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Words are songs…

In Bluets, Maggie Nelson shares Maurice Merleau-Ponty‘s observation: ‘words do not look like the things they designate’. They might not look like them, but they can sound like them.

Boom, crash, bang, miaow, toot toot – onomatopoeic words are the most familiar examples. But as the FT’s Anjana Ahuja underlines in her review of Steven Mithen’s The Language Puzzle: How We Talked Our Way Out of the Stone Age, the association runs wider and deeper: “In 1929, the American anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir told a group of unwitting study participants that the made-up words mil and mal referred to different-sized tables, then asked them to guess which referred to the bigger table. Whether the volunteers were English or Chinese, child or adult, about 80 per cent intuitively chose mal. That same year, the German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler pulled a similar trick with maluma and takete, asking people to identify which meant “round” and which meant “spiky”. Maluma was overwhelmingly linked to a round shape; the sharp movements of the tongue required to utter takete led volunteers to associate it with a spiky shape.” So the sound of a word sets off a sense in our heads, and at times a non-sense – there is no rational reason why the bigger table could not have been the mil. But our ears instinctively tend to tell us otherwise.

Words are songs, not signs. So it pays to pay close attention not just to their definition but also to their sound. Their meaning and their melody.

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The sound I saw…

Conceived, designed, written and made by hand by master photographer Roy Decarava, The Sound I Saw brings words and images together brilliantly to tell its story. As Roy says in the introduction, “This is a book about people, about jazz, and about things… It represents pictures and words from one head and one heart.”

What a head; what a heart.  And what a hand and eye:

Through big arresting black & white images, Roy weaves words in carefully crafted lines, rather than unthinking blocks of text. Lines are broken here, indented there, always in service of the story Roy wants to tell. It’s what the great information artist Edward Tufte calls content-responsive typography in his latest book Seeing With Fresh Eyes. In this way, Roy amplifies the meaning and melody running through The Sound I Saw.

Inspired by Roy and Edward and in lieu of a new year’s resolution, here’s a new year’s tip:

write with your eyes and ears.

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Close to music…

As close to music as I can get is how I like to write.

As Oliver Reichenstein points out, “Being fully immersed in writing is like composing and playing music while we drum up our perceptions into letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs.” In his post on Music in Writing, he shares Martin Amis’s take: “What you’re trying to do is: Be faithful to your perceptions, and transmit them as faithfully as you can… You know I just say these sentences again and again in my head, until they sound right. And there is no objective reason why they sound right. They just sound right to me. So it’s euphony, sometimes it’s harshness you want. But it’s… it’s just matching up the perception with the words… in a kind of semi-musical way.”

Beyond the sheer pleasure of listening to the melody, beat and tone of your words as you write, why write this way? Grace Nichols nails it: “The rhythm and musicality of poetry is more direct in its appeal to the human heart and spirit.” In short, musical writing is more effective.

So, write with your ears, and let your sentences sing.

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The noise words make…

Sorting through various family papers, I came across a letter the poet P J Kavanagh had written to my mum back in 1980. In it he says that “what distinguishes verse from prose is a tune. Not necessarily an obvious one but some sort of pleasing noise nevertheless… If you re-read one of your favourite poems, with this in mind, you will discover that a large part of what makes you like it and remember it is the noise it makes.”

Robert Macfarlane picks up the theme while bringing prose into poetry’s soundworld: “We think a lot about rhythm in poetry but we don’t talk about it so much in prose. But I’ve always felt that rhythm in language speaks to the backbone, to the back of the scalp. It’s what makes the head tingle if you get it right, and it does a form of communication that propositional language doesn’t. And so when I’m writing prose, as much as I can I work on the rhythms. And the very last thing I do with any book, and I’ve just done it with 130,000 words of Underland, is I speak it back out to myself, on my own.”

So whether it’s 130,000 words or 130 – make your words not only ring true but sing, too.

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The whew in blue…

Far and away my favourite read of the summer was On Being Blue. In a little under a hundred pages, William H Glass explores no end of essential thoughts and feelings – from the importance of loving the language you use to the definition of genius: the ability to see a long way, swiftly.

