Of Music and Writing


Much has been said of the impact of social media on the writing ability of recent generations and it is certainly worth thoughtful analysis. Technology shapes the way we work in every area and the composing of the written word is no different, but I want to look at another possible linkage—music and writing.

The idea came to me as I was musing over the similarities of some favorite authors and composers. One example by way of illustration: Thomas Merton and Aaron Copland. Both have the ability to place one fairly simple phrase in such a setting, to deliver it in such a way, that it truly sings. I gave an example of Copland’s mastery a while ago; an example of Merton’s is, “Hurry ruins saints as well as artists.” Neither example may particularly strike you, but they cause me to want to hear or read them again. I could try to draw other parallels, but my lack of knowledge of composers and authors would show more obviously.

My general thesis is that good music can influence good writing, and not just in the way that having some nice background music can get the thoughts flowing. Perhaps it is all radio’s fault. With radio came the real possibility of commercially successful popular music. The Big Band era was the first, but as nationwide popularity became possible, the need to tour to support your musical efforts increased. Hauling a 16-member jazz band around the country is an expensive venture. These economic forces were a significant influence on the shape of modern music.

There is a correlation between 140-character “writing” and songs that don’t have much more content. This isn’t a recent phenomena; pop music has been pretty banal for decades. Though, it is possible to be simple and yet profound. The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is constructed around a very simple theme, “Da-da-da-dum.” Christ’s beatitudes are not complex linguistic structures, but merely a string of declarative sentences: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

As we are able to digest, appreciate, and come to know more complex music, there is a parallel to writing. It is not an easy transition to jump into classical music or Augustinian prose for most of us, but the effort is worth it. The ability to handle complexity, to appreciate what may seem excessive variations on a theme, can be formative.

Whether it is the three A’s of Christian thought (Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas) or the three B’s of classical music (Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms), students of either discipline must have an understanding of the work of the masters to understand the contemporary scene. Knowledge of both, as well as some foundation in other subcategories of the liberal arts, sets us up to not only be “well read” but gives us examples of how composing is done well, whether for the printed page or the quintet. Classics are classics because they have stood the test of time.


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