Monthly Archives: July 2014

Continuing my Analysis of Writing and Music

I’ve been practicing my baritone ukulele for three months. To add to my schedule, I purchased a guitar. The chords and fingering are the same for the baritone and the guitar.
Interestingly, when you look at guitar chords, there are x’s o’s and black dots on a a fret board that tell you which strings to play, not to play and where to put your fingers when chording. With the baritone, the x’s and o’s are not critical. All four strings are played on every chord. So, as I practiced the baritone and learned chords, I kept in mind that they were the same chords as for a guitar. I forgot that some strings were played and some were not. So, I got into the habit of playing all the strings.
What happened was songs on the baritone sounded like they were supposed to sound. The songs I played on the guitar sounded off , and to coin a phrase, I couldn’t put my finger on the problem. At first I just attributed the problem to switching instruments. I told myself I would learn how to play the chords right on the guitar in time.
Then, I looked closely at the chord diagrams for guitar. I usually take off my glasses to see the chord diagrams. My glasses don’t help a lot when I’m trying to read a piece of paper several inches away. They do help when the paper is a few inches away. If I’m trying to play what I’m looking at, then I put the paper several inches away. It’s kinda goofy, but there’s an in between spot where the glasses don’t work well.
The problem is, when I don’t have my glasses, I can’t see the 4.0 pica print on the chords – the print x’s and o’s. Thus, I lost critical information.
When I found out which strings are to be played and which ones should remain silent, suddenly the chords sounded right – all of them. Oddly, it was the ones that didn’t leave out strings to be played, the ones that required all the strings that sounded right and the ones with strings supposed to be left out didn’t sound right.
I’ve corrected the problem.
This, to me, is similar to learning how to get the right voice in writing. If you don’t have the right voice, the reader senses the characters and the tale about them is a little off. If the writer pays attention to find details, the voice comes into focus, you use the right chords, and the reader is satisfied you have told your story well.


Continuing my examination of the connections between music and writing, I heard a musician saying that you can hit the wrong notes in music and it matters a little, but you still have music. If you can’t play rhythm, however, you don’t have music. He added that rhythm has much deeper roots in our antiquity. He suggested that drums and even clicking stones together to make tools, goes back to our early beginnings.
I immediately thought of dramatic structure. Aristotle first spoke of it in his Poetics in c. 335 BCE. Later, his notion became standard for writers and filmmakers. In almost all media, the action rises and falls, similar to the rhythm in music. You can falter in your presentation of a story, but, if the rhythm, the dramatic structure is flat, you will lose them. You don‘t have a story without rhythm.
In more modern literature, this translates into the protagonist going from one crisis to another. Each time he resolves one, he is presented with another. Each one raises the tension until there is a climax, and then there is falling action, followed by the dénouement, resolution, revelation or catastrophe.
It’s fun at times to watch a movie or read a book and name the points where action begins rising, is resolved, only to go higher, and higher, only to fall finally and the thing is resolved.
Interestingly, music must end on a note that resolves the notes as well. If it doesn’t, it leaves the listeners hanging, just like a plot that is not satisfying to readers.
Melody came later than rhythm. What is the connection between music and writing when it comes to melody. I think it is person and voice. When melody came about about 400 years ago. That was a little after troubadours began playing songs about chivalry and courtly love. They set the stage for modern storytelling, which Cervantes, the first novelist, wrote Don Quixote, considered to be the first modern European novel.
It is person and voice that make a novel different from other storytelling, in my opinion.

A Writer’s Brain

I recently saw an article in the NYT about differences in experienced and new writer’s brainwaves. It seems that writers have a brain wave pattern similar to athletes when they are in the zone.
This was more interesting than surprising to me. Here’s why: I practiced the Korean martial art, Tae Kwon Do, for many years. There I was exposed to the term ‘mu.’ (Wu in Chinese). It means ‘not have; without.’ It is a key word in Zen Buddhism traditions, in the sense of ‘no mind,’ a concept similar to ‘being in the zone,’ to my understanding.
I thought it was oriental mambo jumbo until one night, I experienced it. I was able to spar that night without my mind getting in my way. I did things that surprised me. I said to myself, I can’t do that. In a sense, that was correct. The part of me I experience as I, could not move as fast or as efficiently as that part of me without I being present.
I have also read that the closest thing to a Zen practitioner in the west is a computer programmer. Why? It’s because they are sometimes so engrossed in the other world they are creating, they lose their sense of self. They are in a state of no mind – wu.
So, what does this have to do with writing. I believe that when one is creating, you enter into an Altered State of Consciousness, resembling wu or being in the zone. While you are there, you are outside yourself. One writer described what happened to him as “watching his fingers do the writing on the keyboard.”
That state can only be achieved by continually going to the well. It can’t be achieved by intermittent practice, fighting writer’s block, or critiquing your writing. It is something you can only achieve through practice.
There is another element that comes into writing which is creativity. It is either there or not and is less amenable to manipulation. Through practice and exposure to creative others, one can learn some things about creativity. However, if you’re not creative by nature, you can’t grow it.