The dog ate the food.
That's writing at its plainest. Each word has a definite, well-known meaning, the signifiers point to their signifieds just like they're supposed to. If we know how to read, we have no trouble seeing Fido happily munching his kibble.
Yet the more I read and write, the more I sense that writing draws on powers deeper than the transfer of information through symbol. Yes, a posted schedule that reads "The Boston bus leaves at noon" can, if true, help us get where we're going, but writing can tell us much more than "Just the facts, ma'am." Good writing is music, its sentences are melodies; good books are alive with the sound of writing.
How can writing sing? Because writing grew from speech. Og grunted to ask his cave mate for a second slice of mammoth steak long before his descendants learned to make the same request on paper, and though eons have passed since writing's invention, the art has never lost its primal connection to the music of the human voice. Letters represent the sounds of speech. Breath vibrates our vocal cords to create the five vowels a, e, i, o, and u; our lips, teeth, tongue and palate work together to form the twenty-one consonants that introduce, connect, and close those vowels.
Regulars readers here know that writing rests on a sonic foundation. Contributors and commenters, myself included, often discuss the intricacies of rhyme and rhythm, alliteration and assonance, phrasing and phonics. Yet good writing uses these musical resources, not as frills to make our writing fancy, but as intrinsic elements of our art which we can ignore only at the peril of deadly dullness.
Rhyme may be writing's most powerful musical resource. Kids love rhyme—"Ring around the rosie, a pocket full of posies"—and so do poets:
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.
Shakespeare's sweet closing rhyme is not the only music of this sublime couplet. Note the assonance of "while" and "I," the alliteration of "think" and "thee," the warmly assonant "o"'s of "losses…restored…sorrows." Note too the imperfect alliteration of "think…thee": the unvoiced th of think, the voiced th of thee. Rhyme too can work its magis when imperfect, likethe "rosy" and "posies" above. Kids hear the similarity of "ros" and "pos" and blissfully ignore the z sound of the plural ending. Shakespeare revels in imperfect rhymes:
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou are more lovely and more temperate
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.
Rhyme and rhythm, as their spellings indicate, connect intimately. Read these Shakespearean lines aloud and fall in step with the five-to-a-line march of the Bard's "ba BUM ba BUM" iambs—a beat steady and strong enough to dance to! Prose rhythm is by its nature as irregular as poetic rhythm is regular, but prose too can set up compelling waves of sound too powerful to resist. Listen to Abraham Lincoln:
Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.
I hear the first long sentence as a somber cello melody, lento and legato, its phrases as clearly contrasted, as beautifully balanced, as any by Bach. The short second sentence creates a stunning contrast: four one-syllable words, four fateful quarter notes boomed on a big bass drum.
Word length, here and elsewhere, contributes crucially to word music. One syllable words set up speedy staccato rhythms—listen to this run of twenty-four crisp monosyllables from James Jones masterpiece, Whistle:
[Now he carried] a huge hard paunch that stuck out in front of him two feet, and meat packed the skin of his head and neck to [bursting].
—while Henry Fielding's florid multisyllables convey easy, unbuttoned rhythms:
Do thou, oh sweet Zephyrus, rising from thy fragrant bed, mount the western sky, and lead on those delicious gales, the charms of which call forth the lovely Flora from her chamber, perfumed with pearly dews, when on the first of June, her birthday, the blooming maid, in loose attire, gently trips it over the verdant mead, where every flower rises to do her homage, 'till the whole field becomes enamelled, and colors contend with sweets which shall ravish her most. —Tom Jones
Composers build extended melodies by repeating and varying two- or three-note motifs. So do writers:
[Anne felt] there could have been no hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenance so beloved. Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was perpetual estrangement.
—Jane Austen, Persuasion
Edward Gibbon builds his repetitive motifs into elaborate but perfectly balanced phrases that remind me of Haydn's symmetrical sonorities:
The various modes of worship…in the Roman world were considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.
—The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Onomatopoeia makes word sounds out of real sounds—how much more musical can writing get than boom, crash, squeak, and rustle? Recently, I've begun to notice how hard it is to fix the boundary between onomatopoetic and non-onomatopoetic words. The words of my opening sentence—"The dog ate the food"—are clearly not onomatopoetic; "dog" means a four-legged woofer only because English speakers agree that it does. Given a different general agreement, "Che cag ute che noob" could mean the same thing.
Last fall I asked my writing class if fizzle, sputter, cough, and whisper were onomatopoetic, everyone said yes; shriek, they agreed, could not be used to mean murmur. Yet when I continued my list—teeny, mellifluous, spritely, dull, scrape—the class divided, some hearing a sound-meaning connection, some not. Several called flibberty-gibbet onomatopoetic: the nutty sound of the word suggested to them the nuttiness of the person so descibed.
Let's not forget the hundreds, if not thousands of word-like sounds that aren't words—duh, umm, ahem, wow, hey, hubba hubba, oy, la di dah, and yo. Start sprinkling these like salt and pepper into your writing, and you and your readers will notice and enjoy them as piquant grace notes. Remember too how accenting different words in the same sentence can greatly change the sentence's message.
I know what you did last summer.
—means something different from:
I know what you did last summer.
Where we put words in a sentence can add or subtract to our writing's musicality:
I opened the chest and saw that there was gold inside.
—has none of the accelerando rush of:
I opened the chest and saw that inside there was gold.
Slang, puns, double entendres, spoonerisms, acronyms, nick names and pet names all get their force and their fun from dancing back and forth across the threshold between word meaning and word music.
Here's a quick way to appreciate the music of writing: listen to someone read aloud a language you don't understand. Then you'll hear the ebb and flow of each tongue, the gutterals of one, the sibilants of another, and because you can't catch the meaning, you'll be all the more open to hear the melody.
I know that we've scarcely scratched the surface of a subtle subject. One last suggestion: the next time you write a sentence as thuddingly dull as "The dog ate the food," see if you can musicalize it; here I'll exaggerate to make the point:
Friendly Fido, a lovable Lab from his black nose to his brown tail, padded across the patio to his burnished brass bowl and munched and crunched his delicious dinner, pausing from time to time to glance up at his master Mel and to smile a doggy smile that said, plain as day, "Umm-umm good!"
Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program.Click here to read other articles by Michael Lydon