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When words make music in books

Clarity and readability are important in fiction, but there’s a great deal of pleasure in reading the work of writers whose sentences depend on music and rhythm.

October 30, 2021 / 07:14 AM IST
James Joyce playing a guitar in 1915. (Source: Cornell Joyce Collection via Wikimedia Commons)

James Joyce playing a guitar in 1915. (Source: Cornell Joyce Collection via Wikimedia Commons)

During an episode of Finnegan and Friends, a podcast devoted to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, professor Joseph Nugent pointed to something rather obvious, yet often overlooked. Words are carriers of meaning, he said, but they are also carriers of sound.

The writer who realised this more than most was Joyce, to which his Finnegans Wake is a mighty testament. It’s a famously impenetrable book that becomes much more enjoyable if you give up the search for meaning and allow yourself to soak in the rhythm, assonance and music of the sentences.

An obvious example is the rise and fall of the closing lines, ending with the famous “A way a lone a last a loved a long the” (circling back to the start, without a full stop). As Stephen Dedalus feels when listening to a church sermon in A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man: “He wanted to cry quietly but not for himself: for the words, so beautiful and sad, like music.”

When done well, the melody of well-arranged words can make all the difference to a work of prose. Much more rewarding to read than a procession of workmanlike sentences that plod along, determined to convey meaning at all costs.

It’s a tendency that can get the better of any writer. Nugent goes on to say: “Joyce does things very frequently for the fun of it, or because of some coincidence that was inside his own head that the rest of us have no access to whatsoever. We give up after a while imagining that we’re going to make entire sense of this book.”


An ornate and self-indulgent style isn’t necessary. There are repeated rhythms to be heard in Ernest Hemingway’s pared prose, for example, as well as in the pages of those influenced by him, such as Raymond Carver.

Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, whose works have been referred to as “prosaic music”, creates effects that are very different. His long sentences and paragraphs, often containing the thoughts of haughty misfits who have contempt for the world, use repetition and refrain in ways that are almost symphonic.

Hiding in plain sight behind the work of many stylists is a debt to tempo. “It all starts with rhythm for me,” John Banville once told the Paris Review. “A line has to sing before it does anything else. The great thrill is when a sentence that starts out being completely plain suddenly begins to sing, rising far above any expectation I might have had for it.”

For some, it goes even deeper. James Baldwin once confessed: “I think I really helplessly model myself on jazz musicians and try to write the way they sound.” All that he was doing in his work, he said at another time, was translating black music into “the disastrously explicit medium of printed language”. In his much-anthologised short story “Sonny’s Blues”, for instance, he attempts to convey the mood of music during the Harlem Renaissance.

Toni Morrison, known for the powerful lyricism of her prose, often spoke of her family’s musical roots, of listening to her mother singing in the morning, and of how this showed up in her writing. In the foreword to her novel, Jazz, she writes: “I wanted the work to be a manifestation of [jazz] music’s intellect, sensuality, anarchy; its history, its range, and its modernity.” It’s a task she carries out with impressive improvisational flair.

It should come as no surprise that many prose writers are also indebted to poetry, which after all comes the closest to music among written forms. Memoirist Jo Carroll, who immerses herself in both music and poetry, puts it well: “I’ve absorbed an understanding of rhythm without thinking about it. I can hear if a sentence needs a word with three syllables or two, if it needs clipped, shocking words or ones that stretch languorously across the page. I can hear if work needs tripping sentences to race along.”

From the choice of words to the lengths of sentences, all elements play a part. For Truman Capote, no mean stylist himself, it was about “maintaining a stylistic and emotional upper hand over your material”. A story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm, he explained, or even imprecise paragraphing and punctuation. Duke Ellington and Irving Mills would agree: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

In fiction, clarity and readability are obviously important, but it’s cadence and lilt that make the words unforgettable. If all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music, as Walter Pater once asserted, writers would do well to make full use of harmony, rhythm, and tempo.

Also read: What book cakes, book sculptures, and online images of books reveal
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.
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