Words and Music

Excerpt from the book “Gig Tales”

By John Cain

Waxing Philosophical…(Oh, that unsightly philosophical wax buildup!)

Buried in the bottom lines of a recent e-mail chat with writer John Wolf he wrote this:

    "We are of what we can understand and we only understand what our words can tell us. Twenty-six letters like the twelve tone scale is an endless canvas to express our tales, climb over walls of controversy, conquer countries with sweeping verbosity, or be lost in hollow accounts of what we can not think when at a loss for words."

          As a professional musician his words really struck a chord with me, so to speak, because I’m a musician who wrote a book about music and musicians, rather than a writer who wrote a book about music.  As a musician I’m accustomed to expressing myself with music but in writing a book it was a difficult challenge for me to do so with words.  So, Wolf’s words got me thinking about the correlations between the written word and music.  Though both of these genres of expression require talent and practice of craft I believe it is more difficult to express moods and emotions with words than with music.  Let me explain.

          Written words and music have a couple of things in common; a piece of writing, an essay, a poem, short story or novel, can be considered the equivalent to the musical performance of a composer’s work.  Also, the effect of the writer’s work and the composer’s tune is internal.  It happens within the mind of the reader and the listener.  A major difference, however, is that a writer creates his work in private whereas a musician creates his work in public. When you perform live music the reward is instant because the performance and the audience are present in the moment. (Or you can bomb in an instant, too!)  Writing is more of a vicarious marathon.  An author doesn’t get instant feedback. The book goes out there and he hopes people read it and like it, but he’s not there to know what their reaction is to his work.  It takes time for that to happen.

          This subject of music as language is the topic of endless discussion among musicians.  Music, we have decided, actually has a larger lexicon than spoken or written language even though it uses merely 12 tones. But because music is sound it is more akin to spoken language than written language.  In a few seconds music can communicate moods, feelings and imply ideas that would require hundreds of words to express in writing and much more time for the reader to understand.  With writing, things must be described, defined and explained.

          As human creatures we are full of imagination, ideas, fantasies and emotions that if we were to speak about in normal everyday life with others, they'd throw a net over us.  It is considered inappropriate to discuss certain things, especially fantasies, in public.  But it is acceptable to express them with music-and other forms of art.  Since communication is a two way street the recipient of music, the listener, is in on the game.  The music says what the listener is feeling or wants to say but cant because he is, as Wolf says, “…lost in hollow accounts of what we can not think when at a loss for words."  On some subliminal level he or she understands the meaning of what the music is saying.  The listener “gets it.”  The music is expressing something the listener has felt but could never put into words exactly.

          A writer, on the other hand, does put it into words exactly.  Using 26 letters of the alphabet the writer’s skill is to literally express those same taboo ideas and feelings with words, and to do this without having some one throw a net over him or getting thrown in jail.  And, of course this happens to writers all too often.  Do we need a reminder of how important freedom of speech is?  Written words are usually deemed more dangerous than musical expression.  Writers who broach taboo subjects or tell the naked truth are always getting into trouble with the authorities, particularly when they critique those in power or whip up a revolution.  (American revolutionary troublemaker Thomas Paine comes to mind.) 

          Good composers of music really know how to yank one’s emotional chain in the same way a good writer can tell a story that will bring a tear to one’s eye or make the reader laugh out loud.  About 350 years ago Johan Sebastian Bach figured it all out, at least for the musical lexicon.  He made a list of all the major and minor keys and assigned emotional values to each key, (the key of D-minor being the saddest key of all.)  Music also has the unfair advantage of using the timbre of the musical instruments.  These are like the voices of the characters in a novel.  For example, a composer knows that the timbre of a tuba can sound like a fat guy and the trilling of a flute can sound like a ballerina.  How about the famous John Williams score for the movie “Jaws?”   Ever since, the sound of bass fiddles bowing in unison that simple half-step interval, (low-high…low-high…duh-duh…duh-duh), makes us think of a huge great white shark about to attack.  One of the smallest instruments is the harmonica yet its timbre seems to wield extraordinary emotional impact on the listener, particularly in American culture.  The harmonica evokes images of a lonely railroad track, the blues of a destitute prisoner, or it can be happy like a country hoedown, or draw images of the immensity of the open prairies and the Wild West.  Then there are the more comic musical sounds; banjoes and kazoos go together to make a silly mood, so do a slide whistle with a pie in the face or a bicycle horn with a rubber chicken.  A slide trombone with marimba and ocarina together will express lighthearted whimsy.  And what would a borsht-belt comedian be without his punch line rim shots?

          A writer, on the other hand, has to use words to imply or describe what the voice of the characters sounds like so that the reader imagines the sound in his mind.  A skillful writer can weave his tale with words, evoking a sense of mystery, terror, irony or humor without all the advantages of musical instruments mentioned above.

          The writer’s task is to communicate without the advantage of sound.  His talent is to tell a story, evoke moods, inform and hypnotize, to create a world inside the mind of the reader with nothing but words. And what power these words have when wielded by a skillful writer.  Just as Wolf said, with words we… “climb over walls of controversy, conquer countries with sweeping verbosity.”  

          Words and music are the sacred language of our species and we have the right to use them as we choose.  But the power of music and words can be used for good or evil.  Written words and pieces of music can and have been used to both inspire and brainwash.  People have laughed, cried, fallen in love, been imprisoned and killed for music and words.  So, just like comic book super heroes let’s vow to use our powers as writers and musicians for good, not evil!