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Music and the Quickening of Story

By Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Spalding Low-Residency MFA Faculty (Writing for Children & Young Adults)

Susan 2015

Recently, I was sitting with a group of women writers, and the conversation turned to music concerts.

“What was the first concert you went to?” asked one of the women. Around the table, various artists and band names were tossed out and the women oohed and ahhed: Aerosmith. Guns ‘N Roses. Bruce Springsteen. Even some oldies: the Beach Boys. Neil Diamond. James Taylor. Joni Mitchell. Carole King.

My first concert?

Van Cliburn, who was performing in Scranton. I was twelve. Afterward, my mother and I stopped at Chick’s Diner for hot chocolate.

Blog Van Cliburn

Van Cliburn

The entire table of women erupted in laughter, and I laughed too. I never have been cool. More importantly, the memory of that night still feels magical.

I know many writers who create playlists. I don’t have a playlist, though music informs my writing.

For me, a story begins with music. If I can’t find the pitch, the rhythm, the tone, of what it is I’m trying to say, I can’t find my way into the story. Even if I have the basic elements of the story, those elements will not quicken. Without music, I cannot breathe a story to life.

Award-winning author-illustrator Maurice Sendak recognized the difficulty in quickening art. In his book Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books & Pictures, he wrote, “It is no difficult matter for an artist to simulate action, but it is something else to quicken, to create an inner life that draws breath from the artist’s deepest perception.”

That bears repeating, and emphasis: “to create an inner life that draws breath from our deepest perception.”

As writers, we know that stories have a certain anatomy, certain anatomical parts: characters, setting, narration, dialogue, events that form scenes, and scenes that form plot.

We also know it’s one thing to write a story that’s anatomically correct, but quite another thing, a far more difficult thing, to quicken the words, to breathe the words to life so that they become a story.

How do we find that breath? How do we draw that breath?

blog wild things

The key, I think, is right there, in Sendak’s words “inner life.” We have to find the story’s inner life, and in so doing, we put our finger on its rhythm. Its heartbeat. Its music.

The dictionary defines music as the art or science of combining vocal or instrumental sounds- or both – in order to produce form, harmony, and expression of emotion. The pleasurable sounds that we call “music” are created by physical factors of pitch, rhythm, and tone quality. (And, of course, “pleasurable” is a subjective experience.)

“Not only does music reach us on intellectual, social, and emotional levels,” says Dr. David Greenburg, a music psychologist at the University of Cambridge and City University at New York, “but many describe it as spiritual or mystical. . . . [M]usic can induce a psychological state in both the musicians and the listener that is beyond words to describe. Music can bring us back to ourselves, be our mirror, and show us a side of us we may have long forgotten or never knew existed.” [You can read his article here]

The same can be said for stories. It’s the story’s music – its pulse – that causes me to turn the pages in a book. Emotions form our character’s inner foundation, and it’s that inner foundation that brings me back to myself, that holds a mirror to me, or reveals to me a side of myself that I’d forgotten or never knew existed.

Emotion is the pulse of a scene, and that, in turn, creates tension. If an action has no inner emotional foundation, it cannot hold my attention. (I say that, but even in saying that, I can recall tearing through Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code. But as I read, I didn’t care about any of the characters. I didn’t care who lived, who died, who wore that painful device on his leg. I only cared about getting the puzzles right.)

Scientists tell us that sound—music–is carried on air. This means that each time I breathe in, I am inhaling music. (Samuel T. Coleridge said as much in his poem “The Aeolian Harp.” Methinks it should have been impossible/Not to love all things in a world so filled;/ Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air/Is Music slumbering on her instrument.”

Blog harp

Music is as essential as air. Take a deep breath. Breathe it in. Let it become a part of you. Let your lungs take it in. Imagine its rhythm circulating in your bloodstream. It is feeding your skin, your tissues, your organs, your very marrow.

Now close your eyes. Put your hand over your heart or two fingers on your pulse. Feel it. Feel your pulse, your heartbeat—its rhythm, its iambic pulse—daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM.

Music was there – in your heart, in your veins – at the beginning. (No wonder iambic pentameter is the most widely used line in English metrical verse.) And so music must be there, in our stories at the beginning. It is through music that our stories are made alive – quickened, if you will.


Susan Campbell Bartoletti is a Newbery Honor-winning author who teaches writing for children and young adults in Spalding’s low-residency MFA program. Since her Van Cliburn concert, she has attended other very cool concerts, though she admits she’ll never be cool enough to have a playlist. This blog post grew out of a lecture she has given during the Spalding residency.



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