Writing has to sing!

How music is composed

Music is written on beautiful carefully lined-up staves. It is written in a clef, with a rhythm and in bars. It is written using semibreves, minims, crotchets, quavers, semiquavers or tuplets between some of which there may be rests. It is written both on paper and by ear. It is written both on paper and in thought. It is written while it is being sung. It is written while its actual inspiration is taking place… This is composition! Not so long ago, the essays we used to write were still called compositions. Yes, music is composed in the same way as writing… and in the same way as other forms and formats – paintings or photographs are composed within the frame, fabulous or even everyday meals are composed using more or less secret ingredients… Composing is an art for “handymen or women”, “inventive people”, “creators” and “makers”! “Je vais composer avec ce que j’ai!” (“I’ll make do with what I have” but literally “I’ll compose with what I have”). The result obtained may range from the astonishing to the disappointing but in all cases will be unexpected and surprising. Music is composed of all these notes – notes of music of course – but notes which are also written in the margins when a melody fleetingly crosses our thoughts; it is feverishly written down in a corner of a page, a sheet or scrap paper… It is noted down in a rush when inspiration is at its height… It is written in notes on lines and thus composed in harmony.

The staves are piled up according to the instruments involved – one line, two lines, three, four, five, six, etc. – and suddenly an orchestra bursts forth! This is a whole cortege of people and instruments which then need to be directed as a good conductor would! The fire of the creation needs to be lit by fanning the flames of the soul. Sometimes the conductor might be the composer of the work being played but often that is not the case. The conductor needs to use his or her talent as a guide to bring out all the work’s original emotion or at least attempt to bring out its essence… In this context, conductors are like storytellers who bring stories and tales of all sorts to life using their voices, faces and bodies. A different voice for each character, a voice that shifts through the different emotions, a face which may be open or closed, often making faces – with all of this sometimes accompanied by broad, crazy gestures to simulate key actions or highpoints of a novel. I loved to listen to my mother and aunt reading Mother Goose Tales by Charles Perrault or the stories of Hans Christian Andersen. And in turn, I got a lot of pleasure out of bringing to life a whole magical, unreal world through my words for my fascinated little cousin rather than just a simple story …

The singing tone of words as they are written

What is writing? Isn’t it supposed to be read? Some have already written about this at the Villa such as Baudouin Jurdant invited by Melody Faury who herself revealed a great deal about her own research, here and there.1 We may also cite Jonathan Chibois in April 2012… Writing engenders reading which is born in the palm of the hand at the same moment the pencil starts to move or the key of the keyboard is pressed down. Writing registers an idea and reading acts as an indicator.

Since I have been writing2, I have never been able to stop myself re-reading my sentences as soon as they appear on paper or on screen. I imagine that you too carry out this kind of conscientious re-reading aimed at checking for spelling or grammar mistakes but above all the meaning and coherence of what has been written. Most of the time, this kind of re-reading is… silent. With this kind of re-reading, you are the only person to hear the sound of your own voice in your head and indeed sometimes when I “hear” my silent voice I can’t make any link with my real voice with actual sound. But finally, whatever the case, as we were taught at school: “You read in your head!” What a strange expression that is if we look at it a little more closely. What is “reading in one’s head”? Is there something to read in one’s head? Do I need to go into my head to read? In terms of reflexivity, I find this concept accurate. But does reading in one’s head not involve isolating oneself from the melody of the text? I do not know about you but I find that my interior voice has a lot less power and range, tonality and colour than my exterior voice. I think that it does not dare really express itself because it has been shut away. Let us reiterate the point -reading in our heads is done above all so as to not disturb others around us. We understand perfectly well that it would be an unbearable cacophony if everyone in the world started reading out loud at the same time – I hardly dare imagine rush hours in the underground trains with everyone doing their evening reading out loud in their most beautiful, lustrous voices! We all understand this idea perfectly and that it is essential for the respect of others. But at home… do you still read out loud? To read to your family or friends or for yourself when you find yourself alone?

