Songwriting and the Creative Process
Philip Gerard | May 2019
We begin by brainstorming common phrases and everyday words. As each of the students calls out a suggestion, I print it on the white board. There are fourteen of them, undergraduate and MFA students, gathered around a seminar table in a room we have turned into a makeshift studio, with keyboard and guitar handy, taking the first step toward writing a song together using the “top down” method—finding a title that can serve as the hookline for a chorus and building the rest of the song on it.
I get the ball rolling by offering a few of my own: “Pay as you go”; “Don’t be a stranger”; and “Stop, look, and listen” after the old railroad crossing sign. Right now we don’t know or care if any of these lines has already been used in a song—the idea is to play with the process and see where it leads. It takes a leap of faith, a letting go of the tight reins of control. In their other workshops, these writing students feel pressure to perform, to create a well-turned literary product.
I tell them over and over again: “It doesn't matter what you make in this class. It matters that you make it.”
If their songs become hits, great. But what I want more than that is to carve out a space—an oasis—where they can remember how much fun it is to write, to play at creating a literary form in song, one they’re not invested in—the way they are invested in their poems, stories, novels, and essays. I want them to flex creative muscles they don’t usually use. My theory is that this kind of playful creation will come back around and feed into their writing—obliquely, in surprising and unexpected ways. In the meantime, we will build community, ease their stress, and give them a lift in their intense academic schedule.
My theory is that this kind of playful creation will come back around and feed into their writing—obliquely, in surprising and unexpected ways. In the meantime, we will build community, ease their stress, and give them a lift in their intense academic schedule.
After we fill the whiteboard with phrases, a student singles out one: “Handle with care”—a standard warning on a shipping carton containing fragile goods. And in fact the phrase inspired a song by the Traveling Wilburys. But like I said, we don’t care about that right now. And anyway we are creating something very different.
We bat around this idea for a few minutes, then a young woman says quietly, “How about, ‘Handle me with care’?”
And that one word changes everything. Now the phrase is personal, directed at some unknown other person by the speaker in the song. It’s a warning, a request, the hint of a troubled backstory in which the speaker has been handled without care.
And so that becomes the first line: Handle me with care.
Someone suggests the next line: I’ve been hurt before. There’s the backstory creeping in. Another suggests extending the phrase to fill out the bars of melody: Know that I’ve been hurt before. They pass around the rhyming dictionary and find what they want, and the next line emerges: Break my heart if you dare.
In their poetry, most would eschew rhyme as being too predictable and limiting, but we’ve decided to try it here to make the lines easier to remember and to provide the snap of closure that a satisfying rhyme can give. And floating along on a melody, the rhyme will not seem cheesy. Music comes to the rescue. We decide on a scheme of ABAB rhymes, so as to keep the lyric from sounding too singsong.
There are some predictable suggestions for how to close out the chorus: I’ll knock you to the floor and I'll kick you out the door. We’re going a bit rough country—or, as someone at the far end of the long seminar table quips, “Taylor Swift revenge mode.”
But then a quiet voice says, You’ll be broken even more. It’s an eloquent turn away from the typical Don’t cross me or you’ll be sorry line. It suggests that the act of hurting someone else actually hurts the heartbreaker as much as—maybe more than—the heartbroken. Which seems emotionally right to anyone who has ever played that role.
The students noodle out a melody line, take the second line to a minor chord to offer a bit of melancholy to the words “hurt before.” And with Dan Willis—who’s a trained musician—on guitar picking out the chords, all of us sing the song together for several repetitions. In twenty minutes we’ve made something together, taken a throwaway instruction from a packing carton and given it emotional life. Created a melody that didn’t exist in the world until these students puzzled it out on the keyboard and the guitar and a cappella.
That doesn’t mean it’s any good, but there was a bit of electric energy zinging around the table as we tried and discarded phrases and words and melodic lines—lots of laughter was involved—and then picked some keepers. I have never heard students singing out loud—together or alone—in a class. I’ve never seen a student demonstrate a lyric or melodic idea by tentatively—bravely—singing it extemporaneously to classmates. They’re not show-offs—indeed, most seem pretty shy. But they’re game, willing to risk embarrassment. They smile and joke a lot. They help each other find the words and the notes.
