Music and Writing

by Adrienne Bischoff


What is the writer’s equivalent of practicing scales? Will Jennings, from the University of Iowa, posed this question during the Music And Writing panel.

Compared to rudiments or scales, “you don’t see people practicing their nouns,” he riffed.

Author Thomas Larson mused that Joseph Williams’ writing guide, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, comes close to daily scale practice with its exercises at the back of the book. For his practice, Will Jennings gets together with a friend with the simple task of writing for 90 minutes. Someone mentioned an author who writes in a dark room to let go of concern for a finished product.

Along with Jennings and Larson, authors Bob Cowser and Richard Terrill discussed the symbiotic relationship between notes and words.

Thomas Larson began with some thoughts about the relative differences between music and writing. Writing, he explained, is a representative art. Its medium is not its art, unlike music. But that doesn’t stop both genres from borrowing from each other. There is much writing on music and music is a form of storytelling. Larson said that composer Hector Berlioz referred to his Symphonie Fantastique as a novel. Similarly, in “Harlem Air Shaft,” Duke Ellington tried to capture the snippets of stories captured in a Harlem air shaft: the overheard prayers, fights, the smells of laundry and coffee.

Bob Cowser shared a personal memory of taking his parents to a football game and how, once the marching band struck up, they were flooded with memories of their family from long ago.

Music is not just a release valve for deeply rooted memories, but a tool to create them, Cowser continued. How many writers listen to music when composing or revising material?

Richard Terrill, as both a musician and writer, spoke about the dissonance he experiences switching between playing and speaking, with the latter failing him, comparatively. It’s his experiential proof that “language and music don’t come from the same place in the brain.”

Will Jennings, in addition to his thoughts on daily writing practice spoke of the simple musicality of words. On any given day he’ll overhear snippets of conversation that have a lyrical quality to them. He mentioned one that especially bemused him: “I’m not going to go through life as a victimized soprano.”

It’s nice to know both musicians and writers share the burden of tortured geniuses.


Music and Writing

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