Music and the Art of Writing
Before I embraced the mantle of “writer,” I spent two years in graduate school studying to become a professor of music theory. For those who may not know, music theorists take apart musical structures and analyze them as you might a work of literature. After years of searching, I thought I had finally found the perfect career path. My love of music always intertwined with my love for language. To me, music’s notes and rhythms were letters and words of a tongue I longed to better understand.
But, as Victor Hugo once wrote, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” I could never adequately explain in words the emotions and images that musical masterpieces evoked in my mind, at least not objectively enough for scholarly inquiry. How do we interpret the meaning of a scale? Could I write a thesaurus for chordal structures? Music survives and thrives in its universality. Attempts at specific translation dishonor its purpose.
But beautiful writing, in music as in prose, is intentionally expressive.
The philosopher Roger Scruton argues that “Music exists when rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic order is deliberately created, and consciously listened to, and it is only language-using, self-conscious creatures, I argue, who are capable of organizing sounds in this way. . . .” If we cannot understand music, even if only at its basest, most emotional level, then its beauty is for naught.
Meaningful prose and poetry likewise rely upon an ability to express and to be understood. William Carlos Williams, in his poem “January Morning,” wrote:
I wanted to write a poem
that you would understand.
For what good is it to me
if you can’t understand it?
Neither musicians nor poets write to be misunderstood. They write because something beautiful hidden within their souls cannot be spoken in any other way.
Music and poetry, in their attempts to express the inexpressible, create languages all their own. Notes and ideas become phrases become verses become songs, each element building upon the others in ecstasy or tragedy, joy or despair. What then can such works teach us about our own writing?
- Beautiful writing is emotional.
Our words impact readers most when they portray the most desperate, dangerous longings of our souls. As writers, connecting to those emotions can be painful, even terrifying. We must remember that we are eternally trapped within our own skin and limited perception. To commune with our readers, we must break through that skin and gift our fears to the world, lest we fortify the walls between us rather than breach them.
- Beautiful writing is intentional.
I strongly advocate freewriting. Allowing the pen to flow wherever it will generates the seeds of what we wish to express. But no amount of freewriting will produce a perfect piece. Beauty and meaning come from the careful cultivation of those seeds into fully mature words, phrases, and ideas. The emotional value of the end product depends entirely on our intentional, deliberate nurturing.
- Beautiful writing is musical.
Like the movements of a symphony, beautiful words ebb and flow in rhythmic variation. They use metaphor and symbolism to define the undefinable. They employ alliteration and cadence and climax and crescendo in such a way that the words sing in our hearts as well in our heads. We must engage with all the tools available to us until we find precisely the melodic lift that each line needs.
- Beautiful writing is a process.
Ideas may simmer in our heads for days, months, even years before they are ready to escape onto the page. Then, once an idea reaches the page, it may go through dozens, even hundreds, of revisions before it is ready to be shared. Each word or turn of phrase must be tasted, seasoned for proper flavor and nuance before it can be served.
Ludwig von Beethoven, one of the most beloved composers of all time, left behind thousands of pages of notebooks and sketches. Not all of his ideas found homes in his published works, yet no one today would consider his career a failure.
For those of us who have jobs, children, or other responsibilities, allowing beauty to come in its own time may seem like a Sisyphean task. The reward may not always feel worth the effort.
Do it anyway.
When we take the time to create beauty, whether in music, literature, or art, we embrace one of our most primal ambitions: to discover ourselves and our place in the world around us. We embrace our desire for companionship and camaraderie and even conflict now and again. We reach into the souls of both writer and reader and draw them together in a symphony of order and chaos and intellect and emotion. Whether we are read by one or a million, our words reflect the innermost truth about ourselves. We owe it to our souls to make them to shine.
Amalie Cantor currently lives in Norman, Oklahoma with her partner Katherine and their feline familiars, Sadie and Salem. She writes poetry, prose, and fiction focusing on the intersection of identity and spirituality. She also blogs about whatever shiny object has captured her attention at DaughterOfKieran.com. When not hiding behind a computer screen, Amalie enjoys cooking, knitting, crocheting, and enjoying the literary debauchery of her local book club. She also watches far too many bad BBC shows and is pretty sure her personal trainer has reported her missing. Her debut novel, Choosing Her Chains, will be independently published in summer 2016.