What Good Music Can Teach Us About Writing

I was thinking about this the other day while on hold. I was waiting for a break in the music that signaled that someone was going to rescue me from the unending monotony, so when the music would change from stringed instruments music to a pause, I’d get excited…only to have the music start another movement.

And it got me thinking about plotting. I realized there are three things we can learn from good music (and from bad music, in a let’s-avoid-doing-what-they-did sort of way).

the best spot by nosha used per permission of creative commons<br /> http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

  • Beware repetition…in wording, pacing, and plot. Some readers will be sensitive to words, to where reusing something like “twisted,” “inspected,” “challenged,” “taunted,” or other unique verbs, adjectives, or nouns will stand out. Others will notice plotting more, to where moments where the main character thinks about the past, or contemplates their dreams, or practices their battle skills will ring in their ears. But all readers will be aware of repetition on some level, and as a writer, you need to also pay attention to it. If your plot repeats the same notes, in words or action,  you run the risk of monotony.

Of course, repetition can be a good thing. You can repeat elements in the story, just as a piece of music repeats a motif. You can weave certain themes throughout scenes, or even repeat actions, to where a character demonstrates how much he or she has changed by going for the same walk, facing the same challenge, or recalling the same memory with new information or a changed perspective.

  • Avoid monotony in rhythm. In addition to the drone of overusing events and words, there can be monotony in sentence structure. If you always word things as “Subject-verb; Subject-verb; Subject-verb-direct-object; Subject-verb,” your writing will have a very particular rhythm that will have the equivalent of a pounding beat for some readers. Varying things up with sentences where the subject comes after a preposition or a participial phrase and using longer sentences, where the reader gets more description or action before the next subject can help change up the pace.
  • Be sensitive to the expectations you’re creating. Music creates certain expectations. After a certain point, we come to anticipate that the lyrics will rhyme, that a pause is coming, that the end is near, and when the music defies these expectations, we can feel jolted, frustrated, or even more eager for the promised climax.

Again, this can be a good thing. By creating expectations, you build anticipation, as readers want to see if their expectations are fulfilled and in what way, and even delaying things can be a good thing, if handled well. They may not get the climax, but they get something satisfactory while waiting for the promised ending. (This is especially useful in a series, where perhaps the biggest of “big events” can’t happen for a while, so you give the readers something to assuage their “hunger” while they wait for the feast at the end.) But playing fast and loose with expectations can cause readers to give up on an author, to where they decide it’s not worth bothering and to go read something else.


Of course, no two fields of art are identical, and some of the challenges in writing are unique to writing alone, but there are many things that art shares, in general. Analyzing what we like in one art form can show us how we can make our own art even better, and even listening to hold music can have its moments of usefulness. 🙂


Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren

Image by nosha, Creative Commons

One thought on “What Good Music Can Teach Us About Writing

  1. Re: Story as music

    I like your analogy of the story and the song. It’s not surprising since both are – in evolution – forms of aural communication.
    I think the old advice that an author listen to her/his-own reading of the story is good advice. Read out loud with expression and the repetitive word, phrase or sentiment soon become apparent. Also the flow of the language might be more easily judged.

    John Coffey


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.