What Music Teaches Us About Writing

7 Min read

The Music in Prose

Creative Writing Forum, West Point

Sentence rhythm, Beryl Markham and David Foster Wallace

Writer’s Toolbox, Improve writing immediately

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I met with the Creative Writing Forum at West Point to discuss what music can teach us about writing. These happen to be two of my favorite things on the planet: music and writing. Cadets passed the bowl of hand tambourines and maracas, also known as egg shakers, which I brought for them. We kicked off the session by listening to Billy Joel on Spotify sing the Piano Man at his microphone, which smelled like a beer, and pound the piano which sounded like a carnival. The students read the lyrics and thumped their shakers to the beat. A few sang along.

The smell of beer and the sounds of the carnival are sensual words–of the senses–and the students listen to a story about Davy who’s still in the Navy and probably will be for life. About Paul the real estate novelist and the waitress who is practicing politics. With characters and story and conflict, this is a barroom ballad about life and loneliness and broken people. They come to the bar and put bread in Bill’s jar as the manager gives him a smile. They ask the Piano Man to sing them a song to forget about life for awhile.

“How the hell did a 24 -year-old write one of the greatest songs of all time as his first single?” was one of the comments on the official video with 211 million views. And it’s true. Joel was in LA in 1973 working as a lounge pianist under the name of Billy Martin (his first and middle names), trying to get out of his going-nowhere New York contract. He said the characters were based on real people, on his life as the Piano Man.

There is development through verses, with new characters, and conflict. And the music comes back to the opening, returning to the initial chord or key signature. It’s a waltz in three quarter time in the key of C major. In music this return to the initial chord is called resolution. In story, it is also called resolution.

Just like song, for writing to be good it must have rhythm. This has taken me decades to learn, and I wanted to share this with the students. It was a leap for me, one I came across in Murakami’s memoir, Absolutely on Music. This book is about a series of conversations with the former conductor of the Boston Symphony, Seiji Ozawa. The novelist meets the maestro. They talk. Here’s the novelist on writing and rhythm.

No one ever taught me how to write, and I’ve never made a study of writing techniques. So how did I learn to write? From listening to music. And what’s the most important thing in writing? It’s rhythm. No one’s going to read what you write unless it’s got rhythm. It has to have an inner rhythmic feel that propels the reader forward.

Haruki Murakami, Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa, pp. 98-99

This, even to my musical ear, sounded extreme so I chose this as a premise for my graduate work on the craft of writing. And, after much consideration and research, I have found it to be true. Whether the students were believers, or whether you are, dear reader, remains unclear. Sophia nodded as she thought about this and Jon talked about his work on the sonnet, the rhythm in the wrods. Lindsay and Cora said it gave them something to think about.

Photo with the Cadets-in-Charge of Writing Forum: Cora on left and Andrew on right. Plus my two!

Does Rhythm Matter? I shared a handout with examples like these below. Ask yourself if the rhythm or cadence of the words work when you read it aloud. Or when you read it in silence.

The work of the text is to literalize the signifiers of the first encounter, dismantling the ideal as an idol. In this literalization, the idolatrous deception of the first moment becomes readable.*

What do you think of these next two?

1. I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien (sic) to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate. Professor Harold Laski (Essay in Freedom of Expression).

2. Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilder. Professor Lancelot Hogben (Interglossia).**

Abstract words. Double negatives. Pedantry. Awkward rhythm. Broken rhythm.

Bad writing is common. Bad writing is everywhere. I’ve written lots of bad stuff and most of my writing undergoes revisions. At least three times, often a dozen or more.

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The Music in Prose

Here are examples of writing that stays with you because not only does the rhythm work, but the writer has something to say. Beautiful writing hardly sticks with us unless it is meaningful, tied to a truth or a story.

EXAMPLE 1. There is the silence after a rainstorm, and before a rainstorm, and these are not the same. There is the silence of emptiness, the silence of fear, the silence of doubt. (West With the Night, Beryl Markham, 48)

RHYTHM: polysyndeton (with conjunctions as in first sentence), asyndeton (without conjunctions as in second), repetition, tricolon, consonance, euphony (pleasing to the ear)

STORY: Author is the first solo pilot to fly west across the Atlantic at night. Rhythm starts with the title, West With the Night. In this passage Markham is walking up to a downed bush pilot’s plane and there is no pilot. She takes us in scene and shares the feeling of silence. She builds tension. The silence before and after the storm are different, the first with anxiety and the second with peace. The three beats without conjunctions hit the reader with the feelings we know, the feeling of emptiness and fear and doubt. It’s pleasing to listen to, the soft es sounds, the echoes in the use of the word silence. She ends the passage: I knew Woody was not dead. It was not that kind of silence.