Class is finished for the day. I catch myself humming the tune as I go about the rest of the day, and later on, in the Publishing Laboratory, I run into Jeff Oloizia and Kinzy Jannsen, a couple of my students—smiling, singing the song. Jeff says of the class, “It’s a nice beat in the schedule.” A little breathing room, he means.
I like that—a nice beat.
Songs of Writing
The recent awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to singer-songwriter Bob Dylan has highlighted a growing awareness that the art and craft of song-making can be literary. For our purposes, it is the creative process of writing songs that can be useful to writers as we learn how to construct a writing habit.
The songs students write will in some way distill, refine, comment upon, enlarge, or be inspired by their work as poets, nonfiction writers, and fiction writers, and they will write short reflections to make the connections explicitly. The aim is not to write “hit” songs but to invigorate and expand their creative process of writing in all genres. We are interested in the process, not just the product—though if things go well, each will leave the course having composed three original songs that have both lyrics and a melody. They will perform these songs with help from the rest of us during the course of the semester, and near the end we will record one song from each writer to give them the experience of laying down a track in a real recording studio—in a sense publishing their song onto a CD. And put on a show.
And each graduate student will bring a favorite song to class, play it either live or from a recording, and break it down structurally and narratively, pointing out its formal qualities, any innovations that depart from a typical song in whatever genre it happens to be, and how the listener connects emotionally with the song.
In this manner, we hear from the avant-garde Richard Dawson, a Scottish visual artist who writes long, loose, sometimes discordant songs; Adele singing “Someone Like You,” about a lover who can’t get over a breakup; even the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” In addition to revelations about structure and lyrical composition, each presenter offers a story about how the song was made. Adele cowrote her song after a bad breakup and, after a long studio session, went back in to rerecord key sections with a voice that was raw from singing; Dawson is losing his eyesight, lending an urgency to his imagistic renderings in graphic art and lyric; Merry Clayton, a gospel singer, was literally called out of bed in the middle of the night by Mick Jagger and—still in silk pajamas and curlers (and mink coat)—whisked to the studio by limo to lay down two takes on the lyric “Rape, murder”—and decided, in her words, to blow it out. And the result—played without any instrumental track—is chilling and rapturous in its intensity.
Meanwhile, we listen to a variety of songs from a special playlist for this course. We begin with the mellow version of James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind,” a song that nicely demonstrates all the parts of a song: verse, chorus, bridge, coda, extension—along with melodic fills and a certain soundscape created by the fingerstyle guitar and other instrumentation.
From Natalie Merchant they get a children’s story turned to song—the Cajun-inspired “Adventures of Isabel.” Gordon Bok serves up Yeats’s “The Fiddler of Dooney” in melody. “Willin’” from Lowell George and Little Feat demonstrates range of both vocals and instrumentation. We listen to blues by Robert Johnson and Algia Mae Hinton, funk by Ironing Board Sam, gospel by Essie Mae Brooks, and a variety of other artists playing folk, rock, country, Americana, traditional, alternative, Celtic, and rhythm and blues.
I’m not trying to cover the American songbook—our playlist is idiosyncratic, meant to demonstrate lyrical and musical form and possibilities rather than form a canon. Their charge is to bring in other songs, songs outside my own range of listening, songs from other traditions.
We’re attempting to discover the variety of narrative structures and lyrical connections that make a song effective and memorable—and somehow translate what we learn to other genres.
Often in writing stories and essays, I find myself also composing songs that help me understand what I am after, to clarify subjects in my fiction and nonfiction. Likewise, songs have been inspired by stories I have invented or discovered.
Often in writing stories and essays, I find myself also composing songs that help me understand what I am after, to clarify subjects in my fiction and nonfiction. Likewise, songs have been inspired by stories I have invented or discovered.
