Music and Prose


I used to make my Creative Writing students listen to music, analytically.

It never fazed me that they lacked the training and vocabulary required for in-depth analysis; I just wanted them to use their ears. I wanted them to describe what they heard with the vocabulary they had.

Of course, one student would always want to know how this exercise was going to help them with their writing.

And I’d say, “Let’s talk about that afterward.”

So, we’d listen. And, with minimal guidance, the students would quickly latch on to the music’s form and phrasing, rhythmic and motivic development, and the way these elements moved them from the beginning of the piece to its end.

Because our discussions often ran on the long side, I didn’t have much time to compare the musical examples with an equal number of literary ones. But it never mattered. As soon as I presented one sample of text, the class got it.

Apart from the differences between the languages composers and writers use—abstract vs. referential, both types of creators follow similar guidelines. They need form, they need context; their work must be coherent, but it must also have a balance between the familiar and the surprising. Finally, their work must arouse, and then sustain a listener’s or reader’s interest.

The methods by which all this is accomplished are as varied as the creators who use them, but the basic elements are the same.

And the first of those is silence.

The absence of sound and text serves many functions.

When it occurs in music—generally indicated by symbols called rests—it separates one note, or phrase, or section of a composition from another. Silence gives performers a chance to breathe. It shapes lines and adds interest; further, it creates tension by interrupting momentum. In a multi-movement work, silence prepares audiences for a change in character. At the end of a composition, silence allows audiences to reflect.

In prose, punctuation gives us our silences. So do section and chapter breaks. These are readers’ chances to breathe, and writers’ chances to create tension, interrupt momentum, and take the reader to another time or location.

Silence is essential.

And sometimes, it can be the most important way to amuse…and surprise.…

A Brief Comment

…before I continue.

Musicians spend a hefty amount of their education studying music’s nitty gritty—history, performance practice, orchestration, and, of course, theory, which encompasses methodologies from Harmonic to Schenkerian analysis.

And I’m not going to discuss any of that here.

The truth is, you don’t need the schooling of an architect to appreciate the design of a building and understand some of the principles that went into its design. Nor do you need a musical education to understand how some of the principles of composing music can be used in writing text.

All you need is the time to listen closely and carefully.…

The Creator’s Instructions I

What comes to mind when you see the title Tango?

Do you think of the dance? Its melancholy airs of mystery? Its teasing sensuality? Do you think of its straightforward beat beneath a tune with displaced accents, or syncopation?

Before the music begins, and lines are punctuated by silence, composers generally have an idea about the piece they are going to write. This idea might have to do with a dance form, like a Tango, or instrumentation, or an underlying narrative, such as the drug-induced dream that forms the program of Symphonie Fantastique. Whichever it is, when the piece is finished, that idea is often reflected in the title.

A title is the first critical piece of information a composer gives a listener about his or her work, and instruction regarding how to listen to it.

For example the title, “Prelude and Fugue” tells listeners that an introduction will be followed by a work of three or more voices that are set against each other. It alerts them to a difference in character between the introduction and what follows, and instructs them to be aware of how the fugal voices interact.

The title, “Etude” indicates that listeners will be treated to a work which demands virtuosic technique in on or more area (runs, trills, octaves, etc,). It instructs listeners to be aware of aspects of technique that are stressed.

The titles of short stories and books function for writers the same way that titles of musical works function for composers. They create impressions, invite associations, give readers critical information, and instruct.

When the cover to a musical score opens, those instructions—at least for performers—continue…

…which they also do for readers, who now assume roles as both audience and performer.

The Creator’s Instructions II

Unlike prose, which is immediately accessible to anyone who can read, music is immediately accessible only to those with specialized skills: performers. They are the ones who read, interpret, and realize it, bring the symbols to life for an audience.

But in order for performers to do that, they must have clear instructions, beyond a descriptive title.

The composer, as a result (because he/she wants the most accurate interpretation of their creation possible), provides markings which indicate:

—Tempo: how fast or slow the piece should be played
—Meter: underlying pulse
—Key (if applicable)
—Articulation: how notes should be struck, bowed, etc.
—Dynamics: how loudly or softly the music should be played
—Phrasing: how notes should be linked together

So, where are the parallels for writers in these instructions? How to do we translate an abstract language’s instructions regarding speed, meter, key, articulation, dynamics, phrasing? The truth is, we already do, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not.

