The Kinship of Music & Writing

How many times have we heard from our editor that our sentences are choppy, or sluggish, or don’t have flow? What does that mean?

I’ve found that years of studying music has helped me enormously with my writing. Music, like writing, has rhythm, flowing passages, abrupt changes, accents, etc. These entities are also present in sentences and paragraphs in writing.

In evoking a calm mood in a story, sentences can be longer with mild descriptive phrases much like the terms ‘largo,’ ‘andante’ or ‘legato’ that are present on our sheet music. If urgency or danger is something you want to demonstrate, shorter or more abrupt sentences may be in order; i.e., ‘allegro,’ ‘vivace,’ ‘presto,’ maybe even, ‘staccato.’ Dialogue can be emphasized in the same way. Choice of words is important. If a powerful, angry or frantic mood is present, words and phrases that are short and precise work better than longer ones. It sounds like common sense, but so many of us get this wrong in our excitement to establish the scenes. In music, one sees the symbols, ‘p,’ ‘pp,’ ‘mf,’ ‘f’ or ‘ff,’ which correspond to soft, very soft, slightly loud, loud, very loud, and ‘marcato’ is a term indicating accents. Those lexical items can also be accomplished with words if the writer is careful about selection.

I don’t know if what I’ve said has made any sense to you, dear reader, but, how about examples?

In my book, SHE HAD TO KNOW, an example of a calm setting with longer descriptive sentences is:

Massive stone pillars guarding the entrance stood like monoliths. Between them, intricate wrought iron gates shadowed black lace patterns on the lawn as the sun cast its late afternoon beams through the ancient ironwork.

Notice there’s a gentle rhythm to the words in the sentences as they meander through the description. The sentences are generally longer and the rendering of iron, lace, and sun are all complimentary to one another. The sentences flow.

If I were to write:

There were massive stone pillars guarding the entrance. They looked like monoliths. The ancient gates cast shadows that looked like black lace on the late afternoon lawn.

The information is basically the same, but the sentences are choppy and have no mood or flow.

In the next example, I deal with a tense, frightening moment:

Pressing her body flat against the wall, slowly inching further in, she stood dead still, praying she wouldn’t be seen. The footsteps were quite close now. Sheena held her breath. Turned her head to see who was about to pass. She wasn’t cold any longer; perspiration streamed down her body. Her head and heart beat like jackhammers. The lantern light was almost upon her. The footsteps sounded like claps of thunder in her ears.

Notice in this example, the sentences are choppy and shorter. This is intentional so the reader can feel the sense of urgency and fear in the words. Here I’ve used word accents like perspiration, heart beating, and loudness to give the reader the image of what is happening. These words are not equal to the others. They stand out in emphasis. ‘Mercato,’ in music.

If you think of your writing as a music score while you construct your sentences and paragraphs, you may very well have some really interesting passages. I test mine by reading them aloud. I’ve taped myself and played the tape back to get an even different perspective. Our own voices often sound strange to us, so it’s almost as though someone else is reading and we can hear when the rhythm is right. Try it. You might like it.

Anyone else have a trick they use to create a smooth flowing symphony of words?


Filed under books, fiction, music, musings, writing

24 responses to “The Kinship of Music & Writing

  1. I enjoy making music with my words, too, Coco. Nicely said.

  2. Since I’m tone deaf and know nothing about music, I have to rely on a feel for the flow of a story. Like you, I use longer sentences for slower scenes, shorter sentences for tense scenes.

    • Pat, you’re up late, too! You have the “music” of life’s experiences and the “melodies” I’ve read of yours definitely sing. You may be, as you say, tone deaf, but you do have the feel for the flow. That’s what music is.

  3. When I was acting I found a tape recorder to be an invaluable tool. I would read other people’s parts, especially my cue lines and then leave blank my part for the proper amount of time so I could even practice with the recorder as I drove. I’m sure any nearby drivers thought I was insane.
    I would often times also read the parts with my lines in it but with different voice impersonations and tones to see which one sounded best to me because as you said what you speak is most often not what you hear. It also would allow me to “feel” the pace and rhythm of the lines so I could get a better picture of how the audience might receive it.

    • Gosh, there’s a lot of us up late tonight. Interesting, Art. I’ve done that for library readings and such, but never thought how actors could utilize a taping. Thanks for stopping by and for commenting.

  4. Thank you for share this!

  5. This is an interesting point.

    When I read the title of this post, I thought it intended to explore how listening to music while writing complements an author’s creativity; however, I definitely agree with the theory here, that sentence structure must flow like a score by John Williams.

    This was one of the crucial elements that I discovered Creative Writing workshops emphasised.

