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The Music of Sentences


“The ear writes my poems, not the mind,” said Stanley Kunitz in a PBS interview. “The ear is the infallible test.” Nonfiction writers, too, often speak of the important role the ear plays in the writing and revision process.  Some claim to hear an inner voice that dictates the rhythms, diction, and tone of their language. Others focus on the interplay among words or on lyrical cadences, a kind of sound-for-sound’s sake that makes for stunning, musical prose.

When our writing is going well, we don’t worry about sentences. Guided by natural rhythms, one sentence appears, then another and another, and before we know it, we’ve reached the end of the paragraph. If we’re lucky, the sentences will hold, the paragraph will retain its beauty and poise, and the essay will snap into place.

Then, there are those other times.

We reread our essay and despair. There is no music in our language. The prose is stilted. Chopped into fragments. Then in the next breath hurtling like this sentence at unsafe speeds taking every short cut possible, every hairpin curve, shrieking and squealing and threatening to collide with the next sentence unless it can find, and fast, a safe exit. At these times, it’s helpful to know what our sentences are doing and how we can nudge them in the right direction.

One way to musically tune our sentences is to listen carefully to the sounds of individual words. When possible, these sounds should reinforce the imagistic and emotional content of our sentence. For instance, ripple is probably not the best word to use in a sentence about the weight of loneliness. Not only does ripple mean something slight; it sounds slight. The short i is a bantam-weight vowel, the lightest, most childlike sound in our language. A more weighty choice would be a word like stone or root or nobody. Is there a vowel more heavy or sad than the long o? It hollows out the mouth, intones the deepest sorrow. And it isn’t merely the long vowel that makes stone and root weigh more than ripple.  Because they are one-syllable words, their individual heft is felt as we place them on the page. And their ending sounds make strong final impressions. The t of root supplies an abrupt ending, while the n of stone remains before our eyes and deep in our throats, providing weight and texture to reinforce the feeling of heaviness.

But individual words alone, however musically apt, cannot make our sentences sing. We also need an underlying rhythm, a musical line playing beneath our words. Just as singers vary the tone of a musical phrase by prolonging it, shortening it, pitching it higher or lower, or changing its sound color (breathy, harsh, resonant, liquid), writers vary the tone of passages by the sounds they choose and by the way they “sing” these sounds. A nonfiction narrator who speaks in carefully balanced, grammatically correct sentences will lead readers on a different route from, say, a narrator who speaks in jagged, streetwise slang. No sentence style is inherently superior to another, but each style makes a different contract with the reader. For instance, the energetic prose style of a writer like Eldridge Cleaver slaps us awake. In Soul on Ice, the rollicking rolling syntax catches our attention and we grab on, riding its rhythm. We’re heading somewhere, we’re not sure where, but we feel the power snowballing, gathering weight as it tumbles toward its end. We revel in Cleaver’s prose, his brilliantly tuned sentences. And some new journalists, such as Melissa Faye Greene, carefully modulate the cadences, syntax, and diction of their sentences to suggest the emotional landscape of their informants. In Praying for Sheetrock, Greene takes us inside Fanny’s mind as Fanny recalls a difficult childhood filled with monotonous toil:

Sleep, pick, eat, pick, pray...
Bed, field, table, field, church. Bed. Field. Table: a hollow gallop of wooden bowls on a wooden table. Field. Church: a chase through dark woods and climbing vines, barefoot behind her grandmother...Bed. Field. Table. Field...

By cycling and recycling the same words through recurring staccato rhythms, Greene mimics the internal rhythms of this character’s thoughts, revealing the weight of Fanny’s weariness and the monotony of her days.

As you review your drafts, don’t just look at the words. Listen to their musical pitch, color, and volume. Did you use soft, soothing consonants in one description and harsh, cacophonous consonants in another? Did you use deep-toned, solemn vowels in one section of dialogue and high-pitched vowels in another? What about the lengths and rhythms of your phrases? Did one paragraph gallop while the other minced, step by step, toward its end? In return for your attention to their needs, your sentences will reward you by helping to tune your essay to its most effective musical key.

Try These At Home

1. As an exercise in varying the sound qualities of your sentences, write three different descriptions of the same character or setting. In the first version, use lots of deep vowel tones (long o, long u) and liquid or resonant consonants (r, l, w, y, m, n, ng, z). Then rewrite the description changing the deep vowels to light vowels (short i, short a).  Finally, rewrite it using harsh consonants (k, hard g, hard c, t, p) or sibilants (s, sh, ch). Notice how the musical tone of the description changes depending on the sound qualities of your language.

2. Write two or three different versions of the same scene. Don’t change the basic facts of the scene; change only the sounds of the words and the lengths and rhythms of your sentences. Here are examples of the same scene--a woman washing dishes while her children play outside--written in two different musical keys with two different rhythms:

She watches through the kitchen window the comings and goings of her children as one by one the dinner dishes slide from her hands and into the steaming dishwater, one plate still holding the memory of potatoes and gravy.

Saucers clatter. Cups clank. Platters rattle. She grabs a plate, scrubs its crusted skin. Dried potato. Gravy. Outside the window her kids scream and scatter.

3. Practice new syntactic rhythms by copying out whole passages by an author whose sentences you admire. Then, if you’re eager for a challenge, write a “grammatical rhyme” modeled on that author’s words. In a grammatical rhyme, you imitate the rhythmic and syntactic structures of a piece while using your own words. Don’t worry about reproducing the sense of the passage; pay attention only to the structure of the sentences. Here’s a brief passage from Richard Selzer’s essay “Four Appointments With the Discus Thrower,” followed by my grammatical rhyme, my imitation of Selzer’s syntactic structures:

In the evening, I go once more to that ward to make my rounds. The head nurse reports to me that Room 542 is deceased. She has discovered this quite by accident, she says. No, there had been no sound. Nothing. It’s a blessing, she says.

In my dream, I stumble yet again over the weeds to get to him. The doggy moon barks to me that my boy is gone. “I have sniffed it through my nose,” it says. “Yes, there will be no boy. Never. That’s the end,” it barks.


Excerpted from Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively