By Stephen Jay Schwartz

I know I’m not the first Murderati to talk about music.  We’ve shared numerous blogs about the kinds of music that inspire us.  Some of us find it essential to listen to music while writing, others get too involved in listening to the music to get any good writing done.

I myself cannot listen to music when I write, except when it is piped into a café and presented as background noise.

Of course, to all hard-and-fast rules, there is always an exception.  A few years ago I faced a two-week writer’s block.  I had never experienced anything like this and I was stymied.  I broke through by putting the ear buds in and playing classic rock at volume level “eleven.”  It was a con-job on my conscious self, creating a diversion that allowed my subconscious to sneak on through.  All my conscious mind knew was that my fingers were typing.   I had no idea what was coming out.  I broke through the block in two nights, and ended up with some pretty inspired stuff.  It was an exhausting experiment and one that could not be sustained for long.

The thing is, I find music so alluring, so all-encompassing, that when I listen I just want to dive in.  I can’t focus on the writing.  For me, music is the alpha and omega.  It is the everything.  And I tell you what, I would not be the writer I am if music wasn’t in my life.

Strong statement, I know.  But I truly believe my writing is indebted to the music I studied as a child, from fourth grade into my twenties.  I played classical clarinet early on and moved to jazz when I entered high school.  Once I segued to saxophone, music became downright sexy.  I continued private instruction in classical and jazz and my world opened up when one of my teachers introduced me to the fusion artists of the Seventies.  Chick Corea, Al Dimeola, Herbie Hancock.  I studied jazz performance for a short time in college, at what was then called North Texas State University.  There I was introduced to the masters of bop — Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon (whom I saw live at the Kool Jazz Festival), and Oscar Peterson. 

But I started skipping my Sight Singing and Ear Training class (the class was pure punishment and I was failing it anyway) to follow my English teacher to his office to continue the argument we’d been having for weeks.  He was a nationally renowned poet and he knew instantly that I needed some literary ass-kicking.  My writing was rife with clichés and it was his job to stamp them out.

At the same time I began discovering writers whose words read like music.  I found writers who satisfied my love for music with the music they created in their words.

Authors like, well, James Joyce.  How many here have sat transfixed by the words and sounds that roll off the pages of “The Artist as a Young Man”?  And, while I’ve never been able to get more than a few pages into “Finnegans Wake,” just listen to this first paragraph:

“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggly isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war:  nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time:  nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick:  not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old Isaac:  not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sethers wroth with twone nathandjoe.  Rot a peck of pa’s malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.”

Okay, so let’s not worry so much about what the fuck this means.  Just read it.  Out loud.  Listen to the music: “…while they went doublin their mumper,” “nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick…”  Avoice from afire is “a voice from afar,” but is also the voice of God from the burning bush.  There’s a lot more in Joyce than just lyrical sentences and I’m certainly not studied enough to blog about the dimension of his writing.  But I can talk about the musicality of his words.  And do you hear the Irish accent?  Look at the word “thuartpeatrick,” which is “thought Patrick.”  Now, read the paragraph in your best brogue.  It’s beautiful.

When I read words on a page I hear consonants and vowels that form rhythms of staccato and legato.  I hear triplets and eighth notes and the ghosting of jazz riffs leading into melodies and cadences.  Words cannot help but create rhythm.  Words spoken are sounds and sounds are percussive.  Or melodic.  And then a combination of both that leads to the phrasing of symphonies.

And we have so many wonderful words to choose our sounds from.  We have combinations of words that roll with onomatopoeia, words that click and cough and bend upwards and down, words that modulate into fevered meters, alternating four-four to seven-four to three-four and back to measure one. 

The authors whose works I love have an innate sense of the music of words, whether they are conscious of this fact or not.  Dickens has his own musical style, which is different from the musicality of Steinbeck.  And yet I can be lulled into a state of catatonic stasis from the reading aloud of either.

And maybe that’s why I nearly jumped out of my skin the first time I heard Jack Kerouac read his work.  I was watching this hip little documentary called “Whatever Happened to Kerouac” when his voice emerged reading “Doctor Sax.”  What I heard was a saxophone solo in spoken words. 

I picked up the seminal Beat Generation novel “On the Road” and read it straight through.  What surprised me, however, was how slow it seemed to read.  There were moments of literary genius, but mostly I felt it needed an editor’s touch.  Too many long run-on sentences.  It just wasn’t working for me.  But then all these Kerouac recordings began to surface and I ended up listening to him read from “On the Road.”  And I got it.  Once you’ve heard him read you can’t help but read his work with the same energy and rhythm.  I soon saw that no word was wasted, each and every word was an eighth or half note that emerged from the intricate, never-ending bebop solo in his head.