    I believe your trick of reading your work aloud is crucial to the editing process; perhaps listening to music whilst in the creative stage might assist in generating words possessing melodic fluidity.

    In answer to your question, that would be one major facet in my arsenal of tricks when attempting to create a symphony of words.

    • Ah, Stephen, how right you are. I love your phraseology. Listening to music is so inspirational for me. Since I was classically trained, that’s what I enjoy hearing, but I’ve taken it a bit further. My music can’t have lyrics or I get distracted and since I play piano, cello, harp and bagpipes, I can’t hear solo music of these instruments or I’ll start thinking of fingering, bowing, breath patterns, or some technical issue. Full orchestra music works best for general writing. However, since my book is set mostly in Scotland, I have several Scottish characters and one from Ireland. I found my characters came alive for me if I played their country’s music while developing their personas. I could even “hear” their voices, accents/dialects and all. Thank you so much for your insightful comments.

  6. Good work, Coco. I read this blog with interest because I’m also a musician.
    Dorothy Francis

  7. I love what you wrote, Coco. Classical music inspires me to write. I took piano lessons as a child, which instilled in me an appreciation for music. In my teens, I sang in a rock band. I think of music as the background sound to my writing, like the songs or music in a film. If it’s action, I like rock, if it’s happy, pop, and if it’s a delicate, romantic or of human interest, I prefer classical. Thank God we have such an ample assortment to choose from.

    • Rosa, I love what you said about thinking of music as the background sound to your writing, like the songs or music in a film. And that the subject matter dictates which music you play. Interesting, It’s amazing how music can evoke so many emotions; love, tenderness, sadness, peacefulness, solemness, anger, frustration, joy, excitement, nostalgia, etc. Music is truly a divine gift to us all. Thank you for your comment.

  8. Very nice, Coco. I love music, but am not talented in that area–my mother paid for years of music lessons–to her despair–so I had never thought of this.

    • Oh, Donna, thank you for reading my blog and commenting. You are a favorite author of mine. I think your mother’s efforts were not in vain. Maybe you absorbed the lessons subliminally. Your work flows sublimely.

  9. Excellent post, Coco! I was trained as a classical pianist myself and totally get it! I did read your book, and you have a lovely ear for phrasing! Hugs to you from afar! Still coveting your motion ring. 😉

    • Thank you, Diane, for your comments and praise. How sweet of you. I appreciate it so much. Hugs, back. Such a lovely and talented woman as you deserves a motion ring. I say, don’t delay, get it! 🙂
      Good vibes to you on your writing!!!

  10. Yvonne

    As a reader, how I react to the rhythm in writing is paramount. I am most likely to finish a book, if I am captured by great prose. Smooth transitions between sentences and paragraphs do not break my attention and keep me focused and interested. This easily allows my mind to be transported by the images of the words. I enjoy feeling the natural ebb and flow of the story as I progress through a good read. If a book drags and is difficult to follow, I will quit reading the book.
    Have you ever drifted off, to your own thoughts in the middle of reading? Sometimes, but it never happens when I am so involved in a gripping tale that I can barely put it down. These books have all the points you wrote about and I remember them forever.
    One of my tricks as a reader, is that I listen to soft music in the background to block my inner dialog. Reading is a great relief from my busy multitasking life. Thanks for your insightful blog. TTYL

    • Thanks, Yvonne, for your thoughts from a reader’s perspective. Not to say that writers aren’t also readers, but there’s some difference. Writers are more aware of the tools used to create certain effects, while readers are often going on instinctive reaction to the writer’s work. If the writer is successful in using the tools taught them, the reader is more apt to keep reading and, hopefully, will enjoy that writer’s work.
      I find your comment interesting about listening to soft music while reading being helpful in blocking your inner dialog. Hmmm.
      Like you, reading for me provides escape from the day to day aspects of life, and I find it (usually) relaxing.
      Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving your impressions for all of us here.

  11. Coco, I really enjoyed reading your article (blog). I really had not given much thought lately as to why some authors I read solely for dialogue or an interesting premise and skip over the majority of descriptions and others (like your book) I read and enjoy every word. Considering my love of music and dance I should have put it together. There definately is an Art to writing and those that stay on my library shelves permanetly, to be enjoyed again are those that every word is precious.

    • Sorry I need a proof reader.

    • Thank you so very much, Salustra. I’m so glad you enjoyed my book, and humbled that it is in your permanent collection. I also remember you have Scottish roots and we both have a special affinity for all things Scottish. And considering your exceptional talent as an artist and dancer, I am doubly honored. Thanks for shimmying on over and leaving a comment!

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