Writing by Ear

November 25, 2013 | By | 24 Replies More

Shanan Haislip is a full-time business writer, essayist and webmaster. She makes some interesting points about the overlap between music and writing in this article.

haislip_viola In the fourth grade, every kid, including me, wanted to play the saxophone. The day musical instruments were handed out, in the orchestra room at East Dover Elementary, all six saxophones were claimed in the stampede, along with the drum sets, the trumpets, and the triangle. When the dust cleared, two instruments were left: an ugly brown thing that resembled an oversized violin, or a dented silver tuba with a bell bigger than my head. I pointed.

“I want that.”

That turned out to be a viola, covered in flecks of kid-grime, the unprepossessing color of a Tootsie roll. I laid it across my lap, feeling smugly charitable, like I’d just adopted a toothless old cat.

In the months that followed, I found the viola’s ability to make noise, any kind of noise, intoxicating.  For hours every night, plastic bow tight in my fist, I’d saw away on the tired old strings. My mother would never complain, but she would quietly pull the bedroom door shut behind me.

When I write, there are times when I drift back to those early viola days, back to the sheer delight and transporting power of sound. This feeling comes when I’m simply working with words, and is one of the many mysteries of writing for which I’m grateful: That we can take joy in sound. Writers, too, can make music.

The music of words also has a purpose beyond mere aesthetics. We “see” with our ears, interpreting the physical properties described by words through the sounds of the words themselves. This is more than onomatopoeia—the existence of this literary sixth sense was empirically demonstrated in the “Bouba/Kiki” experiment, first performed in 1929 and repeated several times in 2001 and later.

In the study, people of all ages, native languages and cultures were shown two shapes: one bubbly, round shape and one jagged, starlike shape. All they had to do was choose which shape best fit the names “Kiki” and “Bouba.” The results were astounding in their consistency—96% of respondents named the pointy shape “Kiki” and the bubbly shape “Bouba.”

Writers love words for that kind of impressionistic power. Sure, a word has a definition but it also has a sound, an extra dimension we feel, even when we’re not paying attention. A good writer’s words have sound that can set your own mind ringing with music when you read.

Sometimes we writers get the music right by accident, but most often, it’s re-reading, revision, and risk. Getting a sentence to sound the way you want isn’t like playing a piano, where the keys are all in tune and you simply lay your fingers on the notes you want; rather, it’s more like playing the viola. You lay your fingers on a spot you’ve got in your mind, where you hope the correct pitch resides, and you play. Sometimes you’re right on pitch, and your words sound great.

haislip_headshotAnd sometimes, you wander off pitch. Writing’s funny that way; if you’re not paying attention, your words can go from lyrical to lumbering in a keystroke. This is also true in music. In my first year of viola lessons, my teacher used thin strips of white tape to teach me where my fingers were to land on the strings. She’d lay tape on the neck of the viola, and I was to watch my fingers and follow along. Index finger down on the A string gave me a B, index and middle fingers down, a C.

When my fingers didn’t hit the right spot and I was out of tune, it seemed as if the very air around my bow would go sour. No resonance, no vibration, no beauty. My sound would go splat, like my instrument was blowing me a giant raspberry.

On a stringed instrument, you know when you’ve hit a certain pitch just so, because you get rewarded with harmonics. Hitting certain harmonic frequencies makes the maple body of the instrument, and maybe even a few other strings, respond with a ring, humming with a power that deepened the note you played, made it stronger, more musical.

For the viola, the most powerful harmonic—C, or 256Hz—corresponds with the lowest, most powerful string, the C string. Playing a high C would cause that low C string to resonate, and the wood to hum. My neck and arms would vibrate with it. Hitting a harmonic put me on the same frequency as the instrument.

Making the right sound made me part of the music.

In the same way, writing by ear shows you how to waken harmonics in a reader’s mind, play on the strings of the brain and make their imagination resonate with yours. Like learning any instrument, playing with words is hard, and finding just the right sounds can frustrate even the most experienced writer. But it’s worth doing.

I do it because writing by ear reminds me of what it was like to be that little girl with a new viola, sitting on her bed with music in her hands. It brings some of that transporting energy of sound, the lunatic joy of making noise, out of the past and onto my keyboard.

Through sound, I can make words say things that their meaning only implies. Through words, a writer like me can make a bit of music. Through writing, we can play.

Shanan Haislip is a full-time business writer, essayist and webmaster at The Procrastiwriter, a blog about being a writer around a full-time life (without going insane). She still plays her viola every now and then. Follow The Procrastiwriter on Facebook or on Twitter at @Write_Tomorrow.




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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, How To and Tips

Comments (24)

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  1. Beatriz F. says:

    Such an interesting article! As a poet and non-musician I would like to think I am making music with words! People tell me I have a great ear but so far it has been more instinctive than deliberate in my writing. I am going to be more aware now.

  2. Great post, Shanan. I always envied the compositional and musical mastery of someone like Tori Amos, straddling her piano, with access to realms it seemed only music could reach. As a poet, I don’t have the same possibilities, but sound is essential to every poem I write. It just doesn’t cut it if the sound doesn’t make me shiver. I guess it’s music of a different sort.

  3. randy kraft says:

    The first time I asked a known writer to critique my work he told me all good writers have rhythm and I had the rhythm. What is called voice or style is really rhythm. You nailed it. And you’ve got it. Cheers.

