Writing and Music share structural links that go much deeper than lyrics and emotion. Gain a unique edge in creative writing by practicing these structural links.
It’s hard to develop a voice as a writer and to stand out. God knows I’m trying! But when I made the decision to start writing more I resolved to do so with an approach that I have always stressed to my students: Music and Creative writing can learn a lot from each other.
More than just the crossover of poetry to lyrics and melody, or the shared ability to evoke pathos, the analogous nature of music and writing goes much deeper. Music and writing share intertwining structural elements that have been woven together since humans started to make sound and communicate. And while some of the transformative power of writing or music are complex philosophical puzzles, there are tangible ways the writers can harness the elements of music and vice versa.
Writers have long talked about the indispensable value of music in their writing. Hemingway’s mother, a musician herself, made sure the young writer took cello and piano lessons. While he thought very little of his musical talent, he did claim that learning music helped him understand counterpoint in his writing. Besides this, linking the knowledge sets of two different fields is a great skill of polymaths, and worth exercising.
How are Music and Writing related?
Music and language is (or at least once was) one and the same. Think about it: language through speech is simply sounds with varying tones, or timbre, pitch, and distinct rhythm, or pace of delivery. Pitch is particularly important in tonal languages, and in Mandarin could mean the difference between, “I love Pandas, they’re so cute!” and “I love chest hair, it’s so cute!
Most linguists believe that, for our ancestors about 700,000 years ago, music and language were one and the same. This ‘protolanguage’ featured a series of varying syllable-like vocalizations that would have sounded like primitive singing.
Babies know this too. Before babies can make out the detail of individual words, they pick up on speech rhythm and vocal intonation. They learn to interpret music, before they understand words. And doesn’t baby talk sound like a musical exploration or improvisation. They’re mimicking the varying pitch and rhythm of the music of our speech.
Tempo and Rhythm
Adopting the musical approach to rhythm and tempo is one of the easier aspects to implement. Tempo sets the pace of the piece of music and also the attitude. At times you want it to constantly push and drive the momentum of the work, at other times you want it to sit back, relax, and give and take a little.
The pace of your writing, or the format of your writing will vary greatly depending on the desired effect. You want to generate forward momentum! The way you generate forward momentum is going to feature different types of sentences and punctuation, letting the music push you and not pause too long. You won’t allow the reader to linger on a thought too long, allowing them to soak up the gist of a paragraph without too much contemplation. But other times, you’ll want to stop.
And slow down.
Taking time to let the listener or the reader to reflect. “Poke some holes in the box and let it breathe,” my composition teacher used to say.
The speed, or tempo, will allow you to guide the reader. Just like some music makes you want to dance while some makes you want to stare into space and question every decision you’ve made, or even call your ex-girlfriend.
Rhythm can be more complex. Rhythm is about patterns. And patterns are about contrast and repetition. We need something a little bit new and different to break up the monotony, but we like repetition because it’s safe and it’s what we know.
It reminds the reader of something, or drives home a point. “People don’t know what they like, they like what they know,” my composition teacher used to say.
And perhaps most importantly, as your 6-month old baby will tell you, your speech and the way text is read in your head has its own rhythm. Songwriters and composers know this quite well, particularly if their setting music to an existing poem or lyrics. /This is /how they would /mark it /up. With a /slash in /front of an /accented /syllable, be/cause that /is the /beat.
“/Sometimes you /don’t have to /write a /rhythm, you /just have to /write the /lyrics,” I tell my composition students (in triple time).
Counterpoint, or contrapuntal writing, is complex enough in music, let alone text. But simply explained, it’s the layers of melodies, or the layers of little musical ideas, that develop, evolve, and sometimes repeat. It helps to think of each layer as a different little journey of character. Sometimes these melodies interact, affect each other, intertwine and play with each other, and sometimes push apart. The most clever counterpoint generally happens in Fugues, a type of compositional structure that treats melodic phrases almost as characters that at times fit together like a puzzle, and other times clash and push apart.