It’s no surprise that folks like Zoot Simms and Steve Allen liked to jam with Kerouac, trading musical “riffs” with his musical words.  I pulled a You Tube clip from the Steve Allen Show to give you a sense of what I’m saying here.  Check it out.  It’s about a five-minute segment.  Listen to it all the way to the end.  If this is your first introduction to Kerouac, then let me now say THANK YOU for letting me be your guide.

And songwriters can be musical poets with their words, too.  I can think of a dozen songs by The Beatles and The Doors that include poetry capable of singing on their own, without instrumental accompaniment. 

How about this gem of a lyric from Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”:  

“Little old lady got mutilated late last night.” 

The alliteration is to die for.  Then listen to Zevon singing the line, hear his phrasing, his dragging out of “late last night,” (the dotted-eighth note coming off the upbeat of the first note of the next measure with the word “last”) and you get the full sense of how the sentence works rhythmically.  The performance gives the line its true punch, just as Kerouac’s writing comes fully to life through his readings.

It’s interesting how even musical notes on a sheet of staff paper need the musician to complete the picture.  I remember my first lesson in jazz performance in college.  My instructor put a Charlie Parker solo in front of me and told me to play.  Before I got ten bars in, my teacher said, “I can’t believe you’re reading the notes.”  I said, “Uh, yeah.”  “Don’t read what’s on the page,” he said.  “Interpret it.”

It took me a few weeks to get what he was saying.  I was reading the notes, but the music required a performance. 

Although I always read my work aloud while writing, I never really knew if things were working until I heard Ray Porter read the audio book version of Boulevard.  This man, an accomplished actor and veteran audio book reader, performed my work.   He took notes on a page and turned them into music. 

I stopped studying music because I wanted to communicate in a more direct way.  I wanted to deliver cleaner, more thought-provoking messages.  Writing seemed to be the answer.  So, it’s kind of funny that I’ve come to value the way sound and music have influenced my writing.  It’s funny how I needed to hear Jack Kerouac reading his work before I really got the message. 

What “musical” writing—from poetry, prose, or song lyric—has captured your eye, and why? 


  1. Cornelia Read

    What a beautiful post!

    I was heavily into Joyce in high school, and Steinbeck. I still love the muscailty of JD Salinger–everything but Catcher in the Rye, which is just whining to me. But most of all, Nabokov.

  2. JD Rhoades

    Love the Kerouac video. Thanks.

    As for Joyce…well, as I said when we had to read PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN in High school: Interesting. Is there an English translation?

    Hey, I’m a peasant, I can’t help it.

  3. billie

    Marianne Wiggins’ novel Evidence of Things Unseen has beautiful language that sings. I think it took me almost a month to get past the first 20 pages because every time I opened the book I just kept reading the beginning over and over again.

    I agree about that Warron Zevon line – it’s the one I always wait for when I hear that song.

    Even more so than actual lyrics, I tend to focus in on sequences of notes in music that to me tell the back story that the words don’t, or even better, offer an opening to a completely different story, much like a minor character in a novel might.

    Oftentimes when I’m writing and have certain songs I associate with that particular work, I’m listening to those more subtle layers in the music that have triggered something in my story.

    Great post.

  4. PK the Bookeemonster

    Wonderful post and one can just feel your passion behind it. Paul Simon also seems to me to have the gift of putting words together in his songs to make more than music.

    I grew up in a musical household; first it was drums that I so badly wanted to play but it was the 70s and being the only girl I was always put on bells. I wanted to play drums, dammit. Had a lot of piano but teachers kept moving along (not my fault!) and go too many different teaching styles, somehow it just didn’t work. I think I lack the innate rhythm thing. I’ve played guitar very amateurishly. Voice was were I FELT it. Not the words or the music but the actual feeling in my body and soul to sing (first soprano here, yeah).

    Words never sang for me either though I wrote poetry in high school (who didn’t?). Words themselves don’t sing but the thought behind them and the images created from them in my mind have more impact. Perhaps that is why it the *story* and the *voice* of the author are most important to me.

  5. Spencer Seidel

    Stephen, great post! We share similar backgrounds. I studied rock and jazz guitar for about 20 years before switching to writing for mostly the same reasons. Now, I stick to copping Van Halen licks, but at one time I was quite a serious fusion player and aficionado, 70’s and otherwise.

