Lift Every Voice: The Relationship between Music and Writing

What has rhythm, dynamics, themes and tonalities and is not a song, jazz instrumental, quartet or other musical piece? Well – it’s writing! And I’m speaking of prose as well as poetry. So if you love to sing, play an instrument, or maybe simply listen to music, be encouraged. You probably could be a writer. If you write already, you may add new life to your work if you think of it as music.

President Obama joins in singing ÒSweet Home ChicagoÓ during the ÒIn Performance at the White House: Red, White and BluesÓ concert in the East Room of the White House, Feb. 21, 2012. Participants include, from left: Troy ÒTrombone ShortyÓ Andrews, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks, B.B. King, and Gary Clark, Jr. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

The man can sing as well as write: President Obama joins B.B. King in singing “Sweet Home Chicago” during the In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues concert in the East Room of the White House, Feb. 21, 2012.  (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

I got interested in the topic of the relationship between music and writing some months ago. Working on my second book and singing with the new and incredible group Trey Clegg Singers, I became  aware of the many things these two arts have in common. I was surprised that very little came up when I “asked Mr. Google” to help me explore the commonalities between these expressions; possibly I just didn’t put in good search keywords. In any case, the apparent relative vacuum prompted me to put down some of my own thoughts and observations. Maybe they will prompt others to write or to find added joy in writing.

Let me begin by asking you to imagine you are reading a story to a little girl. She is curled up in your lap listening intently. Together you follow a group of children as they are transported from their relatively routinized suburban neighborhood to a mountain wilderness.

The children’s neighborhood was quiet and orderly. All the lawns were well groomed, the streets traversed by cars moving at a respectful pace. Occasionally a burst of loud music pouring out the open window of a passing car broke the serenity. If Mrs. Stewart was working in her garden, she would look up and frown disapprovingly before returning to her task.

As you read, your voice is soothing – low and quiet. You continue:

But one afternoon, just after the geese flew through, the boys and girls found themselves magically in a very different place. They were in a forest. It was quite dark; tall trees obscured much of the sky. The children saw a sunny patch not far away and began walking toward it, but the brambles scratched their legs, and the bushes and vines were thick and hard to get through.

“Where are we?” ten year old Josh whispered to his companions.

“We’re lost,” his friend Pat whimpered.

Your voice rises now, your words coming faster. Your little friend feels your body tense a bit and reaches for your hand.

Pat moves forward, thrashing through the brush, using both his arms and legs.  Then he screams! His right foot feels no solid ground, only empty space and the narrow tip of a rock. Looking down Pat sees he is at the edge of the steep side of a mountain. His body sways from side to side as he struggles to find some balance.

Your voice has risen to a considerably higher pitch, and the words tumble over one another now. Your little friend has presses her body up against yours; you can feel her heart beating fast.

Josh catches Pat’s hand just before he disappears down the hill, and Mary grabs onto Josh’s belt, holding on tight, helping him pull Pat back to solid ground. The children collapse together, all in a heap. They are safe, but trembling. Soon they begin to laugh.

Your voice slows, lowers, rests for a moment with the children until –

But then they hear it –in the distance – a roar. Another roar. Followed by – nothing….

You voice leaps forward and has become loud until – it just – stops.

In the simple slice of a story, the reader’s voice rises and falls and rises again as tension increases. Sometimes the change is gradual and sometimes abrupt, like the silence following the roar.

In music the term “dynamics” refers to the volume of a musical note, phrase or passage, “ff” very loud, “pp” very soft and everything in between. Dynamics is also about phrases that crescendo and decrescendo, swell and reduce. Dynamics makes music interesting, creates forward motion and conveys emotion, as explained in this amusing lesson for children from

bars of music

Shifts in tempo also characterize music. Half notes move slowly, quarter notes twice as fast, eighth notes even faster – a lot of them taking the same space as a few sixteenth notes rush along. Often the actual tempo – the time allowed each kind of note – may change, say, from “andante,” slow, to “allegro,” fast.

Changes in tempo were evident in the story as well. Words came slowly and calmly, or gathered speed until they reached a climax – then relaxed. Words work together to raise our heart rate or allow it to be lulled into a time of rest.

Close to rhythm and tempo is the notion of pace.  A melody moves somewhere. How quickly will it get there? Will it take a long time, meandering through different variations, maybe different keys, dynamic shifts? Or will it move from start to finish in a few simple measures? There is no right or wrong. Pace in music depends on what the composer wishes to impart – what mood, style, type of composition. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is a brilliant example of excitement created in part of changes of pace. In fact the famous opening notes already do just that – three quick staccato notes followed by a much more sustained note, then a pause, and the sequence is repeated. TaTaTa TAAAA  TaTaTaTAAAA.  We are alerted. The drama has begun.