—A story or book that begins with a long sentence comprised of soft-sounding
words that elide into each other sets a leisurely tempo.
—A succession of similar length sentences in a first paragraph establishes a
regular meter.
Vary the length from sentence to sentence and the meter becomes
—Key can be translated as tone, or atmosphere.
—Articulated words are those chosen for their sound as well as meaning
—Dynamics are indicated by the sounds of our sentences and the tension or
relaxation within them.
—Phrasing becomes sentence composition and structure.

Of course, unlike composers, writers think about more than just the sounds of words when they write, and the effect those sounds will have. Our language is one of reference and meaning, and we are always concerned about that. But the beauty of language is in the way it marries meaning to sound, and makes the two inseparable. This makes it a powerful couple.

…which makes our jobs doubly difficult.

Every time we select one word over another, string our choices together, set them on the page, and distribute them, we do more than merely invite people to read our work; we invite them to interpret it: we turn them into performers.

Creating Tension

Since readers of text are also interpreters, writers, like musicians and performers, need that perfect blend of instinct—both informed and natural—and craft to create work that arouses and sustains interest, while accurately conveying their aesthetic and goals for the piece.

In my last post, I wrote: A story or book that begins with a long sentence comprised of soft-sounding words that elide into each other sets a leisurely tempo.

As though long sentences of soft-sounding words that elide into each other always set a leisurely tempo.

Not so.

There is always the possibility of this, which would take a sharp turn to the deadly side of leisurely and stay there.

NOT the way to arouse and sustain interest.

In music, a sense of momentum—that the piece is moving forward—is as important as it is in writing, And composers create momentum by infusing their work with tension, and then resolving that tension, either partially or fully.

Brahms’ Intermezzo Op. 117 #1 is the first of three programmatic Intermezzi based on portions of the poem “Lady Ann Bothwell’s Lament.” Brahms called these pieces “…lullabies to my sorrows.” This one uses a simple form: A-B-A, and is marked with the following epigraph:

Sleep soft my child, sleep soft and lovely!
I feel sadness when you weep.

The same melody is used in both A sections, with variations, and material from the A melody is used in the B section, but with a different character.

As you listen to the piece, notice the rocking rhythm associated with most lullabies, and listen for places where that rhythm is interrupted. How do those interruptions create tension in the piece, move it forward? How does the melody change throughout both A sections? Can you hear internal voices that answer or counter the main melody? Are there places where the melody sounds like it’s going to end, but doesn’t? How is the character of the B section different from that in the A section? How is the material similar?

Aside from being exquisite music, this Intermezzo is a marvel of economy and invention. There are no superfluous notes in it. Each phrase, each voice is derived from material that has already been presented. In addition, Brahms uses much more than just a rocking rhythm and pretty melody to engage the listener and keep them listening. He creates a sense of anticipation by changing harmonies, adding internal voices, increasing dissonances and then resolving them in unexpected ways, using deceptive resolutions, and working against the lullaby’s natural rhythm. Finally, at the end, he fills in silences with small motifs from the melody, which moves the piece more quickly and decisively toward its conclusion.

Writers use all these techniques to move their work forward.

We use word selection and syntax to create rhythm in text, but we also use different kinds of action to slow or quicken it. When we upset that rhythm, it functions as a kind of alert to the reader. It makes them pause and ponder. We put guns over our characters’ mantlepieces and use antagonists to create dissonance, and sometimes we take that gun and kill our antagonists to resolve the dissonance. Secondary characters add voices that reflect thematic material or further the plot, and deceptive resolutions are often used to lull us into a false sense of security before catastrophe strikes.

Finally, we tend to compress more action into smaller and smaller spaces as we head to a climax…


And within those small spaces? As a piece of music develops and heads to its conclusion, what about the bits and pieces that fill them, the patterns that emerge and develop into other patterns that make the work interesting and coherent?

Brahms’s Intermezzo Op. 117 No. 1 is built on very slim material: a four measure melody out of which two of the measures are identical. Within those four measures are the relationships between notes, or intervals—seconds, thirds, fifths—that act as building blocks for the piece.

I could discuss the way collections of these intervals appear as motifs throughout the piece, but I won’t, because for our purposes, a piece of music’s intervals, or parts, are less important than its patterns.

I’m always amazed at how many of these patterns, for both composers and writers, occur automatically, or as by-products. We like to think we are aware of everything we put into our work, the way we connect one part to another, flesh out characters, create voice and point of view, and yet we are sometimes surprised by the observations teachers, editors, critics, or readers make about it. How many of us have gone back to our writing months or years later and seen connections we didn’t realize we put in? An imagery pattern? A phrase? An idea?

