I was a classical composition major in university who came from a self-taught jazz background. Sometimes I think about the differences between writing fiction and writing music.

Music has a life of its own. These days if you compose something you probably have a synthesizer and MIDI and you record what you’re working on into a computer. Then you can have it play a version of what you’ve written, let it live, let it breathe, and critique it. Need more? Section too short? Texture too thin? Harmonic structure not ideal? Are the sections balanced with each other?

Even back in the day when I was studying, before MIDI, we did similar things by score reading. We’d play at the piano, even those of us who didn’t play piano, and try to pick out the important elements from a symphonic work so that we could get the pitches into our heads, and then once in a while we’d go to composition class and show that we’d figured it out. When I composed I’d do the same thing; sit at a piano and look for the pitches even though I might be writing a line for oboe or violin or French horn.

Learning to score read gave us composers the ability to look at a score and to hear it in our heads. Sometimes we needed some help from a piano to get us started, sometimes not. One day in a music history class we were given two pages from the middle of a piece for piano for analysis. After a moment of looking at the music I recognized it as being from the Well Tempered Clavier by Bach, though I didn’t know which book. I could look at the music, hear it in my head, and matched it to a Gould recording that I’d listened to many times before.

Fiction is different. Reading is not as passive as hearing; to review writing we need to read, and the act of reading removes some detachment, making it more difficult to let it wash over us from a distance, allowing us less perspective. Words that I’ve written don’t breathe on their own the way music, once written, breathes and flows and exists, separate from the composer. Even reviewing an un-sounded, memorized composition in my head is easier, and more accurate, and more detached, than trying to think about some piece of fiction that I’ve written. Interesting.

On one hand I spent a lot of focused time during relatively formative years (ages 17-24) studying music, so my inner aural skills are high. On the other hand, I’ve spent far more years reading and writing, so you’d think that would compensate.

If it were poetry rather than fiction perhaps I’d be able encapsulate it, freeze it, memorize it, and look at it with more distance, but somehow writing a novel and reviewing it is not the same as writing a 20 minute suite for concert band (which is the largest ensemble I wrote for) and listening and reviewing it in my head, and writing short stories is not the same as writing a 5 minute single movement for woodwind quintet. I’m unable to get that same level of separation, that effect of sitting back, of letting it wash over me (even if the listening is entirely in my head from looking at a score) so that I can test it for completeness and for balance and for polish.

Distance can help. Putting writing aside and reviewing it much later after some of the struggle has been forgotten can help. Getting others to read and review can help as well. In theory I could record myself reading my own passages, and then listen to the recording and get distance that way, but I don’t really like listening to audio books. It would definitely be different if I were writing plays.

And I don’t enjoy re-re-re-reading things that I’ve written or that other people have written. Not nearly in the same way that I’ve listened over and over and over again to some pieces that I wrote or that Bach or Stravinsky or Bartok have written. That’s a fundamental difference between music and writing in terms of how it’s enjoyed. Perfection of polish seems much more important when you hope your listener will hear your music many times, as opposed to the reader of your blog post whom you hope will get through it just once.


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