Musical Sentences

The Arts

Last year I wrote about the shaping of words, and how we can learn from music and the spoken word when writing books. Scriptwriters Galton & Simpson explained how long they argued over the word ‘very’ in the sentence, ‘Why, that’s very nearly an armful!’ in their famous radio/TV episode ‘The Blood Donor’. The trick of this was in the performer’s desperate attempt at precision in a moment of indignation. Certain words fit into actors’ mouths better than others. The writers understood their actor’s speech patterns and altered their lines accordingly.

This is a rare skill and not applied often enough. I’ve had actors read my lines without understanding them so that the words fall flat however they’re said. Happily in my audiobooks the excellent Tim Goodman ‘gets’ what he’s being asked to say. An actor can often make lines resound in a way that surprises the writer. PG Wodehouse and EF Benson were both masters of the musicality of language, reworking plots into ever more abstract forms. To hear the wonderful Geraldine McEwan strangle and stretch Benson’s dialogue is still a joy. A BBC remake failed to capture the oddness of Lucia and Georgie’s speech. Lucia is almost singing – Georgie is in a permanent fugue state.

As a songwriter, Victoria Wood constructed sentences like lyrics. Phrases like ‘I tapped her on the cleavage with a pastry fork’ is only amusing if you keep ‘pastry’ in there. This is because a lot of her dialogue loosely fits iambic pentameter, the beating of the heart, the natural pulse of words. Musicians recognise cadences in the human voice, and writers should know that there’s a bounce and flow to musical language that can be applied to books. It helps if you’ve worked with actors. and know the natural rhythm of their speech.

This musicality in language is, I think, essential to finding the rhythm of a character. It goes back to folk music reflecting calls, chants and the rhythmic sounds of daily life, a turning wheel, a squawking bird, the sounds of nature and the city, of machinery and church bells.

Debussy’s seascape music, Radiohead’s song ‘Creep’, Groove Armada’s ‘At The River’, the Modern Major General from ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ and the Kinks’ ‘Lola’ all match word shapes with sounds. Tim Minchin, another fine songwriter, causes ripples of shock with unexpected word changes. A consonant can lie ahead like a brick in the road and cause you to trip. The trick is not to over-analyse which words are funny but to fit sentences like items of clothing, finding out which goes with what. Rhythm is the key.

Mike Leigh’s collaborative social dramas and comedies added heightened realism but create a unique sense of theatricality around the words, especially when you consider they’re ‘devised’, not written. In ‘Short & Curlies’ Alison Steadman adopts an extraordinary tone of nasal suburbia that turns her every utterance into a catchphrase.


Theatrical dialogue is often call-and-response, especially if it’s comedic – and the response is often funnier if it’s shorter than the call. People misunderstand each other all the time, something I can exploit in the Bryant & May books. It’s got to the point where you get the gist without entirely understanding what they’re talking about.

‘Good idea,’ said Bryant. ‘Don’t worry about the cow going blind.’

‘I think it’s a horse.’


‘Going blind. Not a cow.’

‘I have no idea, John, I live in Zone One.’

So when writer consides plot, characters, atmosphere and themes, they would do good to consider the musicality of language too.

20 comments on “Musical Sentences”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    I think this has helped to explain why I have never been that bothered about silent film comedy. The spoken/written work adds so much more to comedy. For my sins, I still enjoy Norman Wisdom films. I find that though his slapstick borders on genius, when he adds dialogue to his contortions, the mess he gets himself into is even funnier with his plaintive voice.

    Given the choice, I would prefer to hear a comedy play on the wireless than watch a silent comedy on TV.

  2. Ken Mann says:

    See also Leo Baxendale. “Thrilled to the seams of his little spangly vest” needs the “spangly”.

  3. brooke says:

    Enjoying Mr. Goodman’s dramatisation of England’s Finest. When I listened to earlier B&M audiobooks, I didn’t care for his interpretation of Arthur; I had a different tone and cadence in my head. Now I can tune into Mr. Goodman’s version.

    “…writers should know that there’s a bounce and flow to (musical/any language that can be applied to books…” But they don’t seem to know this.. I say again, authors should be made to read their works aloud.

    Are you following the controversy re: American Dirt? See Slate and The Conversation, US edition. Cultural appropriation or just stupid?

  4. Theophylact says:

    Oddly, it strikes me that “spangly little vest” would be funnier.

  5. Peter Dixon says:

    I don’t think you can get Spangles anymore, more’s the pity.

  6. admin says:

    And so, in one smooth move, we’re onto post-war boiled sweets. As much as I love curating conversations on confectionary may I answer Brooke’s enquiry.
    Brooke, I think it’s ludicrous and I despair. See the next column.

  7. brooke says:

    Today’s post has several interesting points. E.g. Call and response–it’s one reason African-American church services sometimes have such power (not when they’re pretentious!). And yes, rhythm is key to character; even if you don’t always understand the words/culture you start to get it–Beowulf is a good example.

