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Let's Make Music, Part I

Posted on Thursday, July 30, 2015 at 10:47 PM

Listening to your writing to make it sing on paper.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Longtime readers of this column will recall that every summer I submit to Editors Only a cut-down rundown of a keynote address written for delivery at a weeklong writers' conference sponsored by the folks at Highlights for Children. It's one of my annual highlights, in that the audience is so caring, so enthusiastic to receive what I have to share.

To sustain the tradition, I will do what I've been doing all these years and give you a reduced version of this summer's talk, minus meaningful examples for most every point I strove to make. I titled this lecture "Let's Make Music."


I told the listeners to make personal use of musical terms that offer directions to performers, such as crescendo and diminuendo, accelerando and ritardando, fortissimo and pianissimo, largo and presto, and any others that might assist the writer in creating a more vivid, flexible, and interesting piece of literature: to swell the words (crescendo) or aim for softer, gentler prose (diminuendo); to make the language speed up through briefer sentences and shorter, action-oriented sentences (accelerando) or to hold back and slow down (ritardando); and so forth with other musical terms that fit the occasion.

For a composer, such directives (whether they're in Italian, German, French, English, or what have you) become a guide on how a composition or movement or moment of music should be interpreted and performed. So, why not, I thought, for the writer who is both creator and interpreter in one human package? The writer's self-directives allow for speeding up to give a sense of rush, of greater tension, and for slowing down to allow for reader reaction or relaxation or to provide a change of pace. Again, and so forth.


I asked the audience to think about what it is that causes an appreciation of music and gave myself the answer in ten words, first "MELODY," a good tune one can delight in and go away whistling or humming. Melody, I argued, can come as music and as words, and I urged my listening writers to strive for melody. "Listen to what you've written," I urged them. "Read your copy aloud and listen for the music. Listen for the melodiousness. Can you hear it?"


The second word was "TONE," tone of high quality, not "a screechy soprano or violin," not "a bellowing tenor or bleating trombone." A writer's use of the English language, I said, "should resist ugliness of sound, except -- of course -- when you are dealing with topics that are ugly. Choose a tone or tones that are in line with what you are writing about, go with a style that fits the situation, but don't forget appealing tone, appealing sound wherever, whenever possible. Listen for it."


My third word was "RHYTHM." "Music is made for rhythm, and rhythm was created by our Maker for music. So, too, rhythm is a necessity in writing." I quoted Fowler's Modern English Usage, which tells us it is important to differentiate between "what reads well and what reads tamely, haltingly, jerkingly, topsidedly, topheavily, or otherwise badly; the first is the rhythmical, the other the rhythmless."


I gave a few musical samples along the way as well as at least one piece of writing for each of my musical words, the next of which was "ORCHESTRATION," how the composer has put his or her material together, harmoniously or chromatically or even dissonantly, the way musical technique and musical content come together, the suitable packaging of sounds, creating the clothes, the finery in which the total musical product is to be displayed.

That's a must in writing, too, I said. "When the words and the content come together, blend, merge, when the verbalization honestly reflects manner and meaning, when the how elevates the what and the what resides comfortably within the how, that to me is literary orchestration, the happy marriage of technique and content, not merely a partnership but an at-oneness."


I spoke of "PASSION" next and quoted Giuseppe Verdi. "I adore art," he said. "When I am alone with my notes, my heart pounds and the tears stream from my eyes, and my emotion and my joys are too much to bear." I asked the conference folks whether or not they had such passion in their hearts and followed with a quote from Henry David Thoreau: "Write while the heat is in you.... The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with. He cannot inflame the minds of his audience."


"IMAGINATION," I said, is another necessary part of the musical word list. "Don't be afraid to use it. Don't be sparing. Make full use of your imagination, the place from which all ideas flow."

To Be Continued

I had more words to pass along to my students of the week: "VOICE," "SUBSTANCE," "SURPRISE," and "HONESTY." I'll cover them next month, along with another brief list I consider critically important to make use of as writer and/or editor. We will continue to "make music."

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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