So, for example, I wrote a four-year-long cycle of monthly magazine narratives focusing on ordinary people caught up in the Civil War, now The Last Battleground. One way to understand their world was to listen to and sing the songs they performed and sang: brassy marches they heard as their regimental bands literally played them into battle; jaunty marching songs like “The Girl I Left Behind Me” that they sang to count cadence on their long walks between battles; fireside songs like “Jimmy Crack Corn” that eased the boredom of camp; pretty love songs like “Lorena” that made them homesick; sentimental ballads like “When This Cruel War Is Over,” a million-seller in the 1860s, so heartbreaking that commanders in both armies forbade its being sung to curtail the rate of desertion by distraught soldiers. There were also the sacred songs reserved for prayer services and funerals and the parlor songs of Stephen Foster and others sung by families mourning their fallen sons and husbands, too many buried on distant battlefields.
In the songs you can hear the emotions of their world—and in singing the songs, you can feel it: the naïve bravado at the outset of war, the unwavering faith in Providence in the midst of slaughter, the bittersweet longing of lovers separated by distance and violence.
Before long I felt the urge to create my own songs in the style of the day, capturing both the lyrical and musical idioms that made up what we would call the “soundtrack” of their lives.
Listening to—and mimicking—the songs of any era allows the writer to hear the sound of history.
Songwriting can also be a process of distilling themes, events, ideas, and emotions into coherent and memorable forms. It requires compression, focus, and resonance. Short phrases and key words must stand for whole pages of prose—a kind of elliptical narrative in which what is between the lines matters as much as what is in the lines. Melody and rhythm infuse lyrics with a creative energy that leads to anticipation.
The prose writer calls this suspense—and in a song it is achieved both by the words telling their story or lyric, opening a question or predicament and then leading on to resolution; and in the melody and chords leading through a pattern of (usually) verse and chorus (refrain), the final chords resolving the tension of the pattern (think twelve-bar blues for the most obvious example). And many good songs complicate and elevate this suspense through a bridge or “return” that both interrupts the established pattern of the music and then returns us to it with heightened understanding. Like a melodic signature, a bridge can elevate a song into a new sense of emotion or meaning, shifting musical gears with different chords or a new chord sequence.
And one way or another, every good song features a turn, a moment when the song goes into emotional overdrive, hitting us between the eyes with a reversal we didn’t see coming—the melancholy turns to joy, or vice versa; the occasion of the song takes on a new meaning; some crucial new detail is revealed.
Writing songs and performing them reminds me that the best language is inherently musical—that language itself likely began as song, not spoken words. Many inflected languages survive today—languages in which the sound of the word or phrase can determine its meaning: an upward inflection instead of a descending one, a soft or more strident tone, even the degree of loudness. Not all words “sing”—ask any good editor. Open vowels hold breath longer and the singer can voice them at higher pitches and for a longer duration. Clipped syllables trouble the tongue and result in comedic effects—like Gilbert and Sullivan’s patter-opera lyrics: “I am the very model of a modern major general.”
Song is related to poetry but is not exactly poetry, though some poetry—such as that of Byron, Yeats, and Burns—has been readily set to music. But song definitely is story—even if the narrative line is more impressionistic or oblique than in traditional prose.
We’re exploring several methods of composition, all of them analogous to genre writing.
- The top-down method: find a lyrical hook and build the song down from this hook, which will serve as both title and chorus and declare the theme of the song. So first you write a title/concept, then derive a chorus from it, then fill it out with verses.
- The narrative method: write a short version of an event, then organize it rhythmically and add melody.
- The melodic method: find a simple melody line, then develop it and add lyrics. Every poet knows the melody of iambic pentameter and other common meters.
- The “free-write” or “organic” method: collect phrases and images and let them suggest ways to combine into verses and chorus.
- The “shadow” or “scaffold” method (also called by other names): find a song you like, write new lyrics to it, then compose a new melody under your new lyrics; optional: change tempo or genre.
This is in fact where we start—first, collectively putting new (whimsical) lyrics and a melody to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”:
I just drove my German car
to happy hour at the bar
I will take an Uber home
And write myself a drunken poem
Now that they have the hang of it, I play them Rosanne Cash’s rendition of “500 Miles” from The List (based on the list of 100 essential songs given to her by her father, Johnny Cash). It’s a simple, traditional song. And they transform it into brand new songs with titles such as “You Broke My Brain,” and a political satire, “That Impeachment’s Gonna Come.” Each team of songwriters performs its composition for the class, and it’s delightful. There will be many more such performances before we’re through—and a concert finale at a local brewery stage.
