Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Symphony of Syllables


by Gary Fearon, Creative Director


On a Sunday afternoon (and there happened to be one this weekend), one of my favorite getaways is to go to the symphony.  I'll never cease to be amazed by the astounding feat of eighty musicians all striking up the band at the wave of a baton, and staying in perfect rhythm for two hours amid a myriad of  constantly changing tempos.  There's also something about live orchestral music -- definitely its lack of words for one thing -- that allows me to become thoroughly enveloped in the musical experience.

Even while under the rapture of Rachmaninoff, the wordsmith in me is still present and accounted for, and can't help analyzing how the art of music can be very much like the art of writing.  They really have a great deal in common.

MAJORS & MINORS
A song with predominantly major chords (such as Do-Re-Mi) tends to sound positive, happy, hopeful, while a song in all minors (The Funeral March) evokes gloom, misery, danger.

HIGHS & LOWS 
We think of high sounds as bright and illuminating, while low, deep tones sound dark, even claustrophobic.
 
TEMPO
Fast passages suggest busy activity and forward motion, while slow passages evoke introspection and ponderance.

VOLUME
Loud is boisterous, triumphant, powerful.  Quiet is caring, tentative, gentle.

What does all of this have to do with words?  The same principles apply to every sentence we write.  Our choice of words have a huge bearing on the mood of the moment. Compare these simple sentences, for example:

1. "Will you let Lily know she's invited Wednesday for dinner?"
2. "Take that to your sister and tell her Tuesday is pot luck."

Number 2 has a little more punch because it's packed full of plosives (Ts and Ps).  Even if we don't read it out loud, our brain reacts to all those little percussive power points.

Another example:

1. He would be happy with nothing to do, if he could be sure that his boss didn't care.
2. If only he knew that Mr Abernathy didn't care, he would be just as happy having nothing to do.

Number 1 has a rhythmic flow, while number 2 has a less predictable cadence.  Nothing wrong with any of the above sentences, but if you're trying to further a particular mood (easygoing? Aggressive? Unsteady?) at this point in the story, you can see how a subtle variation can have subliminal impact.

One more:

1. I'm telling you, if you do that again, I promise never to forgive you as long as I live.
2. Don't.  Just don't.

I don't know about you, but I'd listen to the second one.

A great classical work often has multiple movements. A typical progression is Allegro (lively), Adagio (slower), Scherzo (swift), and back to an Allegro finale, bigger than before.  Isn't this very much like every story, in which we start with an interesting premise, then give the hero problems to bog them down, then they find the strength to answer the call of battle, then wave the flag of victory?  (That's when we break out the timpanis for some heavy duty hoopin' and hollerin'.)  And through it all we provide a roller coaster of ups and downs, fast and slow, hard and soft, to keep things from getting monotonous.

Every sentence we compose is part of a symphony, bigger than the sum of its parts.  Each measure of our composition will measure up if we put the right mood into the words we choose.  With over 250,000 words in the English language, we have a lot of notes to play with.

1 comment:

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