The Melody of Language


When I write, I hear in my head the words I’m putting on the page. I try to mimic the natural sound of dialogue—dropping endings when necessary, speaking in fragments, interjecting at just the right moment. All of these decisions, to me, have to do with the melody of language—the cadence. So many times we hear someone speak a language foreign from our own, and we notice the music in it. One type of language may be a minuet while another might be a mazurka. And again, I have to think it’s the cadence of language that makes the difference—the stress on one syllable instead of another, the shape the vowel takes as someone’s mouth forms the word.

As writers, we know we have to choose just the right diction. We have to avoid unnecessary adverbs, limit our use of the passive voice, make sure to draw our reader into the story with the exact number of adjectives to describe our scene. Each of these choices is deliberate. And if we happen to err in the first draft, we find a way to correct the mistake through our revision.

But in all these days of writing 100 plus words, I’ve discovered something about my own writing. My cadence is just as deliberate as these other choices. I have a fixed “melody” in my head and somehow the words I choose have to match that beat. When they don’t, the phrasing seems awkward, the ideas stiff, the word music discordant. Sometimes I find I purposely break a grammar rule so the melody remains intact. I don’t know if I’ve always written this way, but I do know that the pieces that seem to flow from my fingers match the notes in my head. The musical quality of language speaks to me and creates for me something unique about my voice.

What about you? Do you think about the cadence of your sentences as you’re putting words to the page, or does the meaning of the text hold sway? When you’re choosing just the right word, does the beat of the sentence make a difference to you? When you’re reading a story or a book or a poem, do you notice the melody of the language?

11 Comment(s)

  1. I’ve always noticed the melody of your pieces, Bryn. It’s the first place I really started recognizing cadence in words outside of poetry and lyrics. I even see it in your blogs and your comments.

    I don’t really pay attention to the flow of my own stuff until I’m into revisions and even them I don’t always catch the missed beats.

    Awesome blog, Bryn!

    Renee | Jul 22, 2010 | Reply

  2. Brynna, this post really speaks to me. The sound or melody of my writing is as important to me as the content. That’s a big part of my voice.

    I love the beauty of words and the right combinations of sentence structure, and I strive to create something that pleases my inner music. I don’t always succeed but that’s my goal.

    Everything I do is has an inner beat. I hear it when I walk, shower, relax, and when I write. Life has a beat.

    Yesterday Renee posted a link to a post about muses. Well music is my muse. I find a mood or ideas for stories from songs. I don’t usually write while listening to music, but it’s always there in my head.

    Excellent post!

    Laurie Faelan | Jul 22, 2010 | Reply

  3. Thank you, Renee. I’ve never forgotten one of the comments you made about my writing from quite a while back. I hold it close to my heart when that internal critic is trying to dissuade me.

    You’ve got a great ear for dialogue, for the nuances of how people speak to each other from different regions and different times. That’s an ear for melody, in my book. That you don’t notice it just means it’s part of the gift of your talent–it just comes naturally. :)

    Brynna | Jul 22, 2010 | Reply

  4. Once again, Laurie. You and I are alike! I posted on the blog Renee linked us to that music is my muse. :)

    I see that beat in your writing; it separates your voice from any other. And it’s wonderful! I love this comment: “Everything I do is has an inner beat. I hear it when I walk, shower, relax, and when I write. Life has a beat.”

    That’s SO me, too. Do you catch yourself keeping step with that beat when you walk? It’s like a pulsebeat that keeps me in sync.

    I do listen to music when I write, but it’s typically instrumental music–many times soundtracks. It moves me and connects me to my emotions AND it drowns out the world’s competing noises.

    Brynna | Jul 22, 2010 | Reply

  5. I’ve never thought about cadance or music compared to how writing sounds. But now that I’ve read your blog post, I’m reminded of Shakespeare. To me his words are music on the page and to hear his words spoken is magical. If you don’t believe that then you’ve never seen Olivier in his role as King Lear or Hamlet.

    terri | Jul 22, 2010 | Reply

  6. Great blog!

    terri | Jul 22, 2010 | Reply

  7. Hi, Terri.

    You’re right! Poetry has a specific kind of melody–the feet, the meter, the form. Shakespeare was a master! I love hearing Robert Frost speak, too, of his reason for using blank verse–he felt that it mimicked the natural rhythms of New England speech. How amazing to have an ear and the ablity to write with such a cadence. :)

    I think the melody in prose is an extension of this. If you look at free verse poetry or narrative poetry (or really any kind of poetry), the beats are given from the line breaks and the stanzas and the word choice. To me, prose can do the same thing.

    Brynna | Jul 22, 2010 | Reply

  8. Actually, I’ve been thinking about cadence a lot in the last few days, wondering if I need to change my voice to make it more marketable.

    Alice Audrey | Jul 22, 2010 | Reply

  9. I’ve never considered this when I write. But I suppose in some for I do this. I mean, when I’m writing my contemporary Southern dialogue, there is a sort of rhythm to it!

    Good, thought provoking blog!

    Christiana | Jul 22, 2010 | Reply

  10. I think you already have a tremendous voice, Alice, and I’d hate to see you change it to something less authentic. We can shape our voices for different audiences. I know this from the day job. Academic voice is very different from creative voice. But I think we have to be very careful in this business to stay true to ourselves because if we’re not, sustaining a career in a voice not perfectly fitted to us might cause genuine problems down the road.

    That said, if you mean simply to show another facet of the real you, then I say go for it. :)

    Brynna | Jul 22, 2010 | Reply

  11. Southern dialect definitely has a specific cadence, Christiana. I’d say you have the natural ear to pick it up even without doing it on purpose. :)

    Brynna | Jul 22, 2010 | Reply

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