The requirements I’ve laid out for them—the things they must bring to class—are simple:
- The ability to listen closely.
- The desire to create in a new form.
- The willingness to sing and or play in front of others.
- An openness to collaboration.
Not required in this course: basic ability to sing or play an instrument—helpful but not necessary.
There is no prerequisite for the class, but we’ve gotten lucky, as I learn at our first meeting when I ask them to list their musical abilities: the class includes five guitar players, three keyboard players, two who can play the ukulele (the ukulele academy is only two blocks from campus), and at least two gifted singers. Some of the others are being pretty modest, as we find out when we start hearing the lovely harmonies they compose and sing for their own songs. Some write, under “instrument,” simply, “Nothing” or “I wish.” Tall, bearded Jake Mills is the most modest of the bunch: “I am talentless.” That turns out to be far from true—he has a great ear for music and is a natural lyricist.
Each student who doesn’t play an instrument can create lyrics in a given musical genre and work with a collaborator to make a rudimentary lead sheet of key, melody, and tempo. In fact, we spent several previous sessions learning how to score a basic lead sheet—melody notes in 3/4 or 4/4 time indicated as whole, half, quarter, or eighth notes in discrete bars on the treble or G-clef; lyrics underneath the staff with syllables matching the notes; chords above the staff matching the changes. A simple picture of a song.
We’re examining basic song structures and chord progressions, defining terms such as “verse,” “chorus,” and “bridge” and how they can apply to traditional literary forms as both metaphors and guides to structure. The bridge, for instance, takes the song into a different melody line or key and builds toward a new level of insight or emotion: just so, in a story or essay a “bridge” ratchets up the stakes by altering the narrative “key.” In music, the bridge is also known as the “return” or “release”—after crossing the song into new lyrical or melodic territory, it returns the listener to the familiar melody, releasing the tension of the departure.
We’ve talked about what constitutes a major scale, how to play an octave on the piano. We explored intervals of pitches (Julie Andrews and the “Do Re Mi” clip from The Sound of Music helped with this) and learned the difference between half-steps (semi-tones) and whole steps using a keyboard. We’ve tapped out waltz time (3/4) and rock-n-roll time (4/4); parsed out verse, chorus, bridge, extension, and coda; figured out that a useful range for most singers (tessitura) is not much more than an octave. They’re mostly all downloaded a free app called The Piano Tree on their iPhones or tablets so they can try out melodies. In that app, each piano key is labeled (middle C, for instance, is C4), so the pitches can be notated as melody on staff paper. I’ve counseled them to score their melodies in the key of C, which has no sharps or flats, so as they try on melodic phrases, every white key on the piano will be in key.
They’ve practiced listening for open vowels that carry the singer’s breath and tried singing phrases that contort the mouth and steal the wind. They’re in a whole different mode as writers.
Clyde Edgerton, my colleague with whom I’ve played numerous shows, made a guest appearance demonstrating the blues scale on the keyboard—adding flats to the third, fifth, and seventh notes of the scale—thus creating “blue” notes. Another colleague, Anna Lena Philips Bell—a gifted poet, editor of Ecotone, and old-time banjo picker—led the class in lyric-making by swapping lines based on prompts.
At the next session a couple of days later, it’s time to write some verses. Immediately a question arises: is the speaker a man or a woman? One student says, “It just sounds more like a woman.” Others argue persuasively that the gender doesn’t matter—we’re trying to encapsulate a universal emotion, after all. But of course in a story or essay or even a poem, one would likely have a very definite idea of who the speaker is—because that would shape all the other circumstances of the narrative.
And there’s more or less agreement that it will be easier to write the verses if we have someone particular in mind—even if the way we write it leaves the listener to decide who it is—and also who the loved one is.
