The Influence of the Arts on my Writing (pt. 3a)
What music can impart on the written word 1/2
It differs from writing in the sense that, at a moment’s notice, it’s able to convey a continuous stream of non-verbal, pure emotional energy at incredible bandwidth and fidelity. Graphic Design of text can increase this emotional bandwidth but it will never reach the same order of magnitude impact as sound and music. Paintings are similar in emotional rawness potential, so much can be said at once with one piece, but they’re static like text.
However, music is similarly linear to writing. There is a start, and an end. There is directionality, a journey. There are also interesting perspectives that can be gained by understanding the language of music, and learning how to play a music instrument.
Let’s dive in and see what music has taught me about good writing.
Find what resonates
At the age of 5, I received a yamaha keyboard as a christmas gift, and for the next ten-or-so years I managed to teach myself “listen and copy” skills. I made a game with myself to try to copy the melody of a song I liked, or to play in harmony with a song that was playing on the radio. Truth be told, playing music became like a drug for me. There were real dopamine hits when I found myself able to play along with songs, not only because they were played by multiple talented adults (and little me was playing alongside them!!), but also because harmonizing with them made me feel the power and emotion of the music tenfold. A truly resonating activity.
With writing, there's a surprising amount that we can learn about ourselves by reading stuff written by other people, not for the subject matter necessarily, but from style (the way the author expresses, phrases, and weaves a piece together) and subtext (inferred meaning and context of a piece) and how it resonates with us. I can resonate strongly with a writer's style, so much so that I don't really care what they're writing about because I just love anything their writing touches. Surround yourself with good and joyful writing, because you’ll benefit from the exposure and symbiosis. And knowing what you like is always good insight to have, regardless.
Next level results require a different approach from what got you here in the first place
(This learning is a bit long and abstract, but I hope you follow along because it blew my mind a bit when I realized its implications.)
First, zoom in and accumulate enough practice to achieve technical proficiency.
The game I played with myself slowly started building the foundation for musical intuition. But my form was not great, and to improve that I needed instruction from a piano teacher. This I did by asking, at age 15, if I could take piano lessons. “Sure,” mom said, “if you’re able to find a teacher!”. I don’t know how one thing led to the other, but somehow I ended up asking my school librarian if she would teach me piano. To clarify: She was a retired piano teacher working this part-time job as a librarian at my school. I must have stirred something in her because she basically came out of “piano-teaching” retirement just for me!
We did not do much of the drills and rudimentary learning because I had self-taught myself a lot already - enough to actually play songs by ear. I understood rhythm, tone, melody and harmony. So we jumped straight into finding cool pieces I wanted to play, but I had another problem: As a result of my “wild” musical upbringing, I had also not learned how to read music very well.
With reading notes, I was like the person who types with their two index fingers. I could do it, but I was far from flying. And I definitely couldn't multitask while I did it, like reading AND playing the notes on the piano. This is called to play by sight, or sight reading music.
Working around this gap in skill, my usual routine became (and still is) something like this: I used music sheets as reference. First, I would learn one bar at the time by heart, and slowly chip away until I knew the entire piece by heart. Once I had incorporated all the raw information and technique for playing it, I could finally fully focus on playing it nicely and coherently. This is where the real work began.
You’re “here”. You have enough practice. Now, zoom out so you can express something as a whole, not its parts.
At this point, I had many hours of practice behind me and I already had the finger strength, dexterity and coordination needed to technically play each note the way it was intended. Yet, I needed to practice to the point where I was able to forget about the individual atomic parts of playing music, to allow all the pieces to become the background of my true focus: expressing the music as a whole.
Expressing a musical piece as a whole is harrrrd 🏴☠️ It’s the difference between a smooth conversation versus a forced and awkward dialog. An excellent example of this is this video by TwoSetViolin, where they solicit the help and mentorship of child prodigy Chloe Chua to learn a mad difficult piece: Paganiniana. Watch from this timestamp one example of their attempt, and the feedback they receive from Chloe.
It's interesting, the unintuitive relationship between extremely advanced pieces that require insane amount of precision, and the skill and mentality needed to play them effortlessly. When faced with something hard, we naturally start engaging our minds and body in anticipation of the extra control we think we need in order to execute well. We may subconsciously start to “tense up your shoulders”. Instead, it turns out that we need more of the opposite: a simple prompt like “relax your wrist” helped clear a blockage of interrelated mental and physical performance issues. In painting, this is akin to squinting so your subject becomes a blur and your focus is drawn to the subject as a whole and not its details.
And how about writing?
With writing, you need a certain amount of reps so that you can get to the point where you can forget it all and focus on the expression of the whole piece. First, you must be in a healthy headspace and intimately know your writing tools well. Only “practice, practice, practice” will help you overcome this.
Now turn your attention to the overarching feeling of a piece of writing. Do you have a vision in mind on what a good piece of writing looks and feels like as a whole? If not, start forcing yourself to have an opinion about everything you read. This is related to the point above, Find What Resonates.
If you think you have an idea, wonderful. This is where the real work begins ☺️ The “tense up your shoulders” version of next step sounds like “analyze every sentence in your piece three or four times to make it perfect”. The “relax your wrist” version of next steps could sound something like “ensure momentum, surprise and satisfaction throughout. make it flow.”
At Write of Passage, they have a helpful formula called CRIBS, which stands for:
C = Confusing, R = Repeated, I = Insightful, B = Boring, S = Surprise
You generally want to remove and neutralize Confusing, Repeating, and Boring parts, then you want to increase Insightful and Surprising parts. Incorporating CRIBS is a shortcut to start correcting the posture of a written piece.
However, it’s missing something about Flow and Momentum, so I’m glad to say that we can look again to music to teach us a bit about this — next week!
It turns out I had much more to say about music than I originally thought.
How are these personal lessons on art influencing my writing hitting so far? Are they useful, illumination… or boring? Would love to hear your thoughts.
Give this letter a heart 💌 if you liked it and I’ll see you next week.
Another great read! Loved the pic of you at the keyboard - so sweet! The focus and determination you displayed even at a tender age is so remarkable, unique, impressive, astounding....running out of words here....It's in your nature to delve deep into interests (and there are many!) that cross your path, and that is so wonderful. Stay inspired, curious, and continue on your amazing journey of discovery and learning. We all should.
Wonderful article! And such a sweet photo of you at the keyboard. A lovely present from Apho and late Akung. Never seen it before.
Your piano journey astounds me! You had the talent at such a young age to figure out harmonization. For me who learnt piano in boarding school in India (taught by a German nun, Sister Cecilia) theory was drudgery and harmonizing notes were incomprehensible.