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Music strikes a chord with great writers, new book finds

8 September 2017

A new book by Professor Dominic Wyse from the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) identifies music as a key influence on great poets and novelists of the past century.

The book, 'How Writing Works', analyses reports of interviews given by some of the greats of modern literature to the Paris Review, the quarterly literary magazine. These include interviews from Ted Hughes, Haruki Murakami, William Faulkner and Jack Kerouac, all of whom referenced links between music and their own or others’ compositions. 

Writing

Jack Kerouac told the Review that jazz had been so influential on his work that, when writing poetry, he even used the size of his notebook to limit the length of a line of a poem in the way that musical bars provide structure for a jazz composition.

Professor Wyse writes that both written text and music – particularly as written for performance by wind instruments or to be sung – are influenced by the rhythm of breathing. Or, as he puts it, “constrained by the human capacity to breathe”.

This link is made explicit by Kerouac, who cites the case of “tenor [saxophonist] drawing a breath and blowing a phrase on his saxophone till he runs out of breath, and when he does, his sentence, his statement’s been made…That’s how I therefore separate my sentences, as breath separations of the mind.”

Professor Wyse describes the influence of music on writing as “unsurprising”, as “sounds and music were the substrate on which human language evolved”. “The ability to make musical sounds with the voice, and to use objects percussively, all came before the ability to write,” he states.

The book also explores two bestselling authors on the English language: Lynne Truss and Stephen Pinker.

When exploring arguments around grammar and punctuation, Professor Wyse criticises an assertion by Lynne Truss, in her bestselling book on punctuation, ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’. Truss had written that: “there remains the awful truth that, for over a quarter of a century, punctuation and English grammar were simply not taught in the majority of schools”.

Professor Wyse says Truss had offered no evidence for this claim, which seemed related to the period 1963 to 1988. He points to a government inquiry in 1967 which had stressed the need for pupils’ punctuation to be corrected where it “impeded communication”. He suggests that Truss’s argument was “illogical”, because young people would not have been able to pass exams had they not been taught punctuation, grammar and spelling.

Professor Wyse also argues that Stephen Pinker failed to take enough account of context and the importance of subjectivity in categorising writing as either “strong” or not in Pinker’s book ‘The Sense of Style’. Professor Wyse uses the introduction to Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ to show that, while the opening of the book might fall into Pinker’s category of “banal/not strong” writing, the book’s great success was dependent more on the context of its contribution, including how it interacted with the knowledge and interests of its readership.

Professor Wyse discussed the book at the British Educational Research Association (BERA) Conference this week. It is due to be published in October 2017.

Media contact

James Russell
Tel: 020 3108 8516
Email: james.russell@ucl.ac.uk

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