And then a new voice enters the conversation: since the cliché of country songs (not that this is necessarily a country song—it has a pop-folkier feel) is that the woman is hurt by a careless man, why not turn the tables and have the man be the vulnerable one—play against type? It’s the kind of idea any good storyteller might embrace: confound easy expectations. Offer a fresh approach.
We list the things the verses might include:
How did they meet?
What is the occasion for the admonition in the chorus?
What is the backstory of heartbreak?
We also discuss tone: do we want a sad or melancholy song, or do we want to find some rectitude, some hope, by the end?
Consensus: start with melancholy, but move to higher ground by the finish.
Because of the trope of the chorus, there’s lots of talk about having the speaker and the beloved meet in line at the post office or having one of them be a delivery person. Then someone says that we should leave it generic—like the Beatles’ song in which the singer just sees his loved one “standing there.” If the line resonates, the listener will fill in the details. The right image or phrase will crystallize a constellation of other phantom details around it, as if by magic. For each listener, the exact details will differ.
That makes sense, so the line becomes: I almost missed you walking by—quickly changed to past to capture the next A rhyme in line three.
Then you stopped and asked the time
Now three months have gone by fast
And I wonder, are you mine?
The last line is cheesy—I know. We were running out of time. But notice that they linked the second verse and its three months to the request for the time in line one: the speaker has literally given her the time, three months of it so far, and wants to know what the future holds.
We’re always working on the premise that songwriting is all about trial and error, inching toward a more accurate, concise, original, and lyrical way of expressing an idea or emotion. The first lines that occur to us, the melody that carries it, may be “dummies”—just placeholders to get us to a more pleasing place. I want them to be at home with this messiness.
We put a tentative melody to the verse. Since the chorus rises in pitch, we’ll take the intervals of the verses in a downward sequence.
And then someone makes a novel suggestion that takes the song into new territory. Why not have the speaker—in addition to addressing his loved one—be also addressing himself, reminding himself indirectly not to behave as he did before? In other words, his own heartbreaking behavior in a previous romance ricocheted and hurt him bad. It’s an emotionally and even morally interesting idea—that the transgressor hurt himself by hurting someone else, and now the main hook line of the chorus has a double meaning as he exhorts himself not to screw up again, even as he admits to his loved one his own vulnerability.
This is the kind of thinking that makes for good storytelling: moving beyond the well-worn emotional path into the complicated, unmapped terrain of the human heart. And because this turn is going to be the surprise, the emotional ratcheting up of the story, we decide to save it for the bridge—and the final verse will provide the hopeful finish we’re after.
We open the next session by finishing up the verse melody—in fact, rewriting it—and then attacking the bridge. We want it short, four bars if we can manage it, but it must carry the great “reveal”—that the backstory of the speaker, his own heartbreak, was caused not by someone else but by his own thoughtless actions.
We brainstorm some words and phrases that ought to inhabit the bridge:
I’ve done reckless things.
I’ve done the hurting.
We noodle around with a rhyme for hurting and someone suggests disconcerting. Someone else asks, “But is that really what we mean?”
Jake, the easygoing young man at the other end of the table who claimed to be talentless, suggests, “Why not change hurting to breaking?” I like it—it cuts to the chase, offers an original gloss on the expression.
So the line becomes a confession of past bad behavior: I’ve been reckless, done the breaking.
And immediately a follow-up line is called out: Think about the choice you’re making. Again, it’s a cautionary warning to the loved one as well as to the speaker himself. This time, he’s saying, we’ll go into this with our eyes wide open, conscious of the emotional trust each lover carries for the other.
Then that line get a sharper edge: Think about the chance you’re taking. It’s a risk, and we should recognize that going in, the speaker is saying—especially in light of his past actions, it’s a risk for the new beloved.
They decide the first two lines of the bridge will be in a minor key to communicate a sense of seriousness, a hint of impending sadness if things don’t work out: just two chords, A minor and then E minor, so the lines feel like they are falling into a deep, dark place. The last line of the bridge will emerge into the sunlight of a major key—a G chord, open and ringing, acknowledging he risk but also celebrating it.
