Putting Pitch to Paper

Looking at my writing in terms of performance helps me see the value of precision, experimentation, and time in search of excellence.

music-writerAfter joining the staff at the Writing Resources Center, I was surprised by the number of talented consultants who can both reach an accord with their consultees and strike a chord with their choirs. As a singer myself, I wondered if our center’s connection to singing ensembles was just an anomaly; however, the more I considered the two activities, the more I saw writing and performing as different ways of exploring the same creative process.  

When a choir first sings through a piece, the resulting tune might resemble an avant-garde jumble more than a captivating chorale. Chaos ensues as the sopranos enter a measure early, the piano gets lost on page three, and wrong notes clash against wrong-er ones. However, this initial mess is an expected one. This train-wreck is akin to a brainstorm that gives the writer a silhouette of an argument and a sense of what the final product could be.

The next step is to refine. In rehearsal, this means going back to the basics: sitting at the piano and tediously plunking out notes to ensure that each chord sits in place to properly support the melody. In the same way, a proper argument will only make sense if the evidence underneath lines up precisely, requiring a close analysis of the parts of the claim and flow of ideas.

The musical process doesn’t end when every note is technically correct, just as a good paper is not finished when individual arguments are well-supported. Singers need to consider the piece as a whole, following the emotional arc of the music and changing inflection as the chords shift from major to minor and the volume crescendos from a soft piano to a shaking forte. No note is ever static, with each measure propelling the story of the song. Essays ebb and flow in a similar way, creating nuance by transitioning between arguments with ease. Only after rehearsing over and over again and constantly readjusting with fresh eyes and ears can these two art forms reach their final stages, ready to show off to their respective audiences.

Looking at my writing in terms of performance helps me see the value of precision, experimentation, and time in search of excellence. Both present puzzles which appear daunting, but become beautiful with hard work. Don’t be afraid to fine tune your writing until all the parts of your paper exist in harmony.

Image: shannonathompson.com 


The Abbey Road Medley and Writing

Transitions and conclusions vex me, and I think many writers feel similarly. I know it matters that I carry my reader along with me from paragraph to paragraph, but I also don’t want to drag them. I’m looking for something between a sentence that begins with “Now I will transition…” and nothing at all.

Not that it’s so terrible to be direct, at least the first time. However, variety is the key if you really want to impress with style, and I think we can take the medley on the B-side of Abbey Road as an example of a variety of transitions. The Abbey Road Medley is a series of eight songs that transition easily from one to the next, but in different, creative ways. The first transition, from “You Never Give Me Your Money” to “Sun King” is possibly the most subtle. The song itself actually ends, in terms of the chords, rhythm and melody. All the voices and instruments fade away, until the listener is left with the sound of a strange little cricket.

The cricket is a small detail, something irrelevant to the music. However, the cricket’s chirp continues across the break between the tracks, and just like that the group makes the transition. The Beatles can continue with “Sun King,” one of Lennon’s trippy, relaxed songs in the tradition of “Dear Prudence,” knowing that their listener is still with them. Being insinuated comfortably into this song makes a considerable difference. “Sun King” itself is droning and otherworldly, and written in nonsense Portuguese. This leaves us with the question of how to transition out.

The answer the Beatles gave was letting the last chord, the resolution, of “Sun King” run into the next song, “Mean Mr Mustard,” basically moving the break slightly into “Sun King.” Although “Mean Mr Mustard” now begins with a chord that is very misleading, that’s mostly a problem if you’re analyzing “Mean Mr Mustard” as a discrete song or listening to the song in reverse. As much as I like this track, I don’t know of anyone who listens to it that way. Interestingly, the ending is the exact opposite. “Mean Mr Mustard” simply ends.

“Polythene Pam” begins abruptly. The listener knows another track must be coming because “Mean Mr Mustard” has concluded, so the next track, giving you no downtime whatsoever, gets right down to business with a hard and fast chord progression that comes back with the chorus. If every transition was this abrupt, the listener would be disoriented, but it’s refreshing as one form of transition among others.

Abbey Road

Much like sentence structure, I find the key to good transitions is variety. I’ve tried to use the medley from Abbey Road to demonstrate a few different ways to transition between paragraphs, and if you listen to the medley, you may be inspired by a few more I couldn’t articulate here. Hopefully you’ll even find some inspiration regarding conclusions.