  8. Peter Dixon says:

    Call and response is deep and old. Birds do it.
    Sea shanties and work songs are all about call and response, its to do with the rhythm of concerted movement and effort and finding a way to if not enjoy then, at least, endure physical exertion within a group. The Vikings probably did it with rowing songs and the Greeks and Romans with rowing and marching songs. Part of it is about memory – its easier to remember things if there is an order to the phrases – its partly why we like to have a chorus in a song. You can’t easily remember a list of random objects but you can remember a rhyme or a tune. Probably how the Druids remembered their individual skills via the bardic tradition without having a written language.
    But there’s also a rhythm and cadence in local accents and dialect that are difficult to pin down on paper – my old English teacher said that you had to have ‘an ear for the feel of language’ or possibly ‘a feel for the ear of language’, because you can feel an ear, but how can you ear a feel?

  9. Helen Martin says:

    (Ear is a metaphor for sound and you could ‘ear a feel perhaps.)
    Medical students have whole rhythmic recitations to help remember the bones of the body and order of processes. Rhythm is the beat of life.

  10. Ian Luck says:

    So, which is worse? A Tin ear, or a Cloth ear? I love music, and it strikes me that most people today simply ‘hear’ music, whereas I, and people of my age ‘listen’ to it – for example, my brother and I can tell if records have been remixed or edited because we know where a bum note or a bad edit should be, and know when it’s been edited out. And for the record, the only Spangles (made by Mars, in Slough, on the same trading estate where Gerry Anderson and his crew were making ‘Stingray’ and ‘Thunderbirds’ amongst others) that I liked were the split-your-tongue orange ones, and the ‘Olde English’ ones.

  11. Jan says:

    I never liked them Old English spangles. Horrid things. They had a very peculiar taste how does a sweet get an “Old English”Taste for goodness sake? Weird idea. They tasted like they mixed up the flavours in the factory.

    Can’t even remember the Orange ones.

    THE ONLY PROPER SPANGLES were the blackcurrant ones. They were the business.

    To think Derek Meddings one of the all time great special effects men who ended up working on James Bond and major sci fi movies learnt his trade on this trading estate in Slough. Gerry Anderson assembled a really talented bunch of youngsters quite a few did v. Well.

    Do you like the newish New Zealand “Thunderbirds” animated series? I watched an episode early on this morning and thought to myself God they have made a fantastic job animating that shot of the ocean only to later twig it was in fact non animated! There was a tsunami wave featured in the adventure which wasn’t done very successfully but overall it was an entertaining mixture of animation and “live” special effects. Fabulous scene of Thunderbird 2 sweeping underneath a massive oil tanker in the ocean order to turn it the right way up. I watched the first series and then lost track of it. I think this is in fact the final series. They are going to rescue Pa Tracey who for some reason I never figured out had disappeared from the cast.

  12. Jan says:

    To touch on the main subject (show willing eh?) Call and response must have played a huge role in the first tales told around fires from prehistory onwards. It’s still there in rhythms of sea shanties, weavers songs, children’s rhymes from skipping songs to hymns. There in pantomime and mummers plays its never really gone away. It’s even there in magicians tricks from guys doing three card trick to quite sophisticated “big” illusions. Everythings spiel in a sense.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    Jan, the new Thunderbirds series made by WETA, who did all the effects for ‘Lord Of The Rings’, and ‘The Hobbit’, is excellent. It’s only the characters and some environments that are CGI – all the models, and Tracy Island are physical. I watch each episode rwice: once for the story, and again for all of the ‘easter eggs’ with which each episode is littered. Names from original stories – not just from ‘Thunderbirds’; vehicles from other shows – the sealab from the first episode (‘Ring Of Fire, part 1’ – which itself takes it’s title from a ‘Thunderbirds’ novel), has the front end of a ‘Space: 1999’ Eagle. The creators of ‘Thunderbirds Are Go’, all LOVE the source material. Some of the rescues are based on stories from ‘TV21’ comic, and the various licenced books and annuals, from the 1960’s. Before ‘Canon’ was a thing, ‘TV21’ had all the worlds of Gerry Anderson, from ‘Fireball XL-5’ onwards, into a cohesive whole. Characters from different shows would often interact, albeit in beautifully rendered comic strip form. ‘Joe 90’ had his own comic, and ‘Supercar’, as it was set in the present day, was left out, as the strips were set in the future years from 2065-2069.

  14. Wayne Mook says:

    And then you get Pinter. Discordant words and rhythms in word like in music give a sinister feeling.

    The rhythm of the words can give atmosphere like a staccato speech speed and danger, the clipped talk of gangsters.

    With song creep, there is a radio edit & the one with the swear word, the hole song changes it’s meaning, the non swearing makes it some like the man is weak and not worthy, while the swearing one sounds more bitter, sarcastic and the singe sounds stronger, more of a two fingered salute. It’s like the difference between Bob Dylan’s It Ain’t Me, Babe, which sounds like an excuse and apology for not being strong enough and the Johnny Cash version sounds a lot harder and I’m not being taken for a sucker.