    But that wasn’t my point. I just wanted to mention that for anyone wishing to experiment with music and writing, you might want to give movie soundtracks a try. I write to them exclusively. They’re meant to be background music and serve wonderfully for that purpose. I like Hans Zimmer (Frost and Nixon) and Thomas Newman (Shawshank Redemption) in particular, and each has a wealth of great writing music.

  6. Louise Ure

    "At the same time I began discovering writers whose words read like music. I found writers who satisfied my love for music with the music they created in their words." I am musically illiterate, but oh man, do I ever agree with this sentence.

    I’ve seen you read from your work, Stephen, and you truly are a poet when you do so.

    And I’m with Spencer: movie soundtracks are the only thing to write to. (Thanks, Spencer, for the Frost and Nixon suggestion.)

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Cornelia – you nailed it for me on the Salnger. I love his short stories, but I felt the same way about Catcher in the Rye. Same thing goes for John Fante – his Bandini series feels whiney to me, but his other books, like Brotherhood of the Grape, are incredible. That’s one of my all-time favorites.

    Dusty – man, I can’t get enough of that Kerouac video. I’ve probably watched it a hundred times.

    Billie – thanks for the lead on Wiggin’s work. I’ve never read her. Other authors I love are Katherine Anne Porter and Flannery O’connor. I’ll check out Wiggins. I always remember the moment in Amadeus where Solieri is looking at the sheet music he had Mozart’s wife bring him, and he’s hearing that beautiful clarinet entrance, which turns into an oboe, and then he drops the music, overwhelmed. I can’t hear that music without seeing that scene in my head.

    PK – you’re story reminds me of the great Saturday Night Live skit where Christopher Walken keeps saying, "We need more cowbell!" You know, of course, just how important those bells were. You were the star, I’m sure. We’ve got our boys on piano and violin. It took a while to find the right teacher, but now that we’ve found her we don’t want to lose her. So much of learning music comes from inspiration from the right teacher.

    Spencer! Thanks for popping into my blog. That’s a great idea, listening to movie scores. They are totally designed to tug the emotions. My favorite music score is from Schindler’s List. I can’t help but cry every time I hear it. Brilliant composition. I’ll have to listen to Shawshank, it’s one of my favorite films, too. Another favorite score – Randy Newman’s Avalon. My wife and I used it in our wedding. Her father is a professional musician, and he wrote an arrangement for a quartet that played it live for us. And, God, isn’t Van Halen great? I’m talking about the first album. The BEST.

    Saxon – I’ll check out the links when I get home tonight. Thanks for passing them along. I’ll let you know.

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Louise – thank you for the lovely compliment, dear. I was honored recently by being allowed to read some of Boulevard for an NPR special with Pat Morrison. It was a challenge finding three minutes of the book that could actually be read over the air (there’s a little obscenity in said work.) It’s for some cool podcast thing they are doing. It’s the same segment I read on my website, if you’ve ever heard it.

  9. Allison Davis

    Of course, of course…Just returning from the New Orleans Jazz Festival, the interweaving of writing and jazz for me is part of why I moved to SF. I wanted to be a beat poet. The cadence of those works lured me like sirens to SF…I met several beat poets including Robert Creeley while I was in college and fell in love with the words, sound of the words and the interplay with music. I remember listening to Jack Micheline (who died in 1998) read his poetry accompanied by a saxaphone…I think that’s why I write to Bill Evans (usually the same three CDs over and over so they do become background), especially the 1958 book.

    Borges is another where you hear music when you read…many others…yes, yes yes!

    Loved the block break — I do it with Slum Dog Millionaire (that’s a movie score that gets your blood going)…and guilty pleasure, Michael Jackson’s "This is It" — nod to Louise. Great post.

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I’m with you on almost never being able to listen to music while I write – I need to move to music. This book, though, I do sometimes.

    I went through a Kerouac tear in college, read EVERYTHING. A lot of it is very sad. Love the jazz/reading records. Also once did a performance piece of reading chapters of On The Road with a whole ensemble of people – that really brought the music of it alive.

    As far as musical writers go – Shakespeare. I say his monologues in the car the same way I sing songs when I’m alone. And Anais Nin, just overwhelmingly lyrical.

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Allison – oh, man, I didn’t know you wanted to be a beat poet! No wonder we click. I’ll be doing a reading of my next book, called BEAT, in San Francisco in October, from the Beat Museum in North Beach. Could anything be more perfect? You better be there. Have you checked out the Beat Museum? Gotta do it. Say hi to Jerry, the owner. Tell him Schwartz sent you. And, Bill Evans, of course. Another great virtuoso. I also love Pat Metheney, but I can’t listen to him while I write.

