Making music – QWERTY-style

Posted by on April 28, 2010

Have you ever noticed how certain words have a real rhythm to them when you’re typing, at least if you touch-type? My favourite has always been interesting; such a simple little word, but there’s such a fabulous flow to it, especially at speed – you get that ‘terest’ on the left hand, followed by the ‘ing’ on the right. It’s great!

Maybe it has something to do with the way I learned to type. I taught myself, one summer, in my mid-teens (it was a quiet year!), using a typewriter and home study course that had been supplied to my visually-impaired sister. It was meant to make it easier for her to do her homework, but she wasn’t interested. I thought it seemed like a fun challenge (a very quiet year, clearly). The net result was that I learned to touch-type as a blind person would. Now, I have no idea if that’s any different to how a sighted person would be taught, given that the whole idea is that you don’t have to look at what you’re doing – maybe it’s not. Over the years, though, I’ve taught several people in the same way, and it’s been very successful (basically, cover up the keys and then run exercises based on the proximity of letters to one another). And there’s another great one; exercises – the ‘er’ and ‘ses’ next to each other, dropping down to the ‘x’ and the ‘c’ – it’s like playing the piano (though trust me, the ‘music’ that comes out of my keyboard is a lot better than the noise I can create on a piano!).

The QWERTY keyboard was designed with flow in mind but interestingly, it was about ensuring that the typebars (the metal arms, built in a semi-circle, that imprinted the letter on the page on manual typewriters) didn’t crash into each other as they moved up and down, rather than being about the rhythm of the typist’s fingers. Pairs of letters that frequently appeared together (like T and H) were positioned on opposite sides of the semi-circle (though as anyone who’s ever used a manual typewriter knows, jams were still annoyingly common). It does seem odd, though, that letters like E, R, S and T should be found so close together on the keyboard, given that they frequently appear in language together. Maybe it has something to do with that semi-circular disc of typearms – I no longer have a manual typewriter to be able to fiddle around and check.

It’s easy to see, though, why letters we use less often, like Q and Z are off in the corners. And then there’s B. I’ve always felt a bit sorry for B. There it is, stuck slap bang in the middle of the bottom row, a touch-typing-orphan. It doesn’t really belong to either left or right hand, and winds up being relegated to whichever happens free at the time. This poor positioning means that B rarely gets in on the ‘rhythmic typing’ action and it has none of the identity of the other keys – let’s face it, there are punctuation marks higher up the QWERTY ladder than B. Maybe I should start a Benevolent fund for B.

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