Home rows, tone rows, and the lost Dvorak études

Saturday, 23 July 2011 — 10:12am | Classical, Computing, Music, Pianism

I’ve been aware of the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard for a long time, but only in the past few days have I decided to try the layout for myself. Like any cognitive realignment pushing against the momentum of a lifelong habit, the initial adjustment process has been slow and occasionally punishing. When you are acccustomed to the fluidity of the keyboard as an invisible extension of the mind, it’s terrifying to find it amputated and clumsily reattached. I expect this overwhelming self-consciousness to be the norm someday when future generations willingly trade in their limbs for more dynamic cyborg substitutes.

Up to now, the closest I’ve come to this awkward stumbling was when I attempted to train my left-hand dexterity on Charlie Parker melodies I would normally play with my right. A kind of impotence, really: I was willing myself to do things that I was used to executing at dizzying velocities with ease, but my body just wouldn’t respond. The trick, I discovered, is to force yourself to slow down, clean up the suddenly naked particulars, and not rely so much on your established ‘chunks’ of muscle memory. My left hand is still a shambles, mind you, but as the lesser automaton it invents the more colourful passages.

That’s why I’m still plugging away in Dvorak. It may be slow-going at first—this post you are reading now is taking an eternity to punch in—but within minutes of playing with it, you begin to perceive all sorts of qualitative pleasures that simply don’t exist in QWERTY-land. It’s like switching to an Apple Macintosh, complete with the moment of epiphany where the cultishness of the already indoctrinated looks reasonable all of a sudden. (Or so I’ve heard. Having been a Mac user on and off since the age of five, I can’t really say.)

Patented in 1936, the Dvorak keyboard was designed around a handful of basic principles. High-frequency characters reside on the home row (middle row) to minimize squashing and stretching. Vowels and common punctuation marks sit together on the left, encouraging the alternation of hands from one character to the next; one hand presses keys while the other hand repositions. Finally, synergistic pairs like the digraphs ch and th are packed in close proximity. (In the original design, the arrangement of the number row fell on the axis of an outward spiral, reading 7531902468 from left to right. Even Dvorak’s adherents conceded that was silly, and it has largely been dropped.)

Dvorak users will often tell you two things. The first is that the layout’s ergonomics are a vast improvement on QWERTY, allowing you to push your typing to record speeds without incurring nearly the same risk of repetitive strain injuries. I can’t verify this myself; as someone who pulls a respectable 120 wpm in QWERTY, it’s unlikely that I’ll see efficiency gains in my typing habits anytime soon, and RSI has never been a problem for me thanks to my exclusive preference for lightweight, shallow keyboards.

Intuitively, the claims about Dvorak’s top-speed advantage sound plausible. Although the credibility of the original pro-Dvorak study has been questioned, notably in the 1990 paper “The Fable of the Keys” by SJ Liebowitz and Stephen E Margolis, the fact remains that the QWERTY layout was specifically “anti-engineered” by its inventor, Christopher Sholes, to split digraphs and spread common letters apart and thus avert key-jamming. In other words, it was designed to slow you down.

The second thing you’ll hear is that the Dvorak keyboard has nothing to do with the most notable figure to bear that name, the great romantic composer Antonín Dvořák. The keyboard’s designer, the Seattle-based educational psychologist August Dvorak, was a distant cousin at most—and that, we’re told, is all there is to the story.

This is where I disagree.

Key Largo

Most of the conversation you will find about the Dvorak layout portrays it as a case study in economics. If mass commercial standardization precludes the adoption of a considerable improvement in design, the argument goes, do free markets really foster innovation? Jared Diamond’s 1997 essay in Discover, “The Curse of QWERTY”, is a classic of the genre. Liebowitz and Margolis, in contrast, stay on the tack that QWERTY has remained triumphant simply because the alternatives aren’t discernibly better.

In either case, the way people tend to talk about Dvorak is invariably utilitarian, balancing the costs and benefits of adoption in the quantifiable parlance of character frequencies, finger mileages, relative activity by row, and above all, words per minute. Rarely will you hear specifics about the intangibles of the overall Dvorak experience, even among the few who swear by it. My impression is that many who praise Dvorak on principle don’t actively use it themselves—”I wish I knew how to qwert you!” rings the cri de cÅ“ur on Backspace Mountain—and testimonials among those who do typically say a few words about speed and comfort and leave it at that.


The closest thing I’ve seen to a lucid experiential observation is this article by Nicholas Thompson, in which he says:

Using a Dvorak after a lifetime of banging on a Qwerty is like removing a tiny pebble from your shoe. Writing a word such as “the” gives me a buzz as I roll my fingers to the left in a fluid, natural motion. The the the the.

The the the the. Thompson couldn’t have picked a better example; ‘the’ is the word that sold me on Dvorak. It rolls off your fingers like the spoken word rolls off your tongue as you flick it against the back of your teeth. Teeth teeth teeth teeth. But then he blunders:

For musicians, think about trying to play “Blowing in the Wind” starting with a B-flat ninth. That’s a Qwerty board. Now think about starting on a G chord. That’s a Dvorak board.

This makes no sense to me whatsoever. Were you to play “Blowing in the Wind” with a ninth on the initial tonic, the chord would reduce to a F6 or Dm7 over a B-flat root. Easy, comfortable, and far better than G on many instruments. I suspect Mr Thompson was a guitarist.

