Certain concepts and sentiments elude linguistic capture. That’s why we have words like “ineffable,”’ “indescribable” and “inexpressible” — to explain why we can’t always describe beauty, spirituality or deep emotions. To convey these hard-to-explain themes, we often rely on other artforms, like music.
Want to be a more expressive writer? Study musical analysis. By applying the mechanisms behind essential musical elements to the creative writing process, you can create more immersive, expansive experiences for your readers.
Why Music Makes You Cry
It’s impossible to explain an emotion (just the emotion, not its effectual qualities) without abstraction. Skeptical? Try writing about sadness without likening it to something else, or describing its effects. You can use words to hint at sadness by describing how it makes you feel or what it reminds you of, but words can’t package and deliver the sadness itself.
Conversely, some musical pieces seem to manifest sadness in listeners. However, the music isn’t actually doing the heavy lifting; the listener is. “Musical expression” isn’t an accurate term because music can’t convey an essential, invariable emotion. Rather, it provides the catalyst for a meaningful experience, as listeners perceive music to be emotionally expressive. Although listeners arguably superimpose meaning onto a musical piece and not the other way around, composers do play a role in guiding listeners to particular feelings and conclusions.
Many musical elements allude to universal concepts and understandings of our natural world, yet still require subjective interpretation. As a result, listeners can have emotional experiences that are both quintessentially human and deeply personal, both at the same time. Writers are also capable of creating this illusory effect.
Essential Musical Elements
All musical elements communicate something, however small or expansive. To express anything, lyricless music must rely on elements untethered to linguistic parameters. And prelinguistic expression is, by definition, primal.
Dynamics: Volume Variance
Dynamics, the variation of loudness between musical notes or phrases, gives a composition depth. If every note in a musical piece were executed at the same loudness, the song would progress more like a wall than a wave. The disparity in loudness between the softest notes and most cacophonous crescendos conveys meaning through emphasis. When expertly executed, a dynamic moment can inspire elation and triumph, defeat, despair — any low or high feeling the listener associates with the sound.
Although writers can’t literally turn up the volume during important passages, they can employ other methods to shape a dynamic text:
- Map the arc of intensity. No matter what you’re writing, you should know which passages are critical for the reader to become absorbed in and which passages merely exist to bridge sections or further the narrative.
- Be intentional about which elements you modulate. It doesn’t matter whether you decide to change the tone, syntax, diction or a different element, as long as it’s an appropriate choice for the genre.
- Avoid a wall of sound. Some of the least interesting music in the world is equally loud from start to finish. Volume isn’t what creates emphasis or dynamics, but rather the variance in volume. Similarly, writing that maintains the same intensity level throughout is not dynamic, just monotonous.
The volume level doesn’t matter; only its variance. To achieve dynamics in music or writing is to mirror a wave pattern that is central to human existence, our psychology and our expectations of daily and seasonal undulations.
Harmony: Consonance and Dissonance
Whereas melody is the linear progression of notes over a duration of time, harmony is the vertical presentation of layered notes. In other words, harmony is the sound of two or more notes heard simultaneously at any point during a musical piece. Applied to writing, melody is almost certainly the central plot, process or logical progression; harmony is the build out of every scene, step or point along the way.
Musical harmony is not always as harmonious as its name implies; it can add consonance or dissonance to a moment, create unity or discord. Regardless of which, harmony almost always adds complexity. In creative writing, complexity is what separates literature from fiction; it is a marker of quality. Here are some tips for building complexity:
- Layer elements organically. Too many flowery descriptions and revelations can detract from a passage’s purpose. Don’t add frivolous detail; instead, make sure that each additional element has a distinct purpose.
- Don’t be afraid to build tension. Eventually, writers will need to clear up any confusion they’ve created, but it doesn’t have to be immediate. Don’t be afraid to leave the reader (temporarily) in a misunderstanding.
Emotions are complex; a single musical note is unlikely to draw them out. By building complexity into your writing and then resolving it, you not only elucidate your subject, but also mirror the intricacies of the human emotional experience.
Rhythm: Pace and Duration
Ever wondered why you prefer upbeat music? Studies show that fast-paced songs elicit more positive emotional experiences than moderately fast songs or slow songs. There’s also evidence to suggest that a song’s tempo can change the listener’s heart rate, and that slower songs may actually have more therapeutic benefits.
Although writing is unlikely to get the blood pumping in a comparable fashion, it’s clear that rhythm can affect psychological state. It stands to reason that writers can also use rhythmic elements to engender feelings associated with timing and pace. Here are some examples of rhythmic choices and possible associations:
- Acceleration could imply urgency. If an evenly spaced-out sequence of events implies stability and safety, an acceleration of events could imply urgency, even danger. Events jammed too closely together could also create an unrealistic, time-defying quality.
- Syncopation could produce uncertainty. Off-beat assertions, plot points or divulsions could increase the reader’s sense of anxiety or freedom.
- A metered progression could read as background noise. A consistent and expected meter may not captivate the reader’s attention, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It could push the reader’s attention to other elements, while maintaining a safe framework for advancing the plot.
Humans perceive rhythm everyday, if only in the form of their own beating hearts. It’s a primal association that writers can utilize to induce deeply-ingrained psychological states and moods.
Writing with Musical Elements
Psychologists and musical experts agree that there’s something special about the way music communicates emotion. But for all its emotional alchemy, music is not the superior communicator; any lyricless song would be hard pressed to say something as simple as “apples are sweet.” Music is similar to visual art in that it presents a sort of Rorschach test to the mind, and from it, a listener can infer more meaning than was intended by its composer. Music’s lack of thematic specificity allows each listener a subjective interpretation, whereas language is limited by its ability to describe itself.
Language is, of course, the superior mode of communication, but it has distinct shortcomings in eliciting feelings bigger than its self-imposed parameters. By adapting musical elements like dynamics, harmony and rhythm in their writing, creative and technical writers can create more expansive, compelling content.
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