When Music and Writing Mix

(In honor of National Poetry Month – and the Muse)

The other day, while putting together the Spring/Summer issue of The Hummingbird Review, I was discussing lyrics and poesy (composing poetic verse) with publisher Charlie Redner (whose poetic spirit and enthusiasm inspires the heck out of me). It is always impossible for me to distinguish between the two, because I feel they are the identical core expression. The only discernible difference is that one is accompanied by vocal or instrumental music and the other is spoken. Maybe I’m crazy about this, a reincarnated Ancient Greek or something…

Which provides a good departure point to discuss the music of writing. So many of us seem to create separation between lyrics/music and our writing. All you have to do is walk into the nearest middle school or high school classroom or hallway to see what I mean: many kids will stick in their ear buds and listen to hip-hop or their favorite singers or bands all day long, but will fall flat on their bored faces when asked to write an essay, book report, paper or story. As for poetry? That’s dead man’s stuff to many of them. Not happening.

Yet, what are they listening to? Poetry! Writing! They cruise through school corridors reciting hip-hop or singing their favorite songs, completely in rhythm, their vocal cadence (while often hilariously out of tune) hugging the meter that the words and beat provide. They sing or lip synch the lyrics with hearts, minds and bodies engaged, feeling the rhythm, embracing the words (for good or bad), diving deeply into the experiences, images or messages being conveyed. They do the exact same thing as spoken word artists, only it’s someone else’s words and it’s accompanied by instrumental sound.

And yet, from classrooms to societal conventions to our own writing desks, we separate the two. We put music in one corner, and writing in the other, as though they were opposing boxers. We keep them apart, to the point of distinguishing between good lyrics and good poetry. (Though Homer Hogan sure didn’t: his two-book The Poetry of Relevance remains, nearly 40 years later, an incomparable counterpoint anthology of poetry/lyrics by 1960s musicians and classic poets). I’ve even had writers at conferences, book expos and workshops, people who have been writing fiction, non-fiction or journalism for years, tell me that music and writing belong apart because writing is more noble, more learned, the thinking man’s art. Seriously.


I’m here to tell you: that’s a mistake. That’s part of the problem plaguing our society, making it less and less literary by the day. Writing was always intended to remind us of how connected we are to universal source, from where original music, thought and expression come. When the ancient poets and writers started laying down symbols and words on cuneiform tablets and papyrus, what do you think was moving through them? Music. They heard the music of words, saw images within melodies, and brought us the earliest verse and prose that became lyric, poetry, drama, story. Musicians and writers even use the same term to describe that inner prompting voice that visits and inspires us:

The Muse.

To me, the best writing – fiction or non-fiction – is deeply musical. I hear and feel the music in each sentence, in the rhythm of the author’s (or character’s) experience, in the flow of the narrative. As a writer and poet, I can’t roll any other way. As an editor, I can always tell when a writer is fully connected to their innermost heart and mind, to the original source of the words that I read on the page. That’s what connects readers as well, whether or not they realize it. I want to pick up your story, essay, poem or book, join the mellifluous cadence of words, hear the way phrases and images come together, and become part of the experience. I want to become part of your narrative music, your verbal symphony playing out on the page. You do that, and I am hooked. Your readers will be, too. My clients and workshop students are very familiar with how I compare Chapter One of a novel or memoir to the overture of a symphony. There’s a reason for that: it is the overture of your story. When we are in tune with the present moment (which we are, when we read something we like), we respond musically to life, to the word, to the experience as it presents itself on paper.

Why? Because that is how homo sapiens has been hard-wired as a species since Day One. We’re musical beings. The ancient shamans sure knew that, which is why they drummed and expressed the callings of spirit in rhythm and chant. I’m the last person to consider myself authority on this one, but when in the beginning there was The Word, and The Word was with God, I’m betting it was felt and heard musically. Or sung. When Enheduanna carved her tributes to the goddess Inanna on cuneiform tablets in Ancient Sumeria 5,500 years ago, becoming the world’s first written poet (yes, a woman was the first known poet-in-writing, since the even older Vedas of Ancient India were transmitted orally until Alexander the Great’s charges began recording them), she conveyed the songs of her soul. And, almost 3,000 years later, the Greek lyrical genius Sappho danced so deftly with music and words that she created a body of work comparable in size to Shakespeare’s or Goethe’s until 98% of it was destroyed by library burnings, time and the hands of men who misunderstood her and her work. (Can you imagine how enriched we would be today if all of Sappho’s works, or even half of them, had survived?)

This, for me, is the secret of great writing: to merge the musician, poet and creator within ourselves. When we bring these aspects together, we touch our greatness and our potential. We touch divinity. Our work resonates; it sings; it moves; it speaks truth; it touches others, deeply. We become one with what we write. Every paragraph, sentence and word of every page conveys the energy we feel when we type or handwrite it.

How do we get there? It’s very simple, but takes some practice and time: read everything aloud, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, poetry, essay, novel-sized or bite-sized. Read every sentence. If the words flow and resonate, if they convey what we’re trying to say with pace and rhythm, then they will likely do the same for our readers. If they feel choppy or sound rough in any way, then we’re not attaining the music beneath the words, probably not connecting to the innermost point of the writing – calling for a little revision.

Who knows? You might find yourself singing the written lines. And your readers will be singing the song of your creation as they flip the pages.

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Filed under Adult Literacy, Books, Editing, Featured Websites, Journaling, literature, poetry, Reading, Teen Literacy, workshops, Writing, Young Writers

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