The Musical Side of Writing


Last week I posted about the similarities between writing and the visual arts.  Last night I went to see Jerry Douglas and his band play at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville.  It was an unbelievable concert in a small, intimate venue, by one of the finest musicians on the planet.  Not surprisingly, this week I’m thinking about music…

At first blush, music and writing would seem to have as little in common as any pair of art forms.  Consider this for a moment:  You go to a music store and find that your favorite musician has just released a new CD!  You’re so excited!  You buy the CD, take it home, and listen to it beginning to end.  And then you put the CD on its place on the shelf and never listen to it again.

I know that some people will reread their favorite books again and again.  But generally speaking, we read a book once and then put it on a shelf, where it gathers dust.  Maybe after a while we lend it to a friend who never returns it, or we sell it to a used book store.

All this by way of saying that people tend to think differently about music and literature of any sort.

But that certainly doesn’t mean that as writers we have little to learn from music.  On the contrary, I would argue that the rhythms, structure, and tonality of music can teach us a great deal about writing.

To my mind (and all the usual caveats apply — there’s no right way to do this, your approach might vary and be every bit as valid, objects in mirror may be closer than they appear…) good writing should be constructed musically.  Themes should recur as they do in a classical symphony.  Sometimes those recurrences might be obvious; at other times they might just be hinted at, a passing reference that echoes something you’ve done earlier.  A certain amount of freedom should be built into any outline that you use, so that you can improvise in places as might a jazz or bluegrass musician.

Writing should also have a compelling cadence, just as good music often has a captivating rhythm.  This works on a number of levels.  In its most basic sense, this means that you need to vary sentence structure and length.  Generally speaking, you don’t want every sentence to be a simple declarative, because you’ll end up with a stiff, staccato rhythm that becomes too repetitive.  (There are exceptions to this — at times, that’s just the effect you might want; but in most instances you don’t.)  On the other hand, too many long complex sentences in a row can muddy your prose, making it difficult to follow the narrative.  You want a mix.

But rhythm also works in a broader sense.  Actually, this might also be defined as dynamics rather than rhythm, but you’ll see what I mean.  I like to vary the level of action in my books from chapter to chapter.  There are certainly times when I’ll have one fast-paced chapter after another — lots of action, violence, sex, frequent plot points.  Fun stuff.  But I also believe that readers need opportunities to catch their breath now and then.  Just as a good music album will have a mix of up-tempo pieces, slower blues, and ballads, a novel should have chapters that move at break-neck speed, and others that are somewhat slower.  You don’t want your narrative to stall, but neither do you want it all happening at the same pace all the time.  At least that’s how I feel.

Finally, writers can learn from the tonality of music.  What do I mean by this?  Think about your favorite piece of classical music, or jazz, or whatever.  There are points in the piece that build musical tension.  Sometimes it’s a matter of a rhythmic syncopation, but at other times it’s a failure to resolve tonally, to resist going to the note or chord that closes a melodic passage.  For those of you who aren’t quite sure what I mean, listen to a Mozart symphony, and you’ll find that as you hear certain passages you can anticipate the last note of a musical phrase.  You know what note is coming, because it resolves the musical tension in ways that are familiar.  But at other times Mozart holds that note back, upping the musical tension.  You anticipate it, but you don’t get it.  Sometimes a composer will even throw in a modulation that sounds almost sour, and thus further ratchets up the tension.

Writers ought to do this, too.  Sometimes giving readers the equivalent of that tonal resolution in the middle of a book can be quite effective.  Resolving a long standing conflict, or consummating a romance that’s been in the offering for several chapters can do it. This gives readers an emotional touchstone that can be reassuring, or it can provide that resting point I mentioned before when I was writing about rhythm.  But more often than not, even when we’re moving the action at a slightly slower pace, we can maintain the forward momentum of the narrative by upping the tension, by refusing to give that tonal resolution, or even by hitting a sour note.  Action isn’t always about body counts and violence; subtle tensions can propel a plot forward without any of that other stuff.  By simply holding back that tonal resolution, by doing the unexpected with the “melody” of your narrative, you make your book more exciting, more compelling.  You keep your reader turning the pages.  And that, of course, is the whole point.


2 comments to The Musical Side of Writing

  • David, you are one of the most artistic souls I know. I am a two-left-footed, tin-eared, color-blind chimp next to you. great post — especially the tonality part.

  • “I am a two-left-footed, tin-eared, color-blind chimp next to you.”

    You’re very sweet, Faith. You’re a terrible liar and completely wrong, but you’re very sweet. 🙂

    Glad you liked the post.