Are the hills alive with the sound of writing?

Reading my work out aloud is a mantra I take quite seriously. Verily I have spoken the sentences you’re reading many times. I’ve shaped them from prior versions where they sounded wrong. I’ve listened for clumsy transitions and poor grammar. I speak, I read and write – cutting, pasting and retyping all along the way. The process of reading aloud has become crucial to my writing and it’s got me wondering why I do it and what exactly I’m looking for – is it for a kind of music? Writing and music can share a lexicon, says Dr Graeme Skinner, musicologist, writer, researcher and Honorary Associate at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. ‘A lot of the words used to describe music are analogies drawn from literature. I often talk about a musical paragraph as being an analogy for a passage of music. People talk about phrases, and movements – a movement is a corollary of a chapter.’ But are there parallels for someone like Skinner, who knows a lot about both music and writing?

A blank page...Does music make a difference to our writing? Thanks to calsidyrose for use of this image Very Vintage Music Staff under Creative Commons.
A blank page...Does music make a difference to our writing? Thanks to calsidyrose for use of this image Very Vintage Music Staff under Creative Commons.

‘I think my sense of writing comes more directly from the tradition of writing than from the tradition of music,’ Skinner tells me. ‘However I think they’re very closely linked. For instance the basis of literature is in works like Homer’s The Odyssey – which was actually intended (or recorded from) what was a recited oral history.’

Philosopher Walter Ong speaks to this point in his 1982 book Orality and Literacy. Recording stories in oral cultures (recording them to memory), writes Ong, involved a need for musicality. Thus works like The Odyssey would have been composed through ‘thinking in mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence … in heavily, rhythmic, balanced patterns … repetitions or antitheses … alliterations and assonances … epithetic and other formulary expressions.’ (Ong, p34). In noting The Odyssey as both a precursor to (and example of) early literature, Skinner is suggesting that links to musicality linger in our notions of good storytelling – and good writing.

But it’s not just in the far recesses of our storytelling that the two can be linked. Skinner is currently doing research on 19th century Australia. ‘Most 19th century poems that were written in Australia were meant to be sung,’ he says. Readers who consider them just as poetry, ‘are really missing the point. People imagined them to a tune. That’s how they followed the rhyme scheme and how [writers wrote] them in the first place,’ he says.

Not surprisingly, Skinner’s writing revolves around music (it includes scholarly essays, program notes, and a biography of the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe). I wonder what influence (if any) this musical knowledge may have on his writerly compositions. But Skinner eschews this notion: ‘My sense of how to write comes from the fact that I read voraciously.’  He always has ‘multiple novels on the go’ and feels his writing improves when he’s reading good work.

Throughout our interview Skinner has had to explain to me (and even demonstrate on his piano) aspects of music that I don’t understand. I have never been trained in music or its theory and in speaking to Skinner I realise that the connections I’m seeking to draw are tenuous at best – that music may be far more complicated than writing.

‘If you reduce writing to something that could be reproduced as a series of sounds – then obviously it’s much simpler,’ says Skinner. ‘But you only have to see the huge libraries of literary criticism that’s written to suggest that it depends on what you call complex.’ What makes writing complex is the creation of meaning, he says. Whereas music, while physically complex, ‘doesn’t have a meaning.’ The meaning comes from the listener. ‘There’s nothing inherent in the music.’

Yet Skinner also concedes that writing isn’t just about the creation of meaning. ‘You can make meaning [as a writer] and nobody wants to read you. Writing’s also about making the sentences jump along and move elegantly, and move beautifully through space and time.’

‘I read aloud in my head but I certainly don’t read aloud,’ Skinner tells me. However he does believe there’s an element to writing in which you consider the musicality of sentence construction. At times, for example, he’ll put an adverb after a verb. ‘Because I like the sound – you’re getting the verb first and then the “ly” on the end of the adverb after it.’ He prefers not to split infinitives, ‘but sometimes if you don’t split an infinitive it sounds really limping – [you split it] in order to keep the momentum or tempo of the sentence.’

‘Maybe there is a connection between the appreciation of writing that sounds good and inherent musicality,’ Skinner says. ‘But I don’t know. Maybe some really good writers can write perfectly well without [a knowledge of] music. Certainly being a musician is no passport to writing well – quite the opposite.’

For this writer at least, that’s music to my ears.