We spend some time noodling about with instrumental intros and fills, deciding where to pause for effect. And as we’re practicing the melody—verse, chorus, bridge, chorus—Dan, our guitar player, unconsciously begins whistling the tune as a fill between lyrics. The class loves it—there’s something light and whimsical about his whistling in the middle of a song in which so much is at stake that it runs counter to the seriousness of the theme, communicating, in effect, “Oh, by the way, let’s not wreck each other’s lives.”
We’re always working on the premise that songwriting is all about trial and error, inching toward a more accurate, concise, original, and lyrical way of expressing an idea or emotion.
There is still at least one more verse to write—or maybe we have all the verse we need, since the bridge does so much work in completing the emotional thought. But otherwise, we have done it. It may not be a great song, but it’s a good song, a song that sticks in the ear. It’s easy to sing—fun, actually.
I let them sing it a few times while I work the digital recorder, capturing their voices and Dan’s whistling and adroit guitar work. And listening to a roomful of young voices carry a tune they made up, singing words they conjured out of a messy process of trial and error—fitting in the syllables to match pitches, working the phrases into bars of four beats each, interlocking the lines thematically and then buttoning them together with ABAB rhymes—is, for me, pure joy.
Something ancient and beautiful has just happened.
To complete the experience, we meet in groups of four or five for recording sessions at a local studio. Each gets to record at least one song. Many are the result of collaborations. Jeff and Chelsea Bailie, writing partners, lay down “You Twist Me Like a Tornado,” complete with a synthesizer siren and electric guitar break supplied by Dan: “Looking out at the rain / Forecast calls for a little bit of pain.”
Callie Banholzer and Jake sing “Bonnie and Clyde,” the chorus adapted from a poem Bonnie Parker wrote in jail before their fatal spree: “Someday we’ll go down together / They'll bury us side by side / Some will grieve, others be relieved / It’s death, O death, for Bonnie and Clyde.” At their invitation, I lay down a dobro break.
The high-end mics in the studio, the concentration and intensity of the experience, bring out their voices. Clark Gayton, a Filipino-American young man who is extremely shy and who sings in a soft voice, rocks the house with a quiet rendition of “Us and Haydn,” a plaintive tune that suddenly explodes with big piano chords borrowed from the old composer, again augmented by Dan’s distorted lead guitar.
My expectations for their songs were fairly low—but their playful collaborations have spun gold.
Jeff writes, “Working with Chelsea has been a dream...Our working motto is ‘there are no dumb ideas’. Even if an idea for a lyric feels too silly or imperfect in the moment, we’ll typically plow ahead with the intention of changing it later if necessary…This keeps the momentum of the session, and has produced some really cool ‘bonus’ material that we can use in a bridge or alternate chorus, or even in another song. We also try to keep our energy high and are willing to pick each other up if one of us is lacking enthusiasm.”
For Chelsea, the collaboration has proved equally rewarding: “We start with a phrase, or theme, and then create a word bank of sorts that goes along with it. We then think of the overall message we want the song to convey, and select certain words or phrases that fit that idea. I think this process could prove especially helpful in helping me generate new ideas for poems...I don’t normally collaborate as much on poems, nor as intensely, but the process of songwriting has made me think more about how I’d like relationships with future editors and agents to be. I can only hope they’ll be as stimulating, productive, and inspiring as my creative sessions with Jeff have been.”
For Kinzy Jannsen, a professional singer, the process allowed for a kind of creative discipline: “Imposing limitations or particular formats is also a great way to free up creative space. In the case of songwriting, I found the scaffold method valuable. Instead of being overwhelmed by choices, we could focus on one aspect of a song at a time, starting from an existing framework.”
And it illuminated an important opportunity for her nonfiction writing: “I love taking big leaps with my voice, and therefore instinctively included lots of interval work in my melodies, which sometimes meant a full octave jump...Acrobatic singing is so much fun for me that I almost forget a song cannot sustain that level of drama.”
In her nonfiction, she writes, the “twinkly lights”—“prose that is language and sense-driven”—are often too prominent: “The twinkly lights are akin to the big interval leaps in my voice: best used in moderation.”
