Music on the Page

I appreciate music in a way that extends beyond a symphony or concert. For me, each language has its own specific music, made up of a unique rhythm, different sounds, cadence and intonation. It is the music of a language that allows us to identify languages we hear but don’t speak; we know the people at the next table over in the restaurant are speaking Spanish, Russian or Mandarin, even if we don’t recognize the words.

I love learning things by ear, whether it be languages or music, because I feel like there is something that clicks when I can hear it in my head. Reading, on the other hand, is often more visual than auditory. However, this is not always the case.

A few months ago, I read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. If genius could be contained between two covers, I think I found it. The characters leapt off the page as the plot wound its way through hundreds of pages in a mere three days. A three day timeline in which we can live our whole lives. Aside from it being a brilliantly crafted novel, I think one aspect that I particularly enjoyed was the dialogue. The book takes place in Spain, and although one  character is American, he speaks fluent Spanish with the other characters. Although the book is written in English, Hemingway gives the dialogue a Spanish flavor by taking common expressions from Spanish and translating them literally. This gives a somewhat awkward drift to the dialogue, but allows it to flow in a different way, a way that works perfectly in another language. Thus, the reader feels as if they are reading in Spanish when they are actually reading in English. The melodies of two languages blend together.

My other music-moment came reading a French play called Ruy Blas by Victor Hugo. It was the first full length book I’ve read in French that I actually enjoyed. The plot was daring and bold–a lackey in love with the queen! Revenge, intrigue, l’amour…the characters were complex and it was amazing to follow them through their trials and triumphs. But what I really loved was the language–written in Alexandrain (12 syllables per verse) with rhyming couplets, I could hear the music of the language, the sonority, the cadence and rhythms. I could hear it, even though it was written down. Reading a play such as Ruy Blas instead of a novel was easier for me because the form and structure were just as much a part of the beauty of the work as the words that were chosen. But now I am encouraged to start reading more in French; an entire body of literature has become just a little more accessible.

Looking at the written word abstractly, we see squiggles on page. Yet with each stroke of the keys, there is a sound attached to the letters, meaning linked to the words, syncopated, staccato or legato. Sometimes we read banalities; words are cheap and silence is golden.

Other times the melody breaks through the fog and we hear the beginnings of a symphony.

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4 thoughts on “Music on the Page

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