Jazz, Punctuation, and Typography

Aside from the technical and historical details documented in Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, what intrigues me about this classic book is the connection between typography and music:

Typography is to literature as musical performance is to composition: an essential act of interpretation, full of endless opportunities for insight or obtuseness. Much typography is far removed from literature, for language has many uses, including packaging and propaganda. Like music, it can be used to manipulate behavior and emotions. But this is not where typographers, musicians or other human beings show us their finest side. Typography at its best is a slow performing art, worthy of the same informed appreciation that we sometimes give to musical performances, and capable of giving similar nourishment and pleasure in return. (p. 19-20)

Bringhurst selected two perfect jazz musicians to illustrate time and space. Billie Holiday was famous for her extraordinary timing. She often sang behind the beat, but never missed it. To differentiate his style from Dizzy Gillespie’s fast and ferocious, Miles Davis left plenty of space in his phrasing to allow listeners to absorb his music. His timeless album, Kind of Blue, is a great example. Although this is a typography book and not music, I would love to hear how Thelonious Monk’s idiosyncratic use of space would be interpreted in typography. Nevertheless, here is Bringhurst’s analysis:

Phrasing and rhythm can move in and out of phase—as they do in the singing of Billie Holiday and the trumpet solos of Miles Davis—but the force of blues phrasing and syncopation vanishes if the beat is actually lost. Space in typography is like time in music. It is infinitely divisible, but a few proportional intervals can be much more useful than a limitless choice of arbitrary quantities. (p. 36)

I am surprised that Bringhurst didn’t use music to explain punctuation—just kidding! What surprised me though is learning grammar from a book on typography. I had been confused about punctuation’s position when quoting, and Bringhurst made it absolutely clear for the first time in just one sentence:

Punctuation is normally placed inside a closing single or double guillemet if it belongs to the quotation, and outside otherwise. Most North American editors like their commas and periods inside the raised commas, “like this,” but their colons and semicolons outside. Many British editors prefer to put all punctuation outside, with the milk and the cat. (p. 87)

Without a doubt, Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style is a book every designer should read once a year.

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