There’s been some investigation into the fugal (a type of musical writing that is full of different layers that fit together like a puzzle) writing of Hemingway, particularly in the story, The Nun, The Gambler and The Radio. In this story, Hemingway appears to use the fugal writing technique of multiple voices moving in counterpoint to each other but unifies these voices with recurring motifs throughout. Thanks, Mama Hemingway, for helping form such multi-disciplinary craftsmanship in a writer. Any counter point works in conjunction with rhythm.
You can’t have melodic counterpoint without rhythm. Each little voice or each little character journey will have a rhythm of it’s own.
You can’t have rhythm without patterns. And, of course, you can’t have patterns without contrast and repetition. But it makes it so much more cohesive when you can unify them together.
Speed and tempo to move the reader at the pace you want them to. Contrast and repetition in a pattern, to work in counterpoint with other patterns of contrast and repetition.
All to be made cohesive with repeated motifs: “Wrap it all together and put a bow on it,” my composition teacher used to say.
The Fugue, this puzzle within a puzzle within a puzzle, is one of the most beautifully complex techniques in musical composition. Like in music, to truly master this requires a lot of practice, like I’m doing now. These countless puzzles also fit within the grander puzzle of structure, or overall form.
There’s a lot of well known aspects of the golden ratio, or fibonacci sequence, being present in the structure of all art forms. But just as music once borrowed poetic structure to make words into songs, so can literature use musical structures to create masterpieces.
Poetry and song have had a shared creative space for centuries. Verses, stanzas, chorus; these words all come from the world of poetry-writing, and it’s easy to see how these shared structures work. Also, it gives credibility to Bob Dylan’s win of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Did he push the boundaries in music itself? That’s debatable, but his reinvention of the vernacular of American poetic expression is hard to ignore.
It’s a little bit more difficult to write a novel on song form, but there are grander forms to consider. Take Sonata form. Created for the sake of having bigger, longer, and more impressive music to showcase in new Gothic cathedrals and concert halls, it is well suited to an extended piece of writing. Academics have even argued that examples of Sonata form in literature go back to Homer’s Odyssey (Ezra Pound thought so too), which begs the question: is Sonata from in fact a structure of literature?
Edgar Allen-Poe’s, Murders in the Rue Morgue, have also been identified as heavily influenced both structurally and metaphorically by Beethoven’s famous Pathetique Piano Sonata. With it’s dark and brooding tonality and repetitive yet developing figures that toll like a bell, it’s easy to picture the dark and broding Poe listening to the work and hearing its resonance within his own slow beating artistic heart.
Sonata form is basically this: We start with an expose with two clear themes, perhaps a hero and his guide, with a little musical transition between them. The music then settles the exposition of these two themes/characters with a mini ending, but it’s an ending in a different key – so ultimately unresolved – the inciting incident has been made obvious! The composer then takes these two themes and plays around with them, bending and contorting them, trialing them with new thematic material, in a developmental section of rising tension until a climax and then…. Bam! We’re back to the original theme or ‘status quo’. Maybe there’s a bit of instability, with a transition to the second theme, as things go back to normal life, but ultimately there’s a solid resolution, in the original key, back to where the hero started.
There’s a Pandora’s box of techniques that can be shared across the channel of music and literature. Open them at your own peril – once you start uncovering the links, you’ll start seeing it everywhere and perhaps even infiltrating your own writing. Even now, as I reflect back on what I’ve just written I start to wonder, “Could I have written my overall structure in something more like Sonata form…” We could edit and re-edit until the obsession with structure kills any spontaneity and sincerity.
I’m not saying that every piece of your writing should have Bach-style counterpoint, or an overlying Sonata structure. It is, however, certainly worth considering these as guides, especially if you’re at a loss as to how to get started, or even how to move forward.
There has to be balance, and you need to finish it. “Sometimes you just have to take the piece behind the shed and shoot it in the back of the head,” my ever-wise and descriptive composition teacher used to say.