound waves represented volume. Applying adaptive stress might mean that writers understand conceptually how to complete a task, but have never completed the task in practice. Or more, a writer somewhat understands a task, but learns more about how to complete it via some kind of practice situation, like Bill experienced when sitting down to record the bass for the first time.

As well, we think the concept of interval rest is a useful notion for writing and composing beyond songwriting. For us, interval rest was planned after moments of adaptive stress. So, we'd record, and then take some time away and revisit with fresh ears. Or, we'd mix the song and let it sit overnight and listen in the morning. Planning writing tasks to include rest after adaptive stress was particularly important—both in composing "For the 1979" and for the authoring of this webtext. In writing and rhetoric contexts, we see interval rest as important for reading heavily theoretical texts, data analysis, and visualization activities (broadly understood). The idea is simple. You get better when your body adapts during recovery, not when you are practicing. This is a key takeaway for anyone designing assignment sequences or projects: Understand the frequency and intensity of the practice routine you have designed and be sure to allow time for the adaptations the practice is meant to drive to actually manifest. Plan intervals of rest, recovery, and reflection.

Lastly, we believe that this text helped us understand the rhetorical dimensions of composing multiple performances of ideas by making decisions about what to give rhetorical presence. This text documents, as we said in the beginning, an act of making theory by doing. But to present it to readers, we needed to balance and layer the theory—best represented in this piece by our visual (and interactive) model for composing practice—and a detailed account of how we used the model to come to an understanding of our own composing practice. We hope that students and teachers alike can relate to the work here on both levels, with the ultimate goal of being more intentional about how we structure practice in order to improve.

About the Authors

Benjamin Lauren and Bill Hart-Davidson work at Michigan State University in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures in the College of Arts & Letters.

Benjamin Lauren, Ph.D.

Ben Lauren, white male wearing blue shirt
Ben Lauren

blauren@msu.edu • @benlauren

Bill Hart-Davidson, Ph.D.

head and shoulders shot of Bill H-D
Bill Hart-Davidson

hartdav2@msu.edu • @billhd

Influences and References


Qwo-Li Driskill (2017), whose discussion of his beading and scholarship practices and how they inform one another showed us a way to work together on the practice model at the heart of this webtext.

Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" was a big influence on Bill's composing of the bass line during this case. The bass line here helped him see how a bass can do more than just outline chords in the song. Consequently, the sound of the bass in this sound influenced how we hoped to make the bass sound in "For the 1979."

Byron Hawk, sound studies and soundwriting scholar and musician, whose recent book Resounding The Rhetorical: Composition as a Quasi-Object (2018) arrived just as we were finishing the first draft of this webtext.

OK GO's song "Here It Goes Again" also helped us understand the sort of tonal quality we hoped our work would resemble, especially in regard to the rawness of our performance. We realize this is aspirational.

Casey Boyle, whose book Rhetoric as a Posthuman Practice (2018) arrived on the day we were tracking the bass part of "For the 1979" and Bill's office was strewn with cables, gear, and plenty of metastability…

R.E.M.'s Green album was an important sonic reference while writing and recording "For the 1979." We especially drew from the sonic qualities of the song "Orange Crush," where the artists seem to do a great job creating quiet and loud dynamics throughout the song.

Justin Long, John Kurzweg, and Phil Moreton, who taught Ben to work in the studio by collecting takes and splicing them together into a performance.

The bass line played by Wilton Felder in Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" inspired Bill to write a descending part in the chorus of "For the 1979."


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