I must admit that my favourite reading moments have been out loud. How can this be explained? It is not so much to hear the sound of my own voice because a simple conversation would be enough as would singing in the shower. The idea is more to discover the musicality of the phrase or speech and I can tell you that certain texts actually sound really bad to my ears while others literally get me carried away. I believe that like music, writing (of words here) is a melody. After all, singing is no more than adding nuances to our voices and playing with tones and rhythms which are already present in our way of speaking. They are no more than accentuation! In the end, singing is speaking and speaking is singing!3 Thus a text written on a page is like notes written on a musical score. I often wonder if the authors of scientific and/or literary works ask themselves questions about the musicality of their writing when they put the words on the score. Either way, I read out loud. I read when I am on my own but I also read to my partner but only if he agrees (it is very important to be in tune, like in music) because I would not wish to disturb him. This is something he finds most enjoyable; indeed he says I read well. But what is reading well? “It’s because you don’t read monotonously, you bring the text to life with your intonations or with your pauses. That makes it more interesting and I listen more closely.” Perhaps this comes from my childhood and has stayed with me, having listened to stories and then become a storyteller. I must admit that it is not easy to read all works as stories because, as I suggested above, certain texts are particularly dissonant… Even if I should not say this, those texts are too inaudible to my ear and this affects me. This is no doubt why I consider them unbearable and close to making me feel ill. In no way am I questioning the author’s work. As you will have understood, this is a very subjective standpoint and a matter of taste. Something which one person dislikes will be liked by others and luckily for us all, there is a wide choice in music! This is the same with texts. I don’t wish to force myself to read or listen to a work has no resonance with me in unison. This is how I make most of my choices in reading.

What about my thesis (which I defended in June 2014)? This regular work of writing? It has to sing! That is what I tell myself with every page I write and each of them has to be read out loud. I might find a “false note” here or a missing note there without which the melody is less in harmony with the rest of the tune. So I add words, I take others out, I replace words, I compose and I start reading out loud all over again. You should not however believe that I consider my thesis to be a major musical work! Most of the time I consider my text “neat” but rarely do I compliment myself on the melodic ingenuity of a phrase though such moments do indeed fill me with happiness. If I have to write 10, 50, 1000 pages to produce just one harmonious phrase then yes, I am ready to do that. Because when the essence of each of a sentence’s words vibrates in the sound of the voice, when the phrase begins playing its sweet melody and the meaning becomes harmony, then the heart is set alight. And this is the effect reading certain works has on me.

How can we know if what we write is melodious? I could not tell you. I think that once more it is purely a matter of taste and above all a question of sensibility. Have playing the piano and singing opera helped me with this? Most probably. When I visualize a phrase made up of words, I see it as a phenomenon based on waves. This wave spreads continuously in a constant manner. Of course, reading would be extremely boring if a constant wave was not occasionally broken up by a few high or low points or peaks corresponding to a happy event or conversely a dramatic situation. I should perhaps attempt to demonstrate what I mean by this with an example.

An enchanting tale

I shall use the first lines of the story “Blue Beard”4 by Charles Perrault.

(Translator’s note: The French version has been kept below the English because the author refers closely to elements of it in her analysis)

“There was once a man who had fine houses, both in town and country, a deal of silver and gold plate, embroidered furniture, and coaches gilded all over with gold. But this man was so unlucky as to have a blue beard, which made him so frightfully ugly that all the women and girls ran away from him.”

“Il était une fois un homme qui avait de belles maisons à la ville et à la campagne, de la vaisselle d’or et d’argent, des meubles en broderies et des carrosses tout dorés. Mais, par malheur, cet homme avait la barbe bleue : cela le rendait si laid et si terrible, qu’il n’était ni femme ni fille qui ne s’enfuît de devant lui.”

Here is a little diagram to illustrate the musicality of these two phrases using a wave. (Please click on the diagram to see it clearer).

