Someone asked me recently about the similarities between composing music and writing. It was something I hadn’t really thought about before. I’ve written a lot about the similarities and dissimilarities between songwriters and fiction writers, but mostly focusing on lyrics vs prose. I hadn’t actually thought too much about the actual process of composing the music.
I suppose the first thing that springs to mind is something I would call “dynamics”. This is, to my mind, hugely important to both bands and solo acts, but especially to solo acts. I’ve played with many bands over the years but – at the moment – I’m performing solo acoustic sets, so dynamics is hugely important for me.
What is dynamics?
Well, how do you give certain parts of a song more emphasis than others and make it so that the whole song doesn’t sound exactly the same? This is dynamics. I always think of the band “The Pixies” as one of the originators of dynamics. A documentary about them was called “Loud. Quiet. Loud.” and that to me sums up dynamics. You have a quiet verse, a blisteringly loud chorus, back to a quiet verse, and so on. Kurt Cobain was someone who learned a lot from The Pixies and borrowed this idea for Nirvana.
This is easier to do in a band than it is as one man with a guitar. So, as a solo performer you have to come up with ways to do this. One of the ways is to do something called “muting the strings”. So, in the verse, you mute or dampen the strings and play it quietly and then in the chorus strum like a madman!
So what has all this got to do with writing? Quite a lot actually. I think there are dynamics in writing as well. The Irish writer, Claire Kilroy, once suggested to me in a workshop that if you want to quicken the pace in a scene, writers can do something similar to create dynamics. Short sentences of dialogue or narrative can ramp up the tension, while long sentences or periods of exposition can have the opposite effect. There can be occasions when a writer may wish to employ both of these devices.
In movies, the soundtrack does this, the music becoming heightened and more dramatic as the action or tension increases. In novels, words have to do this. Imagine a scene where our heroine is walking down a long, dark, deserted hallway, when she realises she’s being followed.
“She could hear the footsteps approaching. Faster. Louder. She panicked. She tried the nearest door. Locked. Another door. Locked. Her heart pounded. She was trapped.”
This is a very simple example but it shows how the short, staccato sentences – sometimes only a word – can increase the pace and tension of a scene. In the next scene – so as not to wear the reader out – the writer could slow the tempo again, using an inner monologue, or describing the character’s surroundings.
Screenwriters and playwrights do this a lot. Aaron Sorkin is a great example. Watch any episode of The West Wing and you’ll see in the fast moving scenes the dialogue is snappy and rapid-fire; in the quieter scenes it’s more of a slow burn.
Loud. Quiet. Loud.
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