    Alex – yes, very, very sad that Kerouac story. I’m sure you’ve read Big Sur, too. In the end he just became a lonely alcoholic. Did you ever see his interview with William Buckley, Jr? Towards the end of Kerouac’s life. He was a mess. He’s a cautionary tale. And, of course, how can I forget Shakespeare. His writing is exactly that–perfect music. And it doesn’t come alive for me until I hear a great actor deliver his lines.

  12. Gar Anthony Haywood


    I am so with you on the music and writing tip. Can’t write a lick with music that I love playing in the background. My mind just latches on to the music and refuses to let go. Trained myself a while back to write in a coffee shop environment, which was a first for me; as long as it’s just random tunes and overlapped conversations (screenwriters like our lovely Alex schooling her writing partner on the finer points of the three-act format, for instance), I can write through and aroiund it. But my favorite music? Can’t do it.

    Which is why I find it funny that Spencer suggests you try writing to movie soundtracks. I am a soundtrack fanatic, and there is no way in hell I could put one of my favorites on the CD player (Horner’s THE ROCKETEER or SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER, Silvestri’s PREDATOR, the aforementioned Thomas Newman’s JOSH AND S.A.M., etc.) and try to think about anything else.

    But you know what they say: Different strokes…

  13. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Gar – I absolutely thrive in the cafe environment. In fact, it’s hard for me to write in a quiet location. Forget about libraries. But, just as you said, the conversations, music, espresso machine, squeaky chairs…they all blend into a background noise I can deal with. Writing is such a lonely endeavor, one has to do it in company.

    By the way, Spencer, thank you for that wonderful review and the 5-Stars in Goodreads. I totally appreciate it.

  14. Susan

    Thank you for this post, Stephen. Very interesting.

    I was wondering if you could give us a link to one of your reading sessions. Louise mentioned that you are a poetic reader. I enjoyed your book so much, I thought it would be fun to hear some of it in the author’s voice. Is the podcast available yet? I went to your website but couldn’t figure out how to access this segment.

    I don’t write but I can only listen to music without lyrics when I am reading. I am with Gar on the music distraction thing. A good song is like a good book, to me. I can’t ‘listen’ to both at the same time.

    I would have to say that Van Morrison has always written my favorite lyrics. My Celtic background coming into play, I guess. As far as music poetry……God…….where would one begin? There is one magical, impossible to conceive of, riff that Little Jazz (Roy Eldridge) pulled off on an old 78 recording that haunts me, though. and then there is Coleman Hawkins. and Harry James. and Maceo Parker and Pee Wee Ellis and Gerald Albright and Nelson Rangell and Andy Snitzer and Dave Koz and Kirk Whalum and Joshua Redman and Boney James. (Sorry. I’m exposing my funk here.) Just as there is so much ‘music’ in the best writing, I wouldn’t know where to start the list. Boulevard def had a bluesy lost soul ‘lyric’ to it. Think and hear the music from the closing scene in the film, The Conversation. Ooooo. I just gave myself a shudder remembering that.

  15. Spencer Seidel

    Gar — I once tried writing to LOUD heavy metal, inspired by Stephen King, who once said (or wrote) that loud rock-and-roll helped him to shut out the real world and disappear into his own. I couldn’t write a complete sentence to save my life that morning. You’re right. Different strokes…

    Louise — I wrote my last novel mostly to that Frost/Nixon soundtrack. It just fit so well. Now I hate it 🙂

    Stephen — Old Van Halen is the best. I saw them in 1983 on the Diver Down tour. Love Eddie!

  16. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Susan, if you go to the "Boulevard Synopsis" button on my website, it takes you to a page where you can click on a button to hear the reading.
    And I dig the funk musicians, too. Ever hear the funk in Stevie Wonder’s "Superstition"? Or "Low Rider" by War? I know Coleman Hawkins, but I’m not familiar with most of the rest of your list. I’ll have to get familiar. Have you ever heard "Body and Soul" by Ritchie Cole? Fantastic. I think I got that correct, as far as the musician. I think it’s Ritchie Cole.

  17. Susan

    Stevie…of course! Thank you for the Ritchie Cole and Eddie Jefferson. Forgot them!! Funk yes!

    OK then…..dig Gerald Albright .

    Nelson Rangell……..gitchyu up outta that cafe seat, little white writer Brother

    AND IF YOU DON’T KNOW MAY CEE OH ? Shut up and put that keyboard down for Cold Sweat so I don’t hafta be shamed a yo ass no mo. (I embarrass myself with shit like that) check Carroll Dashiell on bass. Still my funking soul.