Onde, by Stéphanie Messal

Onde, by Stéphanie Messal

The first phrase describes the very pleasant and well-off situation of a man about whom we as yet know little. The description is therefore read in a calm tone which gives a wave with rather flat curves corresponding to that calmness. However this all changes with the second sentence. Firstly there is mention of him being “unlucky” (“malheur” = bad luck) and then the tone becomes both more dramatic and surprised because after the previous description we were not expecting to come face-to-face with bad luck so this gives a high peak. Next we find out that the man is unlucky because he has a blue beard. I imagine that at this point in history, blue was not a particularly fashionable colour for facial hair.5 It certainly cannot have been easy for him. Then the “eu” sound in the French word “blEU” (blue) coupled with the “eu” sound in “malhEUr” gives something a little “monstruEUx” (monstrous). This is why when the strange feeling of fear or “pEUr” in French (which rhymes with “malhEUr“) occurs, there is a sudden low point which then rises back up because – second surprise effect – not only does he have this rather unique beard but also it makes him particularly frightfully ugly. That really is rather unlucky! The beard could have given him a charm of sorts but this is not the case! The wave rises back up because this news is not particularly unexpected though of course unfortunate. Finally the wave plumbs new depths when at the end we find out all the girls run away from him… A mixture of dismay and anxiety causes this breathtaking plunge downwards. But surely all, it is a beard!6 However, at the same time, might there not be a more mysterious, even disturbing figure behind this mass of facial hair? 7

To give you an idea, I have re-written this passage of the text on a musical score. I hope musicians will forgive me because I am sure there are many mistakes! For those of you who know nothing about writing music, this is for you. You do not need to know which note is which on the staff – that is not the point of the exercise and indeed, I did not attempt to mean anything in this way. No, above all, my aim was to show you the rhythm and the variations in tonalities with these represented by higher notes on the staff – the higher they are, the more the tone is raised and the lower they are the more the tone is lower. The first phrase is read with a very simple binary rhythm like a ballad and the tempo is regular like the ticking of a clock. In the second phrase, we move onto a more swing-like rhythm which corresponds to the drama involved and gives more depth to the events. I would like to refer you to the article by Florian Caullery about Black Metal, a style of music which uses this rhythm to a great extent because as you can see we have just taken a plunge into the a monotonous chant of misfortune (“la mélopée de malheur“).8

I hope that example successfully conveys what I mean by the musicality of the phrase and makes clear my idea of representing its melody using a wave which rises or falls at each key moment of the plot. I did not really have the time to show the silences on this musical score but I did not wish to bother readers with this, particularly those who do not read music. However please note the important role punctuation plays in the text in conveying the musical rests. The punctuation refers to breaths to be taken, which may more or less be calm, and then at other moments breathless and sharp. But where should the reader take breaths? In the hollow of a comma, in the foundations of a full stop, in the bed offered by the three dots of an ellipse… Yes, clearly being kept in suspense is a matter of breath! How many stories and reading have not left us breathless? And without this breathing, without breaths moving into the air, how could sound come into being?

Is it possible to give the same musical power to a scientific work? I think this to be the case and even more after reading Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss. But I had found this out before with Marcel Mauss, Laurent Olivier, Gaston Bachelard or Jean Baudrillard… Perhaps you have yourselves noticed this musicality in the writing of certain books? I am quite sure that these books will have had more effect on you than others, a little like songs which are so catchy because their hooks attract listeners.

  1. But you need to walk through all the corridors of the research notebook to open all the doors and discover all the corresponding new fields. []
  2. Yes, when I was very young I felt I was a writer at heart… My mother kept all the opening passages of these unfinished novels. I think only one of them was finished – probably because it was written for another person. []
  3. I could also refer to Rap or Slam here. []
  4. This is probably one of my favourites tales if not indeed my real favourite though I might also have to choose one of Andersen’s stories. []
  5. This was long before the advent of Punk and Lolitas with multicoloured hair. []
  6. Ah, the audience says: “But why oh why didn’t he shave? Especially since he seems to be able to afford it!” Excellent question but one which is not relevant today. []
  7. Here you may insert the little riff signifying something happened in the plot and often conveyed in writing using the following onomatopoeias: “Ta da da”… []
  8. The French phrase here, “la mélopée du malheur” is a reference to the movie “The Sound of Music” or, in French, La mélodie du bonheur []

Featured image: ♪ ♫ ♫ ♪ ♪♪ ♫  by Beto Vilaboim under Creative Commons by-nc-sa license.

This is a translation from French by Richard Dickinson, INIST-CNRS translator.

Cite this article: "Writing has to sing!", by Stéphanie Messal in Anthology. http://anthology.hypotheses.org/74

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