The Musical Magic of Words

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By Mollie Savage (Collage)

Have you ever watched a great storyteller? The other day, during lunch with a group of women, one gal held our attention as she told about replacing her wood stove with a propane furnace. It sounds ho-hum, doesn’t it? Then why did we listen so intently? It wasn’t what she was saying; it was how she was telling her tale. She changed the tempo and volume of her voice; fast and strong as we heard of the workmen tearing open walls, soft and slow as she talked of dust settling and dreams of warmth throughout the winter nights. It was a musical tale of a mundane experience. As writers, we can make music with the sound of words.

A well-written story, article, or poem carries the cadence and rhythm of memorable music. Just as in oral storytelling, the tempo, or pace of words and the beat, or inflection help create feelings and images. These are the devices that distinguish your writing from forgotten pop to classical music. Music and words sprouted from the human need to communicate. Here are some seeds to plant in your creative garden. Allow them to grow from your material and strengthen your writing.

Background Image: eltpics/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

  • Alliteration – musically creates moods with sounds and meaning by using neighboring words beginning with the same consonant. Alliteration need not be a string of words to be effective.

Touch each object you want to touch as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail.

–Helen Keller, The Seeing See Little

  • Consonance – subtly creates mood and lends musicality through the repetition of a pattern of consonants.

Linger, longer, languor
Rider, reader, raider, ruder

  • Assonance – unconsciously reinforces meaning and creates mood with the repetition of same or similar vowel sounds. This excerpt employs everything.

Night came on, and a full moon rose high over the trees into the sky, lighting the land til it lay bathed in ghostly day.

–Jack London, The Call of the Wild

  • Connotation – Choose wisely, words have a wily way. They evoke emotional and imaginative associations. Consider: fat, corpulent, obese, each creates a different mental image in the reader, yet describe a person not underfed.

In other words he was a carbon-based bipedal life form descended from an ape. More specifically he was forty, fat and shabby and worked for the local council. Curiously enough though he didn’t know it, he was a direct male-line descendant of Genghis Khan, though intervening generations and racial mixing had so juggled his genes that he had no discernable Mongoloid characteristics, and the only vestiges left in (him) of his mighty ancestry were a pronounced stoutness about the turn and a predilection for little fur hats.

–Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

  • Onomatopoeia – you know this one, a word that imitates natural sounds or sounds like its meaning. What I want to know is, who came up with the word onomatopoeia? Here’s a lovely poetic example of words and sounds.

The moan of doves, in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.

–Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Princess

  • Pacing – is the musical tempo of your writing. Think in terms of speed and movement. A slow, relaxed atmosphere is conveyed through long descriptive sentences or employing “ing” words: Sallie watched the ball hitting the glass. A fast paced world is conveyed with short sentences and action verbs: The ball shattered the glass.

Watching these small subliminal seeds grow in your creative garden is more an act of discovery than imposition. You can become a virtuoso storyteller when you listen to and orchestrate the musical magic of words.

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