Here he is on the character evoked simply by the sound of blue and other colours: “The word itself has another color. It’s not a word with any resonance, although the e was once pronounced. There is only the bump now between b and l, the relief at the end, the whew. It hasn’t the sly turn which crimson takes halfway through, yellow’s deceptive jelly, or the rolled-down sound in brown. It hasn’t violet’s rapid sexual shudder, or like a rough road the irregularity of ultramarine, the low puddle in mauve like a pancake covered with cream, the disapproving purse to pink, the assertive brevity of red, the whine of green…”

Rich, eloquent, precise. Brilliant and beautiful. A mini masterpiece on life, language, and all things blue.

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Dear Andy…

How do you brief creative folk? Mick Jagger’s letter to Andy Warhol is a great example:

“Dear Andy,

I’m really pleased you can do the art-work for our new hits album. Here are 2 boxes of material you can use, and the record. In my short sweet experience, the more complicated the format of the album, e.g. more complex than just pages or fold-out, the more fxxxxx up the reproduction and agonising the delays. But, having said that, I leave it in your capable hands to do whatever you want………..and please write back saying how much money you would like.

Doubtless a Mr Al Steckler will contact you in New York, with any further information. He will probably look nervous and say “Hurry up” but take little notice.

Love, Mick Jagger.”

I’m really pleased you can do the work… Here is some background material… I trust you… Do whatever you think best – the perfect brief.

So did Andy do a good job? Well, according to a Rolling Stone readers poll it’s one of the best album covers of all time.

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Melodic fragments…

I’ve just finished reading How Music Works – a mighty fine book by one of my heroes, David Byrne. It’s packed full of all kinds of good thoughts and insights – from the importance of context in any kind of creation to the need for empathy for any type of communication, from the vocal roots of song to the merits of amateurs.

Oh yes, and the multi-layered, non-hierarchical nature of acoustic culture compared to the relatively fixed views of visual culture – “In an acoustic world one senses essence, whereas in a visual universe one sees categories and hierarchies.” It’s a point that’s all the stronger coming from a dude who’s known not only for great songs but also great images – he of the totally enormous big suit and collabs with the late great Tibor Kalman.

Along the way, he describes how he came up with the lyrics for one of my favourite songs, Once In A Lifetime. “I tried not to censor the potential lyrics I wrote down. Sometimes I would sing the melodic fragments over and over, trying random lyric phrases, and I could sense when one syllable was more appropriate than another. I began to notice, for example, that the choice of a hard consonant instead of a soft one implied something, something emotional. A consonant wasn’t merely a formal decision, it felt different. Vowels, too had emotional resonances – a soft ooh and a pinched aah have very different associations.”

So the trick is to treat consonants and vowels, the building blocks of your words, as melodic fragments – for as Mr Byrne highlights, the feeling as much as the meaning is key.

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Why add the adjective?…

In 1956, sci-fi horror doyen Richard Matheson wrote a story he called The Shrinking Man. When Hollywood came to make the movie they couldn’t resist mucking with the title: in 1957 The Incredible Shrinking Man was released. It went on to become a cult classic but Mr Matheson was understandably irked by that extra word: “It’s already pretty incredible that a guy is shrinking!” he said. “Why add the adjective?”

A neat reminder to leave out what you don’t need in. Although, on reflection, you could make a case for keeping that “incredible” in as it adds a certain melodic rhythm to the title.

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Oh! Kersliver…

To the Southbank with the family for a free singalong with the lovely Cerys Mathews and assorted London folk, all gathered to dip our voices into Hook, Line and Singer – Ms Mathews’ mighty fine collection of songs to singalong to.

Among the songs we sang was an early version of Clementine, which included in its lyrics a wonderfully evocative phrase describing how the ill-fated Clema falls into the river: Oh! Kersliver.

Conjuring and combining a curse and a slither – when I hear the phrase I can picture poor Clema trip-slip-sliding down the bank to her death. Oh kersliver indeed!

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The melody is the message…

In Episode 2 of Noise: A Human History, Professor David Hendy speculates that millions of years ago our earliest ancestors “had a kind of sing song utterance that was a curious mix of both language and music.”

Fast forwarding to the hear and now, he evokes teenagers texting: “That hidden melody and rhythm of constant toing and froing with words. The melody is the message. We’re hearing the building up of a strong bond between friends. The rhythm provides the means of us touching at a distance.”

From yesteryear’s cavemen to today’s texters, when it comes to communication – to touching at a distance – the music as much as the meaning is key.