  15. Jan says:

    Do you know I can remember ‘Supercar” a bit as Prof Beaker had a resemblance to a History teacher I met later on at Secondary School! A Mr Unsworth being the History teacher in question.

    I never bought TV21 partly due to cost and partly because it was a “boys” comic I can remember lads at skool letting me read some of the stories.

    I watched today’s “Thunderbirds” very early on cos I had to be up early to make sure nothing had come amiss or adrift in the first stages of this storm.

    Today’s story reminded me of one of those “compendium” episodes of Thunderbirds or Stingray when some little child puppet, a lad normally, with obviously painted on freckles would be told stories from previous episodes thereby saving a few Bob on production costs.

    Extraordinary though how I still have memories of some of the shows. A few of
    Stingrays memorable episodes being Pink Ice, Tom Thumb Tempest (in the aquarium do you remember?) Raptures of the Deep, The Loch Ness Monster. Remember agent X20 a rip off of Peter Lorre if ever I saw one.

    My memories of Thunderbirds are far less clear but I can remember the episode with Gordon piloting Thunderbird 4 through a flooded New York – Manhattan. The first episode with the Jet liner and those mini vehicles from a T2 pod which cushioned the wheels. Set @ Heathrow.
    I can remember a story echoed in the animated series where scientists focus a beam (is it to do with controlling temperature?) in France and it all goes wrong the temperature goes up drastically. And I remember the Mole from the bank heist episode. There was tension in the rescues of each story something going wrong and having to be rejigged

    Stingray was more inclusive in that girls featured in the direction action sequences. I really wanted to be that mermaid Marina! Thunderbirds and the subsequent shows with perhaps the exception of Captain Scarlet were far less character driven.

  16. Jan says:

    Are “Easter eggs” the same idea as the little extras built into video / computer games? In this case Little nuggets of info really only known to superfans?

    I watched the animated series episode featuring G.Anderson’s first wife doing Lady Penelopes voice and she was still recognisable to me as being the real deal… superior sounding far more posh and cooler than her more chilled out sympathetic sounding reincarnation!

    Still find it very touching that all the Anderson early heroines are obviously based on Sylvia from Venus, in FBXL5, Marina and Atlanta in Stingray, Lady Penelope and Keiko (and what’s happened to her ?) They are all recognizably Sylvia who was e beautiful looking woman really though all certainly did not end well between them.

  17. Wayne Mook says:

    Jan – your right about the Easter eggs. As to the Andersons I don’t think it was either ones first marriage. Fenella Fielding was mooted as Lady Penelope, which would have been interesting. The template for Lady Penelope was supposedly thought up be puppet designer Mary Turner, although Sylvia was responsible for plot, costume design, voices and dialogue amongst other things, Gerry was more technical and explosions. They co-produced and wrote together with Gerry directing, I’ve read he wanted to be more involved with live action and was never really happy doing puppets. as to the marriage it sounded as though there were problems for some years, but not being there I guess it’s mainly rumour, So I guess we should just enjoy the shows they made.

    I was watching UFO the other day, the designs were splendid. A lot of their programmes were fun and seem a team effort. Barry Gray’s music is splendid and gives that lovely feeling of pace, danger and excitement to come. His use of voice in the title music is splendid.


  18. Wayne Mook says:

    With the rhythm of words they also lead to the shape they make on the page which gives feel to the story and meaning, I know this is tends to be in poetry, the look of a poem and the hidden meaning in it’s design can be splendid. I guess the obvious one in prose (hidden meaning) is the message spelt from the 1st word from each chapter heading.

    But the look of type on the page does matter, looking at a book with just masses of dense lumps of words, especially in small type, can be off putting. The word that comes to my head when I see it is stodge, and then we are into the world of school dinners and badly taught classics that scare you from great works for life. How many bad teachers have scarred the reputation of Dickens & Shakespeare in the eyes and ears of so many of us.

    the physical aspects of the book, from word number, the shape of the paragraphs, font as well as the more obvious design features of a book are vastly important. (I know someone who won’t touch a book if it’s in a format he doesn’t like – no trade paperbacks for him.)


  19. Ian Luck says:

    I do love how a well-written song lyric can take you somewhere else. A favourite of mine is by the 1980’s group, Japan, on a track called ‘Still Life In Mobile Homes’, containing lines such as:
    “Slow boats moving with the tide/Drifting far from shore”, and “The sound of wildlife fills the air/So warm and dry/The bushland burns in this southern heat/Like an open fire.”
    It doesn’t have to be complicated, or political, or shouty – just audible illustrations. The wonderful Glasgow band, The Blue Nile, have a catalogue of songs that are pictures for your ears,

  20. Ian Luck says:

    No idea from where that errant ‘be’ came from. Gremlins, most like.

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