“The verse is for storytelling, while the chorus summarizes—and wrings emotion from—a soundbite, essentially,” she observes about traditional song structure. “I consider myself more of a ‘chorus’ writer: not that I am unable to write succinctly or in soundbites, but that I live for those twinkly lights, those goosebumps. Knowing this about myself makes me want to try and write an essay that oscillates between ’chorus’ and ‘verse’. This could provide a simple back and forth pattern for the reader.”
Dan has found fresh inspiration in the experience: “The top-down method taught me that no seed is too small. A song can start with a title, but so a poem can begin with the unexpected combination of two words, and so an essay can begin with a single quote, or a frivolous mental exercise. Learning about the blues validated the idea of a narrator who remains in a fixed emotional state throughout a piece—enough can change around them to keep the story compelling. And the scaffold method has encouraged me to return to imitation. I thought I had outgrown the need to imitate other writers—that I was familiar enough with my own voice and didn’t need to look to the voices of others. But imitation can expand the range of my voice unlike any other exercise.”
Nicholl Paratore expresses an important intuitive truth: “Often when writing, I find myself crafting sentences based on some instinctual musicality. I consider both the relationship between the words on the page and simply how they sound together too.”
SaraGrace Griffin, who confided that she almost dropped the class when she learned it would require her to perform songs in front of an audience, writes, “Songwriting has also helped my writing in other classes, oddly enough. It’s made me pay more attention to diction and pacing and the economy of language, since there are only so many syllables you can put in a verse, only so many verses you can put in a song. I notice the musicality of language more now, also, and themes and terms from music have popped into my writing. All of these influences have caused my essays to sound more lyrical, according to some of my professors.”
The Language of Music
Words without music are mere noise. Writers understand this instinctively, even if we don’t voice it explicitly. Read any prose passage out loud, any line of poetry, and if it is any good, you’ll hear the music implicit in the phrases.
In music, we talk about tone, rhythm, melody, harmony, tempo, and range—all of which have analogues in writing. The singer’s range can be narrowly low or high in pitch, or it can be broad enough to include lows and highs—like the range of a writer’s style. A good arrangement anchors the song with a deep bottom—bass, drum, cello, or some combination of instruments—and also extends the singer’s range into the highest registers—using fiddles or violins, pipes, keyboards, pedal steel guitar, flutes, horns, other voices.
The aural illusion provided by combining a deep bottom with instrumental or harmonic highs is that the ear fills in the space between with a mid-range arc of sound, a phantom connection between highs and lows. Just so, good writing is ballasted by a freight of ideas or themes, and it rises on flights of language and imagery. The result is a feeling of being filled out, of substance connecting the ideas with the language.
A plot unfolds like a melody, ascending and descending intervals of pitch, rising to a suspended chord that cries out for resolution. The soundscape of a piece of writing is its emotional resonance—bright, dark, exciting, sobering, exultant, fearful, exuberant, restrained, released.
A line of words moves along with a distinctive rhythm and at a certain tempo—read your work out loud and you’ll hear it in the syntax, the sound of long open or clipped short vowels, the hard consonants and soft diphthongs, the sibilance of Ss and shs.
This is perhaps the most elemental way music affects my writing—it trains me to listen to it. It creates an urge to hear it—in fact, to hear any book or story or poem or essay in its natural voice, to hear if that voice is false or true, sweet or brassy, confident or halting, and, in hearing, to understand the writing as a sensory experience that enhances the intellectual, artistic, and emotional one.
Words are just black marks on a page, but allowing them their voice adds a third dimension, an atavistic appreciation of their innate sound—as if ten thousand years of evolution toward symbolic spoken language can be sloughed off and we can hear language in its ancient, original form—as pure song.
Philip Gerard is the author of thirteen books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently the short story collection Things We Do When No One Is Watching and the nonfiction narrative, The Last Battlegrond: The Civil War Comes to North Carolina. His CD American Anthem is available on Spotify, Amazon.com, and CD Baby, and he is at work on a companion book, American Anthem: The Album of a Life in Story and Song. He teaches creative writing at University of North Carolina Wilmington.