Can you hear the rhythm in your sentences (like the beats in a song)?
Can you hear the tonal attitude that characterizes your expressions (like the spirit of a vocalist or instrumentalist)?
Can you hear the rhetorical patterns that shape your clauses and phrases into memorable sound bytes (like the catchy riff of a melody line)?
Can you feel the tension, the climax and the denouement build-up, then resolve as each sentence moves story forward?
A well-known and very apparent example of this musicality in writing is the jazz in Jack Kerouac’s writing.
You might be thinking this is only the case in literature, not in professional writing (marketing content, reports and articles etc.) Author and teacher Pia Villanueva-Pulido describes literary writing as: ‘melodic tunes and use of unrelated chromatic chords…building up layers of rhythm which fades out quickly, then leaving the melody to stand alone for a few seconds only to build up as quickly as it faded’1. But while professional writing needs to be much more methodical, non-fiction writers and journalists like Leonard Ray Tell do agree that: ‘good writing is like music. It has its distinctive rhythm, its pace, flow, cadence. It can be hummed. The great stylists seem to have an inner music…’2 Method in writing as we practice it in professional communications can be compared to the classical three-part sonata structure: exposition, development and recapitulation. In fact, my own model — the Anatomy of Body Copy — is based on this Western shape of sonic structure.
By now you’re probably thinking this is getting a little too arty for the everyday writer of eDMs, brochures and web copy. Maybe so if it wasn’t for the fact that writing is speech, and speech has been discovered to have a scientific correlation with music. A ground-breaking 2003 study3 done by Purves, Schwartz and Howe at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience [Duke University] has proven the biological and neurological connection between music and speech4.
And writing is simply spoken words put down on paper (or screen).
The Purves, Schwartz and Howe discovery was revealed to me while reading How Music Works by David Byrne (co-founder of Talking Heads). He quotes Purves saying that, ‘there’s a biological basis for music, and that basis is the similarity between music and speech’5. Byrne goes on to explain Purve’s discovery that the biological rationale of musical scales is a universally common human condition and our vocal melodies are embedded in our talking. So much so that all twelve tones in a chromatic scale fall along the same scale as speech. You’ll know it by reciting Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do. Thus speech, like music, is tonal. Liguistically speaking, tonality is associated with vowels — a, e, i, o, u — because our vocal cords only vibrate during vowel production, in the same way a guitar string vibrates when strummed. And just as in singing, our speech tones are coloured by our tongue and palates to produce harmonic variety. To sum it up in the words of linguist, Christine Kenneally, it is now clear that ‘the building blocks of music are to be found in speech.6
All of this gives scientific validity to something I have always felt in my own (good) writing and those of others and now can verify — writing is music. And it’s this writerly music vibrating through the sentences that drives the reader to happily read on (without them necessarily knowing why other than feeling enticed by some sense of pleasurable movement in the text). Melody. Rhythm. Tonality. These are the invisible elements of the craft of writing that transport your reader (or listener) from sentence to sentence. Obviously, these sentences have to be meaningful, useful, insightful and/or interesting; there’s no slacking off on the quality of content.
Once you develop an ear for your writing, you will hear that inner music Leonard Ray Tell is talking about. Read aloud your written passages, listen carefully and you will hear the music, or lack of it. Purves study also showed that the tonal relationships in music and speech play a major role in the development of our auditory system. There are note combinations that are pleasing to the ear, and other note combinations that rankle. In short, your sentences either flow harmoniously along from one to the other or they chug and splutter and cough. As linguistist Christine Kenneally puts it, ‘we like sounds that are familiar to us — specifically, we like sounds that remind us of us.’7
Just ask yourself, ‘does it sing?’ With that question in mind, you will begin to hear the possibilities of your own inner music.
1 Pia Villanueva-Pulido (author and English teacher) https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/writing-process-like-deep-house-music-sort-pia-villanueva-pulido
2 Leonard Ray Teel, Into the Newsroom: An Introduction to Journalism (1988)
5 David Byrne, How Music Works (2012) pp. 336–340
6 Christine Kenneally, The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, (2007) p.172