Friday, April 6, 2012

Sound in Poetry

One thing that writers (especially poets) have to consider is the raw sound of their writing. We often talk about whether or not something "sounds good" and don't often go much further than that, but it's worth taking some time to step back and consider what's really going on here regarding the psychological impact of sound as it relates to poetry (in other words, how different sounds, on their own, invoke a certain subconscious feeling).

Basically, this is an extension of what happens when we listen to music. This is a hard lesson to absorb but paying attention to the frequency (high, medium, low) of your vowel sounds can help you work your magic on the reader's subconscious. You can also invoke that through the use of "high, medium, or low" alliteration and/or imagery. More on that later.

For now, let's look at this from a purely musical angle. If you have the know-how and an instrument, now's the time to use 'em. Otherwise, here's a simple little program that will work fine for what I'm trying to illustrate.

Basically, you just click on a box from each column to play a note (press space bar to clear and start over). Boxes that are higher in the column produce higher notes, and vice versa. Mess around with this. Your goal: produce a sequence of notes that sounds melancholy, or downright sad, versus one that sounds more uplifting.

Once you've done that, look at the placement of those notes. You'll probably notice that a melancholy tune starts low or high, goes higher, then ends lower. That last part creates the descending emotional feeling that can sound sad, or bittersweet, melancholy, etc. On the other hand, an uplifting tune might be all over the place but probably ends on an ascending note, and almost certainly has more high frequency notes throughout.

The $50,000 point: it's entirely possible to replicate this with word choice. It's not easy, but it's what distinguishes lyrical from tone-deaf poetry.

Now, you may be thinking that if there are only 3 basic vowel frequencies (high = E and I, middle = A and Y, low = U and O), how can you get that kind of range? Well, first thing’s first. If you want to write an uplifting poem, basic limitations of language and spelling won’t let you use only words that have E and I vowel sounds. So don’t go nuts. You’re just going for a simple majority here. Also, you don’t have to restrict yourself to vowel frequencies. Mix in images whose denotation and/or connotation furthers what you’re going for.

So in practical terms: if you want an ominous poem, back up your lower frequency vowel sounds with some ominous imagery. Or maybe you use uplifting imagery but low vowel sounds to create a trapped feeling, a tension between the two. If you want a derisive and slightly hopeful poem, maybe you use ominous connotations but higher vowel sounds (or vice versa).

On the other hand, an uplifting poem with high frequency vowel sounds AND uplifting imagery might seem a bit cheesy—meaning, it doesn’t have enough grit in it, so throw in some lower frequency vowel sounds and less cheery imagery. And it's also worth pointing out that a poem with high frequency vowel sounds AND "happy" imagery can't really invoke a negative feeling, EXCEPT the feeling that it's cliche and/or cheesy, and two dimensional.

OK, now consider alliteration. Obviously, a hard K sound invokes a different feeling (all else being equal) than a smooth S sound. So if you want to invoke a soothing, steady feeling, you’re probably not going to use lots of hard alliteration (hard K, hard G, etc). On the other hand, you might use lots of hard alliteration if you want to build suspense, make things seem a little more chaotic.

Think of all these different factors (the psychological impact/connotation of your word choice, vowel sounds, and alliteration) as ingredients. How you mix them is based entirely on your lyrical aesthetic.

As with anything, there are plenty of exceptions to the rules. In fact, you might do exactly the opposite of everything I’ve said and still get from A to B with good results. Either way, though, developing an ear for this will greatly help your writing (whether you’re talking about poetry or prose) and I’d wager that on a subconscious level, this is exactly what all great writers and songwriters are doing.


  1. Are you a musician? Is that where this advice comes from? Could you provide some examples of these combinations? Just a thought.

    I really did enjoy this piece and what it brings to the table in terms of developing poems that generate a certain tone/emotion.

    1. Hi, Serena. Sorry for my delayed reply! I was traveling and am now playing catch-up (on a Smartphone, no less). Anyway, I think the most telling example would be the one suggested by a friend and former professor of mine, Judy Jordan. She pointed out that the famous villanelle by Dylan Thomas, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," seems in terms of message, imagery, and subject matter to be rather dark and hopeless. When actually read or listened to, though, the poem creates instead a feeling of hope, maybe even redemption (or at least a furious, energetic derision). Her speculation was that this had to do, at least in part, with the poem's abundant use of high frequency vowel sounds (especially the long "I" sound in the repeated words, "light" and "night").

      So in terms of individual lines and word choice, simply choosing carefully and deliberately between "dark" and "night," or "glow" and "gleam," can add a little extra push toward a poem's overall sense of being more uplifting or more subdued, depending on what you're going for. This is especially true if an author keeps consistently choosing a certain level of sound frequency whenever possible, since there are obviously going to be exceptions from time to time. For instance, a poem with "light" can still be subdued, so long as that use of high frequency is offset elsewhere in the piece.

      Ha, as for me, I'm sadly not much of a musician, those I've always had a real love and appreciation for classical and modern-classical music in particular (I'm also the dork who can name virtually any composer of film soundtracks after listening to just a few notes). I studied a few instruments but kept finding my time and energy called back to writing, and a desire to incorporate musicality in lyricism.

  2. this is an interesting subjects.

    Crows Theology.
    Crow realized God Loved him--
    otherwise he would have dropped dead.
    so that was proved.
    Crow reclining, Marvelling, on his heartbeat.

    And he realized that god spoke crow--
    Just existing was His revelation.

    But what
    Loved the stones & spoke stone
    they seemed to exist too.
    and what spoke that strange silence
    After his clamour of caws faded?

    And what loved the shot-pellets
    That dribbled from those strung-up mummifying crows?
    what spoke the silence of lead?

    Crow realized there were two Gods----

    One of them much bigger than the other
    Loving his enemies
    And having all the weapons

  3. Thanks! I'm going to remember this!

  4. Never heard the vowel frequency theory before--I will definitely have to try it out, thanks!