Writing generally involves conflict and resolution. If the conflict builds too quickly, there is little sense of tension. On the other hand, it is important not to exhaust the reader’s patience.  And speaking of conflict, many musical compositions have multiple themes that wrestle with one another. These themes are like characters in a play. First they are presented, one at a time. Then conflict develops, and finally there is a denouement.  Leitmotifs represent characters and things and Star Wars follows in the Wagnerian tradition of playing leitmotifs against one another like wrestling Shakespearean characters. “To be or not to be; that is the question.”

Finally there is rhythm. A waltz proceeds three beats to a measure. The first one gets the accent, but they are all of equal length. A march has 4 beats. The first get the main accent; the third gets a lesser accent. These rhythms are typical of European music. Jazz and many other kinds of traditional African American music often use syncopation: the beats treated as weak in European music (like 2 and 4) are stressed rather than the usual strong beats (1 and 3), and a phrase may start on a quick off beat.

Words also create rhythms. “Cows like to chew on the grass in the fields” is like a waltz. Whereas “Soldiers march in straight long lines and hold their rifles high” describes a march while at the same time sounding like a march.

Can you sense the rhythm of these lines?

The plane blinks in the sky slowing

Up as it climbs and perches on clouds

I could talk about accents and rests (pauses), legato (smooth running) and staccato (separated notes/words) and many other elements of both music and writing. But I would rather leave it to you to complete the conversation, to “amplify” it – that’s an interesting concept as well.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the “Negro National Anthem,” was a music of words amplified by musical notation, making it a powerful anthem evoking the liberty of which it speaks.

Claude_Lorrain 1680 Apollo and the Muses on Mount Helion

Apollo, Greek god of music and poetry (among other things), and the nine Muses, including Euterpe (flutes and lyric poetry), did not separate music from writing. “Apollo and the Muses on Mount Helion,” Claude Lorrain, 1680.


So if you sing, dance, play an instrument or simply love music, are you ready to give writing a try? You are probably much more equipped than you may think.

And if you are a writer, will you join me in an increased awareness of the music in your words?

A question for you: What favorite short passages of poetry or prose do you recall that have the quality of music? Please share a few lines.


6 thoughts on “Lift Every Voice: The Relationship between Music and Writing

  1. Making my writing sing is my ultimate goal, even if at times, it is only a cadence, or a rhythm…
    My favorite passages would be almost any paragraph in a Pat Conroy or Margaret Atwood work. Here from Pat Conroy:
    “It was my mother who taught me the southern way of the spirit in its most delicate and intimate forms. My mother believed in the dreams of flowers and animals. Before we went to bed at night as small children, she would reveal to us in her storytelling voice that salmon dreamed of mountain passes and the brown faces of grizzlies hovering over clear rapids.”
    It’s so beautiful, it took me several reads to realize it’s a terrifying image and precursor to the story.

    • I love your comment Rona, and really resonate with “even at times, it is only a cadence, or a rhythm” – but only a cadence can lift a heart and – sometimes – change a life. Love the Pat Conroy quote – yes – it is so beautiful.

  2. Ann, I know your focus is on prose, but I’d like to discuss sound in poetry briefly. It’s easy to see alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, rime, etc. in, say, the poems by Poe, but back when I was teaching, I found students most resistant to examining meter. They didn’t get, at first, how meter can parallel – emphasize meaning. Here’s a terrific example from Robert Frost’s “The Span of Life.” The all-caps syllables are accented:

    THE OLD DOG BARKS BACK-ward with-OUT get – ting UP .
    I can re-MEM-ber when HE was a PUP.

    Note how the accented syllables slow the first line down, reflecting the old dog’s slow stiffness–and if you’ve ever had an old dog, you know they don’t/ can’t get up easily. The image created here is perfect. The second line emphasizes the lightness, the running ease of a puppy.

    The title tells us, though, that this little poem is about more than an old dog. I often rub my arthritic hip and marvel as I watch children run and run and run without ever seeming to tire.

  3. What a wonderful example of telling and showing with words, Chris. Yes, poetry is replete with sound, crying out, singing for joy, tiptoeing, bounding across a field. Thanks Chris.

  4. Poe immediately came to mind for me too. I was thinking about how the refrain “Quoth the Raven, Nevermore,” sounds so desolate and sad, like the repeated refrain in a sad folk song such as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” When I was once writing about a summer night, I was visualizing Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night painting but was thinking of Chad and Jeremy’s A Summer Song, specifically the lines,
    “Sweet sleepy warmth of summer nights
    Gazing at the distant lights
    In the starry sky”
    I definitely believe the arts are somehow mysteriously connected in our rains, and for that I am thankful. Thank you Ann for reminding us of this phenomenon.

    • Love the connecting of “Quoth the Raven, Nevermore” and “Where have all the flowers gone?”. Yes, I believe also that the arts of mysteriously connected. Tell me how it is that you are using the word “rains”? not sure I understood that.

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