I remember bringing my piano teacher a four-hand sonata I’d composed. As we played through it, he interrupted me to say there was an inner voice in my part I wasn’t bringing out. I peered at the score as though I’d never seen it before and said, “What inner voice?” Which gave him a good, hearty laugh before he pointed to the page and said, “That one.”

Once he drew my attention to it, I saw the connection. What stuck out so clearly for him had been a by-product for me—the result of reversing or inverting patterns, a process that spawned a line which was related to the original material, yet a little bit different. The interesting part of this story was that I had repeated the line later on in the piece.

I think incidences like this are encouraging for both composers and writers, in fact, what we hope for, They let us know we are close to achieving the perfect blend of craft and instinct. where the understanding of, and affinity for character and setting are so profound that putting them on the page is more like channeling than writing. And, the incidences let us know we have a strong sense of focus and context—how all the parts and patterns are going to fit.

Character and Voice

This is a digression.

I was planning to go right to structure, but couldn’t without discussing character first, and its musical equivalent.

The flute solo in my last post, Syrinx, illustrated not only parts, patterns, and structure, but also character. We can think of it as a monologue, written to showcase the flute’s clear, angelic tone, broad range, timbral variety, and lyrical agility, and give expression to its voice.

The only way Debussy could have accomplished this was by knowing everything about the flute—its strengths, weaknesses, and limitations. The only way any composer can write successfully for any instrument is by having detailed knowledge about it.

It’s no different for writers. In order for us to bring our characters to life, make their voices authentic, we must know their histories, psyches, dialects, and relationships. We must know their families, their friends, favorite colors and foods, what they dream about, and what they fear. These are the details that give them substance and keep their behavior consistent.

Our characters are our flutes and violins, trumpets and marimbas, sopranos and tenors, with all the quirks and appeal of their counterparts. When we know them inside and out, what glorious ensembles we can make with them..…

Convention and Aesthetic

I love “In der Nacht” — the way the piano acts as both an additional voice and accompaniment, the soprano and tenor voices enter, intersect, and join. Schumann’s spare piece, in which every part is so exposed, captures the romantic spirit, but also foreshadows gestural 20th century writing: it is expressive yet measured, innovative yet accessible. In declaring ownership of his material, Schumann was able to take the conventions of vocal writing and mold them to suit his aesthetic, as the greatest composers had done before him.

Music history is marked by composers who unraveled current conventions or made them unfashionable. Classical composers of the late 18th century rebelled against the intricacies of Baroque counterpoint. Beethoven turned the prim Minuet into dark and brooding Scherzi, Wagner stretched tonality with endless sequences that avoided a tonic key, and Schoenberg abandoned key signatures in favor of a twelve-tone technique.

Composers took similar liberties with structural conventions, and some, such as John Field and Frederic Chopin, invented new forms.

All of these creators had two things in common: they had consummate skill, and they refused to let convention shape their aesthetic. Rather, they let their aesthetic shape convention.

Writers who have a clear aesthetic vision and the craft to carry it out have also molded or abandoned convention to suit their needs. Any why not? When a story’s elements—tone, voice, point of view, character, setting, action, plot, and theme—are so clear that only unconventional means will do them justice, why conform? Why not exercise authority?

Consider Ring Lardner’s hilarious short story, “Mr. and Mrs. Fix-it.” It does not have an arc—a current popular convention in short stories. The narrator begins by describing the friendly people in his new home town who want to know how he and his wife came to settle there. He then suddenly shifts to what seems to be an unrelated tale about an overly helpful married couple he and his wife befriended. As the relationship develops, and the couple’s helpfulness starts to backfire, the tale rises to its climax, then ends…abruptly. There is no denouement. There is only a brilliant punchline, which serves as a perfect counter-balance to the story’s beginning, slow crescendo form, and irony.

Now, listen to the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 78, played here by Wilhelm Kempff. Although written in Sonata Allegro form, a form which traditionally consists of an Exposition (repeated), followed by a Development and Recapitulation (repeated as one section, which Kempff doesn’t do in this performance), Beethoven immediately declares his ownership of the form by starting with an Introduction.

As the piece progresses, think about why Beethoven began the movement this way. Try to imagine how it would have sounded without the Introduction, which, by the way, is not repeated. Would the material have had the same weight? The same tone? How does the Intro establish Beethoven’s intent for the material and affect its overall structure? Why was it necessary for him to reshape convention?

Why Here, Why Now?

On my notepad: a line from a poem? Maybe. A phrase, a city street, nameless characters, their faces undefined. A plot that lies in wait….

I know there are finished works in these fragments. But until they are swept up by function, by the answer to this post’s title, they are simply stragglers.

