Home » Writing Advice » 3 Reasons to Think of Your Writing as Music

3 Reasons to Think of Your Writing as Music

“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

3 Reasons to Think of Your Writing as MusicIf 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.


Do you have any comparisons to make between writing and music? What are your experiences?

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12 thoughts on “3 Reasons to Think of Your Writing as Music

  1. I have very little musical talent, so I might never have made this connection on my own. I do enjoy music, so thinking about the way it sounds is a good method for comparison. Thanks!

    • No problem! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I can’t help but think of writing in terms of music, and it’s helped me a lot, I think, in finding the rhythm of my own voice. Thanks for commenting!

  2. You have definitely struck a chord with me here (yes, lame pun intended) 😉 I discovered two of my creative loves within a couple months of each other, writing and guitar. And I can relate from personal experience, it is like a tuning fork is ringing at the core of your soul when you strum the strings on a guitar and hear the beauty of your creation, as well as when you read back a sentence, paragraph, or story that you wrote and realize that the words you chose completely epitomize what you are attempting to convey.

    For me, however, there is a fine line in the realm of writing. Playing guitar, I can’t go back and “edit” the chords I have just played, but I can go back and play it again. The “problem” with the written word and my tendencies towards perfectionism (they are getting better though), I always believe that, yes, this word is good enough. But, maybe, just maybe, there is a better one out there.

    There comes a time when I have to remember to cut the proverbial cord and realize that my words are doing their job, and allow them to land on the consciousness of the reader to interpret.

    As a completely random tangent, I have often wondered how my interpretation of a piece written by an author would be altered if I could here the person reading it, sort of like an audio post. That would be an interesting experiment …

    Anyway, great post with wonderful analogies. Thanks for sharing, and for reminding me I need to pull my guitar back out of the closet 🙂

    • Sorry for just now responding to your comment, Dave. It’s been a busy week here now that school has started again. I’m attempting to be a good student and spending several hours a day on my thesis research. Anyway . . .

      I also play the guitar, although I’m still a fairly (in my opinion) mediocre player. I play it when I want to procrastinate my writing. 🙂 I totally understand though about the perfectionism. You and I both seem to have an endless battle with it. But part of letting a little bit of that go is to trust that the words we are using — the words we choose intuitively from the beginning — are the words that best fit the song we’re writing on the page. So in that sense, trust your intuition!

      In terms of an audio post — well I imagine that it’s like reading a poem to yourself and then hearing the author read it out loud. I think it’s amazing how differently the voice in my head reads it. It just goes to show that the song I hear is not the song the writer necessarily heard, and yes, in this case, it’s a matter of interpretation. Just as no one sees the world the same way, no one hears it the same way either. I think that’s an interesting idea.

      Thanks so much for the thought-provoking comment! Definitely dig that guitar out of the closet and start playing! 🙂

  3. Great analogy. I love it whenever my work-in-progress begins to have that lyrical sound. It matches the tone and essence of the piece, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. Thanks, Michelle.

    • Sorry I’m a bit slow this past week in answering comments, Marcy. School started here. Anyway, thank you for sharing your thoughts! The lyricism of prose is my absolute favorite part, and I’m always looking for it!

    • I love this idea. I should read poetry before all my writing sessions… except then I probably wouldn’t stop reading it.

  4. Pingback: Phonetic Punctuation: How Do You Hear Punctuation Marks in Your Writing? | The Sarcastic Muse

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