Emphasis: Words and Music

Meaghan Scott

The chapter on emphasis, by Williams and Bizup, reminded me of music. When someone is learning how to play music for the first time they are taught techniques. But once they get to a certain level it becomes necessary to stretch within those techniques in order to allow the interior feel of the music, as well as their own unique rhythms of playing, to come out. For example, when I used to play piano there was a piece by Lorie Line that I simply loved to play, but I could never get it to sound the way she played it. This frustrated me for a long time until one day my dad, who had been listening to me practice, told me that he had listened to her play it and enjoyed my way better. This was not only due to the fact that I would play some parts slower than she did, but also because of the different places I would stress certain notes.

Much of writing can be similar to this. As Williams and Bizup point out, “If you have managed your subjects and topics well, you will, by default, put the words you want to emphasize toward the ends of your sentences” (Williams and Bizup 2014, 84). In other words, managing the subjects and topics well are following the techniques of writing that you’ve learned. When this is done right, the emphasis follows as though you are letting your own unique interior beat take over at just the right moment to make beautiful writing in a similar way to musicians who make beautiful music. I also appreciated the method they give you to test this idea in your own writing which sounded like a musical technique as well: “To test this, read your sentence aloud, and as you reach the last three or four words, tap your finger hard as if emphasizing them in a speech. If you tap on words that do not deserve strong emphasis, look for words that do. Then put those words closer to the end” (84). This is a perfect example of checking your work in a way that is outside the comfort zone of technique.

This technique is used by musicians as well for film scores. You hear the melody at the beginning but it doesn’t get to the best part of the music right away. It slowly gets more and more intensely beautiful until near or at the end of the piece, which is when you get the climax of the same melody you heard before. Score writers do this on purpose to fit the storyline which is similar to what writers need to do for readers who “look to the last few words for emphasis” (84). I don’t think I’ve ever really thought of writing this way before but it makes sense, especially since I can look back and sometimes see when I’ve done it this way before without even realizing it. Readers are looking for the point just as film goers are, and the way they both do this is through the writers, whether writers of words or of music.

Perhaps the coolest part of this whole emphasis thing is being able to use it with entire paragraphs and not just sentences: “Put key words in the stress position of the first sentence of a passage in order to emphasize the key ideas that organize the rest of it” (89). This is a helpful tool when writing and revising and this is another good time for music to come in. I don’t know about my particular readers, but I write much better when listening to music, especially soundtracks or really any type of music that fits the tone I want to come out in my writing. During a semester course on Oscar Wilde, I would listen to the motion picture soundtrack for the movie Gladiator while I wrote my final research paper. I would listen to the entire thing from beginning to end, but then listen to whichever particular song I liked the most that day, repeating it multiple times. The next examples are from my paper, where listening to the music from this particular movie seemed to reach into my writing:

1. The characters in all of these texts experience suffering at a deep level, some more drastically than others. For some, suffering has a redemptive quality, while for others there seems to be no hope of redemption. Spiritual fragmentation produces suffering, shown in the separation of the soul from the body as well as the heart. It is when we are fragmented that we experience suffering. One other important cause of fragmentation is the loss of conscience, either by neglect or harmful influence. And yet, as we will see in these texts, reintegration of body and soul can cause yet another form of suffering. This can be either redemptive or corruptive in nature and at the same time it can be ambiguously both.
2. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde’s belief in the redemptive power of suffering takes a dark turn. Dorian becomes fragmented by exchanging his soul for the self-centered purpose of eternal youth. He becomes obsessed with himself and his own beauty, which consumes him to the point of corruption.

At the end of the first sentence in each paragraph, where I changed some words to bold, you can hear the emphasis in the words. It fascinates me that somehow this happened in my writing without my conscious effort at the time. It seems to me the music had something to do with it, especially as I listened to it again while reading these paragraphs. I was thrilled to find it in my writing before even taking this course and learning about how to use emphasis in writing. It was also interesting in rereading this paper, to find other spots where using emphasis would have resulted in a stronger paper:

1. The end of the story leaves us with images of redemption, not only for the fisherman but for the priest as well. This stems from the spiritual integration which is experienced by both characters. The fisherman’s soul has longed to enter back into his heart which it was deprived of in the beginning of the story when he had cut it away from himself: “Wherefore will I tempt thee no longer, but I pray thee to suffer me to enter thy heart, that I may be one with thee even as before” (173). The fisherman responds in the affirmative, and acknowledges the soul’s suffering in the world, but as he is going to allow the soul back in the soul cannot find room: “Alas!” cried his Soul, “I can find no place of entrance, so compassed about with love is this heart of thine” (173-174). At this point the mermaid finally returns to the story, but she washes up on shore, dead. We are not told how she died or even how she turned up where the fisherman was.