However poorly he may have worded it, Thompson had the right idea. Dvorak’s layout is more than a mere ergonomic reconfiguration. It proposes an entirely different way of thinking about typing. It makes the activity of typing musical. Dvorak, in a word, is like Dvořák.

Major Major Major Major

Experienced pianists have a way of detecting whether a composer is catering to their needs. In this respect, Frédéric Chopin comes up most often as the model composer for the instrument. Playing Chopin is like revenge: it isn’t easy by any means, but everybody covets the satisfaction of pulling it off. It’s easy to see why once you practice his works—his chords and patterns have an uncanny knack for fitting in the curve of your hand like a volley of fastballs perfectly aimed at the palm of a catcher’s mitt. The fingerings by and large suggest themselves. In the jazz world, Duke Ellington is the same way: construct the chords under a tune like “Mood Indigo” or “Prelude to a Kiss” and you find yourself pulled towards brilliant, open structures with voice-leading that magically clicks.

One neat little morsel of trivia about Chopin is that he liked to start new piano students on B major, which has the most idiosyncratic fingerings of any major scale if you learn the instrument according to the common pattern of starting with C major (no sharps or flats, and therefore no black keys) and adding accidentals as you get better, spreading out along the circle of fifths. In the usual progression, B major with its five sharps is introduced relatively late, and thus it has developed a reputation for being difficult.

Chopin, who frankly knew better than everyone, taught C major last. It’s the easiest key to read, he reasoned, but the hardest key to play. C-oriented thinking creates obstacles in the long run in real-world performance scenarios; better instead to begin with B, which develops the proper contour of the hand. This won’t seem like a big deal if you are anything like Eva van Crommelynck from David Mitchell’s novels and “couldn’t tell C major from a sergeant major,” but believe me, it is.

For Chopin, training for the eventual practicalities of expressing real ideas took priority over taking advantage of conventions that happened to be convenient now. You can probably see where I’m going with this. The Dvorak keyboard, you may notice, was conceived along similar pedagogic lines. It is a system where to work on fundamentals is to prepare yourself to tackle practical scenarios efficiently. Learn a few neighbouring characters at a time, starting with your hands in the rest position, and within minutes you already have the building blocks of words and phrases.

But it’s the clever arrangement of digraphs where Dvorak truly shines. This is something you pick up right away: drum the right hand on its natural resting place and you instantly glimpse the potential of legato typing. The t in nth is a passing tone; the s in sh, a colourful appoggiatura.

Even as a Dvorak novice, you don’t hunt and peck a character at a time. Instead, as you practice the layout you rapidly come to visualize phonemes and syllables, hammering them out in clumps. Strings like ‘Schubert’ feel like five keystrokes, not eight, but acronyms like QWERTY remain a nasty pickle. Pronounceables skip like stones on a pond; abbreviations are minefields daring you to tiptoe across. In essence, the rhythm of Dvorak imitates the rhythm of speech. Rhythm rhythm rhythm rhythm.

QWERTY has a rhythm of its own once you’re fluent, but as you accelerate you converge on the uniform staccato of a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song. There isn’t a way around this, either, as your pace is bounded by your fingers’ travel time. Typing in QWERTY is atomic at heart, decomposing into a succession of meaningless independent characters—quite unlike Dvorak, where vowels and consonants are demarcated by their very placement, and the phoneme reigns supreme.

We could almost think of the QWERTY map’s decentredness as twelve-tone serialism over a wider alphabet of possible notes, none of them privileged, no combination outwardly consonant or dissonant. By this analogy, switching to Dvorak is akin to witnessing music history play out in reverse, returning to a classical pianistic scheme of vowels in the left hand harmonizing a punctuated melody of consonants in the right.

And in tactile terms, that’s really how typing in Dvorak feels, only all the letter-chords are broken down sequentially. There are many obscure alternatives to QWERTY in the keyboard ecosystem, but perhaps why Dvorak has endured as the representative champion is its essential musicality. It’s the romantic keyboard, reminding us that beneath every typewritten palimpsest sleeps a sound.

It reveals an odd kind of poetry, too, when you first practice it in fridge-magnetic increments. “The idea that nineteen studious Dadaists assisted Einstein is asinine,” reads the cryptic aphorism of a home-row exercise. “This session is tedious on the tendons,” reads another.


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3 rejoinders to “Home rows, tone rows, and the lost Dvorak études”

  1. So, do you personally pronounce the names the same way?

    Saturday, 23 July 2011 at 6:12pm

  2. I’m so accustomed to pronouncing the composer’s name with the /Ê’/ that I have to consciously remind myself not to for the American name. So until this week, yes.

    Saturday, 23 July 2011 at 6:23pm

  3. People look at me funny when I pronounce Dvořák an /ʒ/.

    I remember first learning about the Dvorak keyboard and being so excited, and immediately repurposing an old keyboard by popping all the keys off and rearranging them.

    Only problem was, I was working steadily at this point, and couldn’t afford the slowdown, and context-switching between day-job QWERTY and night-time Dvorak was too much.

    I admit, though, that my purposes were never so musical; I think that was my angsty materialist phase.

    Tuesday, 26 July 2011 at 11:44pm

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