Is writing words so different from writing notes? / by Anthony Benis

Inspiration is a fickle beast. It hits me when I least expect it and compels me to do the strangest things. I've woken up in the middle of the night desperate to jot down the most brilliant idea, only to wake up in the morning and find that the rules for "bike polo" are not worth the paper I wrote them on. Impulse buys on Amazon for Chinese poetry, hours upon hours spent binge watching magic tricks, dancing behind closed doors with tap shoes... the list goes on. If I can find the motivation to do so many weird things sober then I'd hate to envision my life as an alcoholic.

 

Sometimes I wish that I could keep my inspiration in check, but occasionally letting it take control of my life hasn't been the worst. I wouldn't be a musician were it not for composers like Junichi Masuda and J. S. Bach, and pursuing a career in music has connected me with life-long friends, all of whom are inspirations themselves. Not a bad track record if we can forget the bike polo incident. Looking back at my undergraduate experience, following my heart when it came to music was probably the best thing I could have done for myself. However, one of the greatest influences on my work as a composer comes not from music but a seemingly unrelated field: fiction writing. To get the complete picture, we need to backtrack to over two years ago when I first started reading George R. R. Martin's book series Game of Thrones.

 

I hardly think Game of Thrones needs an introduction given the immense popularity of its show adaptation, but for the yet uninitiated it is an epic fantasy with a plot that spans many years, entire continents and more than 1000 characters. Martin tells his story from the perspective of over two dozen people, carefully crafting a web of personal accounts that intertwine into a single gruesome and complex narrative. When I think about the book series from a writer's mindset, the feat is absolutely astounding. I liken his accomplishment to what Howard Shore has done with his scores to the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit film trilogies; Shore composed melodies and themes to represent people, places and ideas, which he then interspersed across six films to create a unified, cohesive sound. While my music education helps me analyze film scores, I had no such preparation to truly grasp a novel of Game of Thrones' caliber. Motivated by my ignorance, I sought to spend the following summer learning how to write fiction, a field in which I had little to no experience. 

 

My first step was to seek out books on writing. I believe one can learn any art form with the right resources, and that applies to writing and music all the same. The notion that people are "born" to be talented writers, musicians or what have you is a lie systemic to the nature of Western society and culture, but that is a topic for another time. I read Dwight Swain's Techniques of the Selling WriterPlot & Structure by James Scott Bell, and a dinky little book called 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost among others. Although Dwight Swain's work is the most essential book for a budding writer in my opinion, Gary Provost's writing was the most eye-opening.

 

In a section titled, "Listen to What You Write," Provost says, "Writing is not a visual art any more than composing music is a visual art. To write is to create music. The words you write make sounds, and when those sounds are in harmony, the writing will work." He continues, "Read aloud what you write and listen to its music. Listen for dissonance. Listen for the beat. Listen for gaps where the music leaps from sound to sound instead of flowing as it should. Listen for sour notes. Is this word a little sharp, is that one a bit flat? ... There are no good sounds or bad sounds [in writing], just as there are no good notes or bad notes in music.  It is the way in which you combine them that can make the writing succeed or fail."

 

This is the most compelling argument I've encountered that links writing and music together. As a musician trying to write fiction, I was embarrassed that I never made this connection. Provost spelled out in six words what I couldn't figure out after at least a month of dedicated work. To write is to create music. Choosing a word is like picking a note, constructing a sentence like forming a phrase, ending a paragraph like completing a section, reading a chapter like listening to a movement. One can represent characters changing throughout a story as melodies developing throughout a piece, both conveying the emotions that lie at the heart of the work. Because of the many parallels between musical and written structure, I should be able to apply the same creative process to both composing music and writing fiction.

 

While such a conclusion sounds natural given Provost's argument, is there a stronger basis that supports the bond between music and writing? Part of the answer lies in determining what these two words mean exactly. Collins Dictionary defines writing as "a group of letters or symbols written or marked on a surface as a means of communicating ideas by making each symbol stand for an idea, concept, or thing...," while the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines music as, "the art of combining vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion." Both deal with the communication of ideas and emotions, writing primarily through visual means and music primarily through auditory means. What makes the crossover between music and writing so seamless is that there is an auditory aspect to writing and a visual aspect to music. Readers pronounce words due to an association of sound with symbols, and composers notate their music in written scores no matter how complex the musical gesture. Whether you are a writer or a composer, you are first and foremost a communicator, making many of the skills you develop applicable to both crafts.

 

Perhaps it was my experience as a "communicator" of music that drew me to fiction writing in the first place two years ago. I took a figurative leap of faith by dedicating months of my time to a field that in the end could have amounted to zero progress and done nothing to benefit my career as a musician. Were I so close-minded and insecure about my future, I fear that 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing may have never ended up on my desk. In that respect I've been thinking, what opportunities have I put to waste? Did I miss a chance to better myself not just as a musician but as a person because I was too pessimistic about the outcome? My studies in fiction have shown me that some ideas are worth pursuing no matter how irrelevant they may seem to my goals. However, if you ever see me riding a bike and swinging a bat at a soccer ball, kindly tell me that not all ideas should ever see the light of day, especially one as ridiculous as bike polo.