The first two sentences of this example did not seem to have any type of strong emphasis to guide the rest of the paragraph. After reading it and returning to the previous paragraphs I mentioned, you can see the difference emphasis can truly make.

So what exactly has to happen for writers to do this? Many seem to naturally find some sort of rhythm and it flows onto the page through their words, I’m sure without realizing it. I have encountered this in some of my siblings’ as well as my friends’ writing, when they are not able to see how much their writing flows because they are too worried about the rules. This is how writers can lose their sense of flow and rhythm. They get so wrapped up in the rules they are trying so hard to follow, that they can potentially miss out on the natural rhythms happening in their thinking. In the same way musicians need to find their natural rhythms after learning the rules, writers need to find theirs. These rhythms don’t always seem to be right, but I argue they can sometimes be a better starting point than the rules. I tend to be a rule follower so this isn’t something I would usually say either. Rules, techniques, methods, or whatever you want to call them have their crucial place in writing, as well as in playing music, but I have seen people get so lost in trying to follow them so strictly (myself included, being somewhat of a perfectionist) that the creativity gets lost. The above examples of my own writing seem to me as if they could be flukes, but really it could have simply been that for once I let go of the rules to get my ideas on paper, and chose to let the rest of it flow before using the rules to tone it. Creativity is part of being a human being and I would say is necessary even in the most formal of writing, but it does not come by thinking about rules to the point of freezing all of one’s thoughts. Even serious writing needs creativity or it will seem dead and dry. This is where I think emphasis is needed the most, to prevent this from happening.


Williams, Joseph M., and Joseph Bizup. 2014. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. New York:  Pearson.



Add yours →

  1. Meaghan, I’m obsessed with your phrase “outside the comfort zone of technique.” What a fabulous motto! Comparing writing to music works so well here. It’s personal to you but it’s also something most readers can relate to… as we saw in class when Hans Zimmer came up. The idea that broken rules can be beautiful is an intriguing point. Maybe Lori Line is a professional pianist but that doesn’t mean that your version isn’t appealing or even better to some listeners (same with writing). That leaves me wonderin’ how you know when it’s okay to break rules (or if you can). Also, do you have to have mastered the rule to earn breaking rights?! And are these rules even real?


  2. Meaghan, I’m obsessed with your phrase “outside the comfort zone of technique.” What a fabulous motto! The idea that broken rules can be beautiful is an intriguing point. Maybe Lori Line is a professional pianist but that doesn’t mean that your version isn’t appealing or even better to some listeners (same with writing). That leaves me wonderin’ how you know when it’s okay to break rules (or if you can). Also, do you have to have mastered the rule to earn breaking rights?! And are these rules even real?

    Comparing writing to music works so well here. It’s personal to you but it’s also something most readers can relate to… as we saw in class when Hans Zimmer came up. I still think you should include a description of the Gladiator soundtrack to go along with your paragraphs for those of us who don’t get out much. The correlation between the story in music and the story in a sentence or paragraph is an interesting similarity. Listening to a song could also put things into perspective as we read your example paragraphs, although the paragraphs alone are starkly different enough to demonstrate your point. So beautiful.


  3. Katherine Lawin March 25, 2016 — 7:29 pm

    First, I have to say that I used to play Lorie Line’s music wayyyyy back in the day, so I 100% appreciate that reference. Also, this is a great analogy to the differences in writing style between writers—difference doesn’t necessarily infer inferiority—as well as the concept of emphasis i.e. adding weight to certain notes or altering punctuation and sentence structure. In fact, your use of music throughout the essay is a fantastic choice. Especially since the use of film scores for background music when writing seems almost universal throughout our class, very relatable (by the way, the soundtrack from Kung Fu Panda 3 is surprisingly good writing music).