  4. Your post really resonates. Many thanks for these views on a subject that is close to my heart. Wonderful!

  5. Jill Hockett says:

    The painter composes with brush strokes. The musician with notes. The dancer with body and feet. The writer with words.
    To my mind all need soul, sensitivity, skill and singlemindedness.
    I feel it is more worthy to repeat a familiar phrase but in your own way, than it is to invent a new line … with a lesser meaning.

  6. Annecdotist says:

    Lovely piece and totally agree about writing by ear. Sometimes, when I’m trying to find the right word, I ask my husband what’s the word for such and such? He can’t understand it when I dismiss his contribution because, even though the meaning is correct, it doesn’t have the right resonance.
    I’d love to know if anyone has had the experience of hearing her writing read by someone else who gives it different rhythms – something that’s been puzzling me on hearing the first ever podcast of one of my stories. Is it a bit like different conductors will have different interpretations of an orchestral piece, even though they’re all following the score set out by the composer?

    • Shanan says:

      Annecdotist, you raise a very interesting question regarding the different rhythms readers can give to a piece of work. I have never heard one of my works on podcast (that sounds like a very cool experience!) but I have heard them read aloud, and listening to what points the readers fall into the rhythm you intended and at what points they get stuck is a fascinating peek at how your words sound in the mind of someone else.

      I think music has its parallels there too, as you pointed out. One of the cornerstone collections in the viola repertoire is the six Bach Suites for unaccompanied cello. I’ve played the cello suites on viola, heard others play them, and it never ceases to amaze me that each musician, even when playing 300-year-old music, brings a fresh and unique take to those old notes. Yo-yo Ma’s Prelude to Suite no. 1 sounds completely different than Steven Sharp Nelson’s. One is staccato, quick, short, light, the other is dramatic, loud and soft, rising and falling. One is matter-of-fact, the other lingers, stopping just short of disobeying the composer’s meter. Both are a pleasure to hear.

      Ultimately I think this incredible variation reflects each artist’s personality, and is one reason why, even with nothing new under the sun, new authors and musicians can come and go, offering their unique interpretations on timeless themes, and every creator’s work is a worthwhile contribution to art and music.

      • And even if there is nothing new under the sun there is the newness of another’s interpretation of the idea cloaked in the individual voice of the writer.

        I think I needed to appreciate my own voice before I could get published. Only then did my stories resonate with the reader.

  7. Fran says:

    What a great piece. I’m a singer-songwriter as well as a writer and I can identify with this sentiment. At present I’m doing a Creative Writing MA and have chosen to write one of my assignments (3000 words) on The Voice. Finding my literary voice was a lot like finding my singing voice. Writing is a lot newer to me so I’m still doing a lot of fine tuning. Even though my first novel is about to be published I am always striving to ‘hit the right note’ with my writing until it’s fine tuned and I’m loving the journey!

    • Shanan says:

      Fran, that’s such an essential topic for writers, and I’m glad you’re taking it on! And congratulations on the forthcoming publishing of your novel! I think that even more than a wood-and-brass instrument, the writer who is also a singer has intimate knowledge of the links between the two disciplines.

  8. Hi Shanan
    When I read your article it made my skin tingle. To find someone else who feels like me about shaping the prose, choosing the right words (sometimes there is only one word that is right)making the words sing. Unfortunately I am not a musician but I love to sink into music as it is played and let it soothe my soul. Writing soothes my soul.

    Thanks for a wonderful article I could really relate to.

    • Shanan says:

      Hi Dionie, I agree with you. For writers like us, I think, and as Julie points out below, the pleasure of words is less in the story they tell (though that’s also good) but in the sounds they make. And you’re right: those sounds, more than anything else, the way they fuse meaning and music, are what soothe the souls of writers like us.

  9. Julie Luek says:

    This post resonates with me about my reasons for writing. Whenever I’m asked the “why do you write” question, I never speak about stories I need to tell or because I have to or my soul will burst (although I suppose there is truth in there somewhere), but rather because I like to make the words sing. I love when I pull them together– truly like composing– and something comes alive for the reader. Bam– that is the ultimate high.

    • Shanan says:

      Julie, you nailed it. That’s exactly how I feel as well. I love to play with words. Plots and story arcs and all are well and good, but for writers like us, words are the thing–the sound and feel of them. I’m glad someone else feels the same way!

  10. Shanan says:

    Thanks, Roz! I like your description of prose-tuning–don’t those pianists have it easy? (I kid.) But you’re absolutely right that spending time in a practice room and spending time at the keyboard sometimes feel like the same exercise.

    And you have an excellent blog! I’m thoroughly enjoying reading it (wandering around it right now). Thanks for the lovely comment!

  11. Shanan, I love this piece. I’ve just finished final edits on my second novel and you describe so well the process of tuning the prose. As a writer who has tried both piano and violin, I smiled broadly at your comparison of the two when we’re trying to find the right word – trying over and over to find the resonance. And unlike the violin, practice doesn’t necessarily make it any faster – a tricky paragraph can still take me hours to hone.
    My first novel was about music, and as a result I started a blog about the influence of music in writing – I’m definitely tweeting this to my people! Lovely to meet you.

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