There are histories in our fiction and narrative non-fiction that predate their composition: every story has back story which may never be revealed to the reader, or may only be revealed in part. But when a story starts, it is because something has happened that is going to change its landscape, cause its main characters to undergo some degree of metamorphosis. We know we must have compelling reasons to tell a story, and so we ask, “Why here, why now?”

But this is not a question composers need to ask themselves before beginning a piece.

Since the language composers use is abstract rather than referential, they need only an idea. They do not need back story; they do not need a catalyst.

Still, miraculously, there are those pieces which sound as if an action was already in motion before the music begins, as if the thousand notes the composer had in his or her head are behind the first set in a score.

Sometimes, the techniques which achieve this are obvious: starting anywhere but in the tonic key, or on an unstressed beat….

And sometimes, the techniques are more elusive.…

The Lives of Notes

And words.

Let’s start with a note—C sharp (or C#), for instance.

In music, enharmonic equivalents are notes, intervals, or key signatures that have alternative names. For example, the note C# has an enharmonic equivalent in D flat (or Db); the key of C# major has an enharmonic equivalent in Db major. In equal-tempered tuning, the frequencies (that aspect of sound that determines pitch) of the notes comprising the major scale in C sharp major are identical to those of the major scale in D flat. If the two scales are played one after another, the ear won’t be able to distinguish differences between them. They will sound exactly the same.

Yet, no composer who imagines a piece in Db would ever write it in C#.


The two keys do not exist in isolation: they establish specific and different types of contexts.

Some of a musician’s understanding of these contexts has to do with education, the rest, personal experience.

Our first music lessons teach us that in ascending scales starting on C, we sharp notes; when they descend from C, we flat them. If we associate musical sharps with an object that can pierce, or a person who is shrewd, we may come to hear sharped notes as piercing or bright. And if we associate musical flats with a surface that is smooth and even, or a voice that is colorless, we might hear a darkening in flatted notes.

Once we apply a key signature to a scale, its behavior changes, Suddenly, there are new rules for flatting and sharping notes, which are dependent upon the key. And as our ears develop, we begin to sense subtle differences in tone between flatted and sharped notes, despite their common frequencies.

We can’t escape that context; nor can we escape our humanity, our subjectivity…

…with either music or words.

Our first reading experiences may be with single words that are accompanied by illustrations of their meanings, but our acquisition of language comes first from those we hear speaking around us. As a result, we learn to associate words not only with their sounds, but also with the specific contexts in which we hear them.

As our reading ability develops, and our vocabularies increase, we learn that words do not exist in isolation, that they are complex and multidimensional. Words may share properties, but once they are placed within a context, those properties will be both influenced by and dependent upon the words around them, making one choice better than another. If the context is a familiar one, the choice becomes clearer.

That is why many writers would never substitute thump for thud, or like for enjoy.

And why a composer who imagines a piece in Db would never write it in C#.

When our associations with a particular word are so strong, that only one word will fit, function, and sound right within the context we’ve created, that is the word we must choose.

A Not-so-Final Note

I have more to say about this relationship, but that’s for the future.

In the meantime, I want to leave you with this:

There’s a reason we describe our most intense listening and reading experiences as all-consuming or transportive, that we say we get immersed in them, lose our awareness of time and place. It is because the composer or writer has been so connected to their material, and crafted it so meticulously that it feels spontaneous, as though it was a gift from some divine source that came to them fully formed.

It is because they’ve used sleight of hand, and made their manipulation invisible.

When the creator’s hand disappears, music merges with our cells, resonates with our brainwaves, and synchronizes with our heartbeats. Warrants in an argument seamlessly bind assertion to evidence, memoirs sound like letters from family or friends. Fictional worlds replace our own: we hear characters speak, and feel their longing and pain. We become invested in their outcomes. The work takes on a life of its own.

And that is magic.

©2014 All Rights Reserved

4 thoughts on “Music and Prose

  1. Wonderful piece, Barbara! It got me thinking, and trying to imagine what music might allign with various works of prose in similar ways.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a fascinating piece. Believe me when I say that this is the most useful and inspiring advice on creative writing I’ve ever read, Barbara. I am so tired of everyone giving advice on writing – most of it I find is made of vague platitudes. We’re saturated by it and I’ve started unfollowing most people who write about “how to write”.
    Your article, however, is about something REAL.
    Thank you!


    1. Thank you, Katia! For some reason, your comment didn’t show up until just now. So sorry! I’m so glad you enjoyed the piece. I’m a little logy from all the writing advice, too. It’s my hope that the comparison between music and prose will enable writers to look at the work from a different perspective. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.