    Your addition of a second example of perhaps a weaker paper after the gladiator example was a very effective addition, although this example digresses from the music analogy a bit. Does this still connect to the emphasis and “emotion” facilitated by the music in the first example by the gladiator soundtrack? I do think that you explain well just how natural emphasis in writing comes to native english speakers. It seems to me that emphasis cannot be taught as effectively in a classroom as years of reading (good) writing, although I believe that even “bad” writing can have a place in building skills of emphasis and flow in writing. Perhaps this would be similar to understanding grammar rules. You need to understand what “good” writing is in order to benefit from reading “bad” writing. Anyway, your essay very clearly illustrates the idea of emphasis, and (obviously) provoked further thought on the topic. I would agree that your use of examples from your own writing were very good tools for such an abstract concept. I also think that your essay possesses a strong ending, even though the ideas presented do not offer a definitive conclusion on emphasis. Even as editors, it is important to understand that writing is a creative process, and while technicality is essential to ensure universal understanding of an author’s idea, emphasis will ultimately be unique to each individual.


  4. I love that you related this all back to music, especially your example of you using the track from the “Gladiator” movie as you worked on a project. It’s funny that you mentioned this, because I was having this exact conversation with my editor at work last week. He explained that the entire time he wrote one of his novels, he listened to the same soundtrack. (I’m currently blanking on what the track was, but that’s besides the point.) He was telling me that no matter how often he listened to the track, there could be something new that stuck out to him that influenced his writing. I think music is a powerful tool. It can stimulate our moods, even alter them. When I’m in a slump, listening to Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone” always brings me back from the brink. The point of this is that music can prove to be particularly influential to our writing if we allow it into our minds. I think your point that serious writing needs to be balanced with creativity is important, and I think music can fill and fuel this creativity quota.

    One more thing I want to be sure to mention is how strong your voice is in your writing. As I reread your paper and your new edits, I can literally hear you reciting it back to me–that’s how strong your voice is.


  5. Right away when you brought up music, I was immediately captured by your paper. I have always been a rhythm person, so when you connected the reading from class to writing while listening to a soundtrack, I connected with you. I think you did a great job on your edit with throwing in moments in your paper when you didn’t have that emphasis or rhythm. That definitely helped clarify those moments where an outside reader might think there is emphasis, when there truly isn’t.
    Your voice throughout this entire paper is so well done and personal. I have always thought that voice is such an important part of grasping readers attention, and you did an excellent job of that here! Especially by adding in personal stories, readers will be able to see you as a confidant and not some authoritative figure that is telling them everything that they are doing wrong. I just really liked the points of you learning piano and how even though something sounds different, doesn’t mean it is wrong. I think that is such an important aspect in all of life.


  6. Katie Ballalatak March 30, 2016 — 2:25 am

    Meaghan, I love your comparison of music and writing in terms of emphasis! I find emphasis extremely interesting, mostly because I’ve been relying on it for my writing for quite a while but I never heard it talked about before this class. Just a few weeks ago, I was telling my roommate how weird I was because when I edit something or go over my own written work, I say it out loud (rather loudly) and keep a steady beat with my hand on my leg. If I stumble over words in between (or on) my 4/4 time beats I know that I have to either rearrange my sentence or choose different words. And low and behold it’s actually a thing that exists! I was so happy to learn that.
    I also liked how you explained how readers “look for the point” of the piece just like film goers do. If the “point” isn’t emphasized, readers might miss it. It’s so interesting to see how listening to music can help us correctly place emphasis in our sentences and paragraphs. I found the examples you provided throughout your post extremely effective. There was a significant difference between your first two examples and your last example which didn’t have as much emphasis as the previous two.
    I thought your last point about rules getting in the way of creativity and emphasis was a really good way to end your post. You say “creativity is part of being a human being” and that all written work should somehow reflect this creative nature of ours—I completely agree! Rules are important but not at the cost of creativity. Lovely post!


  7. Hey Meaghan,
    I love your comparison of music and emphasis in writing. It makes total sense to me, but isn’t something I would’ve thought of on my own. I also really liked Williams and Bizups suggestion to tap along to sentences in order to find where the emphasis really falls. It’s something I’ve started incorporating into my own writing and it definitely helps. I mentioned it in class after your presentation, but I also really enjoy listening to soundtrack music while I write. Just the other night I was writing a short story to the tune of the “Batman Begins” soundtrack. Because music and writing flow to a similar rhythm, as you aptly pointed out, I found that replaying certain songs in the soundtrack that more or less matched the tone of my story greatly improved my ability to write. It helped me find where to go next in the story and which direction to take. I also really like your intro paragraph and how you explain that we should first learn the rules the same way, but then allow ourselves to stretch the rules to fit who we are as writers. We wouldn’t want all musicians to play music the same way, often musicians that break the norm are the ones who become most successful, so it makes sense that writers should act upon the same impulse.


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