There are only two universal truths in life: cookies and music.
Can you think of someone who doesn’t like cookies? Someone who openly acknowledges that in the nearly infinite variety of flat, round, sugary treats available they don’t like a single type? They can dismiss, with a condescending wave of the hand, chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, white chocolate macadamia, shortbread, or cranberry almond? I submit that even if a person claims to not like cookies, they just haven’t met the right cookie yet.
The same principle can be applied to music. I’ve met a whole random smattering of people in my time on this floating rock, and not one of them disliked music. Sure, some people don’t like certain kinds of music, and some people only like music when they are in certain moods or in certain places or with certain people. For some, music is rich 72% cocoa dark chocolate, only to be savored on the most hallowed occasions. But, when all the cards are down, the dices thrown, and the cliches overused, every human on this planet has some connection to and appreciation for music.
It’s not just because music is fun or empowering or energizing. It’s because music is woven into the textiles of our existence. The piping patterns of song birds that wake you up on a sunny spring morning, the repetitive roar and cascading Doppler shift of passing rush hour traffic, the unrelenting pulse of your heart pushing blood through your veins with every pump. Music is the tangible manifestation of the very reverberations of the universe, the vibrations and rumblings and bouncing atoms that give us physics and math and beauty through art.
Everything has a level of musicality to it, including your writing. It can be labeled with things like “cadence” and “meter” and “flow” but it really amounts to a lyrical quality, a quality that animates your writing and makes it move across the page like an inken inchworm. If you want your writing to be really effective, it needs to come alive in the reader’s eyes and ears and mind.
Just like music, writing needs some structure to be pleasing to the ear. How can you turn your page of prose into a sheet of symphony?
I’m glad you asked.
1. Listen to music (with lyrics)
This seems so obvious that it’s kind of insulting I’d suggest it. But I’m not suggesting you just throw on some trendy-ass noise-canceling headphones and casually listen while you type. Like you’d closely read a piece of literature to see how the writer crafted his tale, listen to the music with an attentive ear. Listen for the chord changes (you’ll ear little shifts in notes at specific, timed intervals), listen when the singer transitions from verse to chorus. Listen how the notes change to create harmony and how the lyrics are used to build up to an important moment in the song, like the breakdown or the bridge.
Songwriting is poetry set to music, and is a great example of writing trimmed down to its most lyrical elements. By analyzing the music you listen to, you’ll start to absorb good timing, great meter, and amazing transitions from one section to the next.
2. Vary your sentences
There is a lot of grammar behind sentence variation (I’ve bored you guys with enough of that recently), but it has a more practical purpose than just syntactic complexity. Varying your sentence length – from quick and dirty short sentences to drawn-out and obtuse long sentences – adds fluidity and organicness to your writing. It keeps the reader moving, guessing what form you’ll use next, and makes reading your writing entertaining and engaging.
Variation can encompass length, style, diction, and doesn’t necessarily mean you have to write completely different sentences all the time. The beginning of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (arguably one of the most iconic pieces of classical music ever) repeats the same 4-note pattern, over and over again. And yet it works and we love it and it sticks in our memory because it’s different variation on the same theme. Chord changes within songs are related to each other, but are variations within the key of the song.
Apply the same to your words and sentences and paragraphs. Variation is music is titillating writing.
3. Build patterns
Beethoven used patterns to establish theme and expected rhythm, but do you know who else did (and does)?
Birds. Whales. Crickets. The ocean. Your heart. Your lungs.
Grammar defines the patterns we expect in language: subject, verb, direct object. Music defines the patterns we expect in song: verse, chorus, verse. Our brains are built to recognize and appreciate patterns. It’s what separates us from computers. Well, that and skin and organs and hair and stuff.
As you’re writing, notice the patterns you’re creating. Are you opening with short sentences followed by longer ones? Are you using generalizations then following up with specific examples or anecdotes? Are you always concluding or transitioning with some sort of fragment or quick tie-up? Are you using a lot of rhetorical questions?
Patterns may not be as obvious and repetitive as an ABAB rhyme structure. Sometimes they’re more subtle, and manifest in parallel grammatical structures or similar messages or repetitive words. But it’s important to recognize that a reader expects some sort of pattern to your writing, a rhythm or marker that lets them know where they are and where they are going.
When you explicitly use certain patterns in your writing for emphasis and effect, you start to really bring your writing voice to the front of the page.
4. Have a conversation
When a band plays, it’s not just 5 or so instruments playing their individual parts, hoping it all syncs up and sounds pleasant or right. It’s the guitar talking to the keyboard, the keyboard flirting with the drums, the drums making fun of bass. The music of each part is working together in real time – almost as if they’re having a conversation – to create a complete dialogue within a song.
When you write, imagine that you’re orating the story. Imagine that your average reader is right in front of you, staring at your expectantly, and you have to clearly enunciate each sentence, adding the proper intonation and weight to the appropriate sections. Write as if you want them to “ooh” and “ahh” when you reach the end of each paragraph because it makes their ears all giddy and blissful. Like, y’know, music.
This is not to say that you should literally write like you speak. That would be a disaster of “ums” and “likes” and “yea, so.” Good writing captures the flow and elegance of practiced speech and cuts out all of filler crap that we use when chatting about March Madness brackets with our coworkers. Your writing should read like it is being spoken, contain all the delectable nuance of a practiced speech and a Broadway play. It should flourish when read out loud, so that it is flourishes within your reader’s mind.