My heart rests and as a reader I know he is ok. He is addled and incoherent, but he lives.

Here’s a rewording of the passage: The silence before and after a rainstorm is not the same. The rainstorm makes me feel emptiness, fear, and doubt. Do you hear and see the difference?

EXAMPLE 2. I’m not trying to give you a PETA-like screed here – at least I don’t think so. I’m trying rather, to work out and articulate some of the troubling questions that arise amid all the laughter and saltation and community pride of the Maine Lobster Festival. The truth is that if you, the festival attendee, permit yourself to think that lobsters can suffer and would rather not, the MLF begins to take on the aspect of something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest. ( Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace, p. 253)

RHYTHM – Double, triple beats, capitals, new words, pronoun you involves reader, authentic, fresh. Notice the use of conjunctions for laughter and saltation (dancing) and community pride, a three beat modifier to give a sense of the gathering. His use of caps for MLF pokes a bit of fun, like WWF or IRS might. And his casual tone, invokes the reader with the second person pronoun of you and yourself. He is implicating you in the weighing of the issue, the moral consideration of the lobster and whether it suffers.

Tension – the sentence crescendo: 16, 29, 38 words which draw out meaning to paragraph climax. Final word drives home the point of essay. Torture-fest.

STORY: Wallace, or DFW, was assigned to write about the Maine Lobster Festival by Gourmet Magazine. He takes us into the festival, but he turns it on its head by making the reader consider the lobster. He makes up new words, such as PETA-like which is the suggestion that he is not virtue-signaling (by today’s language) but if we allow ourselves to recognize the muted squeals of hundreds of lobsters in the mega-sized cooking pot and their movement against their deathly steam bath–many of these he researches and discusses in the fuller essay–then, as he builds to the climax, the whole thing is a torture-fest. We, the readers, evolve from foodie to friend.

The rhythm in prose is all about sentences. Vary them. How to do that? Just as I’ve done in this paragraph, you may start with a declarative sentence or statement, then use imperative, and ask a question. Vary not only the type of sentence but the length, the order, the structure. And use conjunctions and omit conjunctions and think about writing as a craft. Use two beats, three beats, four beats! Skip the conjunctions all together.

Read like a writer. Study good writing when you find something you like. And for bad writing, stop and check out why the rhythm fails.

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Art Not Artifice

Prose rhythm and cadence should be transparent, invisible. Read writing aloud to hear the rhythm. Le Guin wrote, “Prose sets its proper beauty and power deeper, hiding it in the work as a whole.

What does music have to do with good writing? Everything. The best music, like the best writing, depicts beauty and truth. We don’t need analysis to know that we like what we like and we love what we love. Music and writing may reveal joy or sorrow, lifting the soul or plunging it into despair. Every human emotion may be represented in music and in language. The skillful construction of notes or words gives us pleasure and meaning.        

The cadets kept the percussive shakers. Monte asked about this final slide.

If you want to write*

Write daily

Read widely

Writer’s toolbox

DISCLAIMER:  Always read the fine print.

If you must write:  use what’s helpful and lose the rest.

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Monte wanted to know what READ WIDELY meant. He was curious about other formats, music and podcasts and film. Yes, I answered. It was a great question. All of it.

First was the word. It was divine. AND, it was spoken.* Cadets kept their percussive shakers to remember what to do if they hit a writing wall. Shake it and remember they can talk it out, dictate onto their phones.

They may not be professional musicians or writers. But they’ve been listening to music since they were in utero and they were reading since they were in grade school. They are EXPERT listeners and EXPERT readers. They can use those skills to help find their own voice, to hear it after they’ve gotten it down.

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WRITER’S TOOLBOX

Improve writing immediately.

  • Prose rhythm is all about sentences. Use variety in length and type; practice new combinations.
  • Figures of speech help vary prose rhythm. Use them.

Work on craft.

  • Study writing. Read like a writer.
  • Read craft books by great writers and teachers.
    • Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin. 10 Chapters with exercises
    • Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

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FOOTNOTES

•Clayton, Victoria. The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing, The Atlantic OCT 26, 2015

** Excerpt of Orwell’s Politics and the English Language (1946). Notable essay worth your time and the assessment remains relevant in the 75 years since. Listed two of five examples above.

These five passages have not been picked out because they are especially bad – I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen – but because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer. They are a little below the average, but are fairly representative examples. I number them so that I can refer back to them when necessary:

*First was the word and it was SPOKEN. Long long BEFORE the written word was available, stories were shared in song and meter, by bard, by minstrel, by the griot. Why? because it was EASY TO REMEMBER. Oral literature and history were passed on through stories, told at the hearth and at the table and at the village gathering. They were shared from generation to generation for the better part of human history. And, music and story were intertwined, one and the same.

Sep 30, 2022

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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