“If … a poem remains predominantly writing, never coming alive to voice and to sounds as voiced, it will remain only a sketch of a work.” – Susan Stewart
If you think about it, the words we put down on the page are but symbols of the sounds we make via speech. In that sense, letters are representative of sounds, a cluster of letters forms a word, those words then form longer structures, and voilà, you have sentences and paragraphs and novels. Though your readers will not physically hear the sounds of the words you write, they will feel them.
That’s why, even if you’re writing something “simple” — even if you’re writing genre literature where the plot tends to (but certainly not always) take precedence over the use of language, the way you use words, if used well, will still pluck the strings of your reader.
So what does all this have to do with music? Like music, writing relies on sound and rhythm to bring life to our work. With that said, I think the above quote is applicable to all realms of writing (and music, too), not just poetry: if our work remains mere writing, without utilizing the tools of (in this case) sound, then it does not truly live.
Think of your story as a song that needs to stay in key
Music, like language, relies on a string of sounds put together in specific patterns to form rhythm, harmony, etc. Even a listener who has had no previous musical education (like me) can hear when someone hits a bad note, or when a note doesn’t quite go with the others. It’s the exact same with readers. If a writer hits a “bad note” — a word that doesn’t quite work with the rest of the prose, for instance — the reader will notice it. This will draw them out of your story, and you risk losing their attention.
Knowledge of this is especially important for writers, because it’ll better enable you to see areas where your prose falls flat. A good line editor, too, will ‘hear’ it and be able to help you find the strongest way to use your voice to emphasize the emotion and music of your own work.
The way things sound together matters
If you want your words to sing to the reader, your prose needs to feel right. This means rhythm is going to be your best friend. Writers rely on intuition for a majority of their written choices. Every time we select a word, we are selecting it among thousands of other possibilities, which in turn changes the possibilities for the rest of the sentences that come after it. Each word hinges off the last; each word influences the next: the way the sounds wrap around one another. Afterwards, these sounds begin to represent something bigger — the actual meaning (both literal and figurative) as well as the emotional direction in which you wish to move your reader.
Do you have a scene that needs to express a state of panic? Like music, you must speed up your use of language. You must control the rhythm if you wish to convey these feelings to your reader. Find a way to harmonize between the beat of the sentences and the sound of the words and then merge them with the character and the scene.
As with notation in music, punctuation is a marker of rhythm and should be used effectively
You can influence the rhythm of your prose with punctuation. Just as certain musical notation marks the length of a beat when sung or played, punctuation marks show the amount of time a reader should pause, thus lengthening the bridge between one word and the next (which then translates to the length the reader subconsciously holds onto ideas). Each punctuation mark conveys a certain aspect of rhythm, whether just half a beat or a full breath pause. Not only does it vary the sound of what you’re writing, but it also gives you a certain amount of emotional power over your reader.
To use the example from before — a state of urgency –you could use short declarative sentences to show the speed with which events are transpiring. Then, by using a dash, for instance, or repeating words (in moderation), you can use this rhythm to then link the rest of it with the character’s own state of mind.
In conclusion . . .
There are a lot of ways to compare music to writing. As a sort of reminder, think of the way music dips in and out of our emotions, the way it holds us. This is what you want to do to your reader—this is why writers are so powerful. Because when we manage to use the sound of our writing effectively, we are in control. A good writer wraps the reader in a web of words; a good writer doesn’t let go, even after the song has ended.