Pacing in writing and storytelling is what makes your story be read/told in a faster or more slowly way.  You will not keep your audience and readers at the edge of their seats if you tell an adventure story in a relaxed manner.  So it is important to get it just right. And the key to it lies in music – mind the pun.

In fact, storytelling and music can be seen like two long lost siblings. Back in the Middle Ages, troubadours and bards enchanted crowds and nobles with their stories told to the sound of a cittern or harp. Storytelling and music were so intrinsically connected that even in literature tales were written in verse.

What music always brought to stories was a sort of context. The initial notes would set the tone and pacing of the tale about to be told.

Today we will mostly find this technique applied to films, where music is used to underline emotion and – you guessed it – to set tone and pacing. This has become so inherent to the language of film and the emotions it triggers that we recognise and attribute certain music tones to specific genres and emotions. A good example is Hitchcock’s famous Psycho soundtrack: when you hear those high-pitched notes, you know someone is about to get killed.

But music is essential to writing too.

Music and writing

If you look at pianists, you’ll notice their hands play different notes. In very layman terms (especially because I’m no music expert), the left-hand focusses on the tone and tempo, while the right-hand plays the melody. The same concept applies to writing and storytelling. A story is like a melody that needs a base made out of tone and pace.

Surely when you read a story or an article, you hear an inner voice in your head. It’s as though your brain is telling the story you’re reading. Punctuation will help you understand when to stop (periods), speed (commas), or change tone (exclamation and question marks). That is to say, punctuation and the length of a sentence are what will determine the pace of the story – like the pianist’s left hand. The choice of words and the sentences’ composition are what make out the melody – like the pianist’s right hand.

At one point in time, as troubadours disappeared, music and literature took different turns. While storytelling remains relevant in music – from protest music to 1980s hip-hop – writing dropped its verse form and accompanied instruments.

Bringing Music Back to Story

The thing is, writing and storytelling cannot exist without music – or at least the musicality character that the craft demands. When I coach people in presenting on stage or news reading, I always ask them to think about the most suitable soundtrack for their story. If you want to share an energetic story, you’ll probably choose a fast-paced song, which means your speech must also be delivered in a faster tempo.

This idea of musicality affects your writing too. If you’d like to put it to test, practice some simple writing while listening to different tracks each with varied tempos.  If you need tips on how to do simple writing exercises, check out my mini e-book here. After a few songs, you’ll notice how your writing changes according to the music played: from pacing to, sometimes, even content.

So next time you want to write or tell a story, start by determining its soundtrack. Listen to the song for a beat and then let yourself be carried away by its flow.

And in case you’re wondering, I wrote this post while listening to the magical track East by composer and pianist Hélder Bruno.

August 7, 2013

Earning life whistling

Dutch whistling champion Geert Chatrou has been whistling since he can remember. An annoying habit for some, a talent for others. But his talent has changed his life and now he earns a living whistling.

Aired on Deutsche Welle (June 2013)

There’s talk of a new wave of protest music in Portugal similar to that one from the period of the dictatorship, where political messages hid behind double-meaning words. 

The economic crisis in the country has made many more political and social aware and musicians are no exception.

Broadcast on Monocle 24 (November 2012)

September 14, 2012

Making music with warfare

Children in Angola make use of parts from old weapons to turn them into musical instruments. 

Report broadcast on Deutsche Welle and Radio France International (2011)