I performed at a reunion concert a couple of weeks ago with a band I used to play bass guitar for. With our rehearsals and having to get myself – playing wise – back into shape, it started me thinking about the relationship between music and writing.
Let me state up front that I’m not a great musician, but I’m a good one. I wasn’t blessed with the golden ears that greatness requires. None-the-less playing music all my life has given me an awareness of traits that I’m just now beginning to realize are also important in writing.
Authors tend to equate novel writing to symphonies, in particular the flow of the movements and how they relate to the flow of the novel. I don’t disagree, it’s a key element. I’m a rock guy, and as I said, a bass player. My comparison comes from that perspective.
Because of that, one of the first things that come to mind is the rhythm of words, and sentences, and even paragraphs. As a bass player, one of my jobs is to lock in with the drummer: to keep the beat. Writing has its own beat, too.
Rock music is based on the two and four beats. Because of that, I tend to, unconsciously, favor the iamb. The iamb is a word pulse with the accent on the second syllable: baBUMP baBUMP baBUMP. Something like, “I WALKED aLONG the ROAD.” Though I also like “WALKing aLONG the ROAD.” A slight rhythm variation, but it’s the variations in rock music that give it its lift, too.
Rhythm in writing, of course, is more than that. It’s also about speeding up or slowing down a scene through use of action, description, suspense, dialogue and on and on. I don’t want to get into the methods for achieving these time changes. That’s a discussion for another day.
One way a great album will achieve that movement is through song placement. A classic example is Abbey Road. The song order is no accident. It starts with the grungy rocker “Come Together” pulls us back with “Something” and then builds back up and ends side one with the crescendo “She’s So Heavy.” If that didn’t compel you to flip the record over (back in the day) then you were probably too stoned to get out of your bean bag chair. The point is, and what I want to emphasize, is the awareness of the importance of tempo changes and how they add emotional feeling to a piece. Playing music has given me that.
Jamming is a natural part of playing in bands, particularly original ones, which I mostly played in. When I’m jamming I don’t consciously think too much about playing. I just feed off of what’s going on at the moment. Things just happen, and that’s the beauty of it. Granted, afterwards I might think about how I slurred from middle E to D because it sounded sexier than separating the notes, and decide to reuse it.
I don’t know about you, but when I sit and write – and I’m really cooking – I fall into a rhythm. It’s a sort of rush. Like jamming, it’s nothing I think about, or am even aware of, until it’s over. I think of it as “letting my fingers do the walking.” The phrase comes from an old telephone book commercial. I just start typing away without too much thought to it, which is what I’m doing now. Like jamming, things happen. Eventually I’ll go back and polish. And yes, I’ll keep certain things because they sound sexier.
Finally, and probably most importantly, just like music it’s crucial to be constantly practicing, which to a writer, means writing. And like music there’s no substitute for listening. In the case of the writer, it’s listening to other writer’s words via reading. Any musician worth his salt constantly listens and analyzes how other players approach their art. The same applies to authors. The best writers I know constantly examine how others in their profession approach their craft, and how they can learn from it.
As a final thought it’s interesting that “notes” are an important tool of both writers and musicians.