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  • Lauren Straley

Two Strings But One Voice: The Interplay of Music and Literature


Vintage Piano

My father is a musician. I remember the tones of the piano ringing through my childhood home, dancing, spinning, leaping through each room to gently resonate in my ear. It was magic. As an avid sight-reader, he could sit down at the piano and play anything placed on the stand.


He taught me my first C chord and coached me through adding more to my repertoire. My passion for music began with him. I have played the piano and sung in choirs for as long as I can remember. The past 15 years, my knowledge of the musical landscape has increased with my participation in vocal training and professional choirs.


As a writer, I have always been interested in the ways that words interact with music. Are the words another layer of harmony seamlessly woven into the score, and if so how does the relationship between words and music work to enliven both distinct entities, separately and together?



Writer as Composer, Composer as Writer


Historically, writers and composers were more closely linked than we often think. Many famous writers began their artistic careers as composers and vice versa.


Princeton professor of German and Comparative Literature, Theodore Ziolkowski in his new book Music Into Fiction, dissects this very fact. His book not only looks at the writers and composers themselves, but also how their creations—both musical score and novel—are deeply informed by the other. His famous example is Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The ‘Finale’, he claims, is an attempt to evoke musically the compositions described in Doktor Faustus a novel by Thomas Mann.


The intersectional relationship between music and literature is a topic fascinating academics across the globe. During my time at Michigan State, I was involved in a study that looked at the different ways music, stories, and memory functioned collaboratively. We found that often a story or selection of music can evoke more than just a feeling, it can allow the listener to conjure an active scene—an elegant ball, a coronation, a forest chase, a lover’s quarrel.


This allows us to think about music as another form of discourse and communication. Music scholar Daniel Albright said that “understanding a sentence is much more akin to understanding a theme in music than one may think.”


Sister Arts


Music and poetry have often been discussed as sister arts, forms so inextricably linked that their relationship is more naturally understood. The broader relationship to consider is that of music and literature. How do these art forms talk to each other? Can they listen, be informed, be strengthened through looking at them in tandem?


The rise of the critical study of music and literature and evidence in popular culture would suggest that the answer is yes.


The melding and interweaving of these two art forms is not a novel idea-- even Plato discussed the relationship between text and music. Though he stringently disapproved (not surprisingly so) that in the absence of words “it is very difficult to recognize the meaning or the harmony and rhythm, or to see that any worthy object is imitated by them.” This criticism illuminates the idea of value, and the different ways that value is assigned to certain objects to create a spectrum of meaning. Funnily enough, for the reasons that Plato criticized this divorce of music and words, Derrida would praise it. From a deconstructionist lens, meaning is subjectively assigned, therefore without a permeable meaning, the meaning is, in essence, absent, making it more pure and true.


Value is inherently subjective and vulnerable to changes throughout time. As art forms, music and literature are deeply ingrained in many societies and cultures. Their relationship makes more sense when taking into account the cultural valence of each form and the different ways society interacts with each of them.


Is there a connection between what we read and what we hear?


Yes, it is what we see.


Invention through Imagination


Often when we talk about the visual, we talk about it in physical terms. But in the context of music and literature, vision becomes more about what our mind sees, not our eyes.


What does Jane Eyre look like, how about Anna Karenina? Both Brontë and Tolstoy don’t really give the reader much to work with, rather they put the work on the reader to ‘see’ the character and create them with their own imaginations. Music challenges us to do the same.


As a listener, we may not be familiar with every language spoken by a particular performer. But the structure of the melody, the time signature, tonalities, pace, style all influence the way we hear, therefore experience a piece.


Accomplished academic, author, and editor Eva Hoffman says that “when I started writing, I found that music had become embedded in my mind, or cells, as a sort of template.” Having grown up a pianist, she found that the power of music influenced her career in writing in a profound, mystical way. She says there are “elusive qualities which [she] wanted to transfer from music to words.” This interplay allows the beauty of each medium to be even more glorified with the addition of the other.


The relationship between music and literature is like family—dysfunctional and diverse yet at the same time fueled and bonded by love.

Shakespeare’s work is one of many that has been adapted to music. One of the most well-known is from the Twelfth Night, “If Music Be the Food of Love, play on!”

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