    Louise? I think Stephen just showed me how to ‘get my swash back’. Ha HA !!! (Ya had to be there, ‘Ratis) I need to get more good morning sax.

    Thank you for turning my day into soundtrack, Stephen. I’ll go back to your website and do it right this time.

  18. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I’ll have to check out all the web links this weekend, Susan. I’m at the office today and, while I can obviously steal some time on the internet, I can’t hear anything. My computer at work is deaf and dumb. No sound. Sheeez!

  19. pari noskin taichert

    I agree about Borges and would also say it about Garcia Marquez.

    When we finally meet in person, remind me to tell you about my Dexter Gordon experience when I worked at a jazz club in Ann Arbor . . .

  20. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Let’s see, Pari, I’m guessing he hit on you…?

    Did you ever see him in the movie ‘Round Midnight?

  21. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Susan – so far I’ve listened to Gerald Albright. Yes, he’s damn good. I’m going to listen to the other links now.
    Have you ever heard The Dixie Dreggs? Man, they were a tight, taut, funky group.

  22. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Oh my God….Nelson Rangell…my new favorite saxophonist. Thank you, Susan. And that funky bass. That is just superb musicianship. Nelson is tops!

  23. BCB

    YES YES YES. Thank you! I have tried to explain to people, even other writers, how writing is like music and they all look at me like I have three heads. I can’t listen to anything else when I write unless it’s so far in the background as to be indistinguishable. It’s even more irritating when I’m trying to read. I need to listen to the words. The rhythm and cadence and music of the words that make the sentences and the chapters and the story. There are so many different ways to write a sentence and each of them might say what you meant to say. But you have to concentrate to make it sing. Well, I do. When it’s right — whether lyrical or stark or joyful or angry — it’s like a symphony.

    Wonderful post. I feel redeemed. 😉

  24. Susan

    This was great fun. The best links and recommendations come from friends and good blogs. Stephen, your blog post got people thinking in all sorts of directions. Joyful ones.

    I will check out your suggestions.

    I think all of you writers should produce mixes that could be played at your conference (Bouchercon and others) dances and dinners. How cool to introduce a mash by Heat author, SJS, after his guest appearance? Seriously. All of you have age related and regional preferences that introduce others to your own indigenous American culture. Isn’t that what writers DO? Music is just one blueprint for the architecture of literature.
    Thanks again.
    Good Shabbos and Boogaloo, Yall.

  25. Susan

    Hey. But getting back to your writing, Stephen, your work ‘reads’ like the closing scene in The Conversation ‘sounds’. Ironically there is an under-theme in the film that is what you talk about. Sound. Creativity. Politics. Trust. Isolation. Ultimate mental health control. On and on.

    Great post for the gearing up to Mother’s Day.

    I feel like I have to make sure I DO something so my kids will be comfortable and not feel any guilt or responsibility for not rising amazingly and spectacularly to another Hallmark holiday. All I want to do is see them and laugh. They ARE funny. That’s the gift.

    Listened to your reading on your website. Yes. Poetic and ‘safe’. (Remember, I read the book!) Thank you. Looking forward to HEAT

  26. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    By the way, I wanted to comment on The Conversation. It’s one of my favorite films. Very creepy and eerie. I love it. I love its darkness and duplicitous characters. And the sound.

  27. Blair Hayes

    “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs."

    Ha ha! Sounds like Van Morrison.

    Great post, Steve. Really enjoyed it. We must JAM! Do you still have a sax or clarinet? I know we talked about this before… Let’s DO IT!

    Can’t wait to hear the Ray Porter interpretation of "Boulevard".



    You’re right about the chick bass player with Beck. A MONSTER!

    Did you know I went to U Miami with STeve Morse and all the Dixie Dregs? Only they were called the "UM Rock Ensemble" in those days.

  28. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Blair, I can’t believe you went to college with Steve Morse and the guys. They are the tightest group I’ve ever heard. I do have the instruments – soprano sax, alto and clarinet. I lost my flute. I have an electric guitar, too, which I started to learn but dropped. We have a Korg electric piano for Ben and a violin for Noah. I have a brand new set of reeds, so the jamming is imminent. But the sax needs a tune-up–some of the pads need replacing. Got a couple sticky notes that keep me from playing.

  29. Fran

    Read Daniel Woodrell’s "Winter Bone". The language is brutal poetry and the story is amazing. There will be passages you’ll just have to read out loud.

  30. Susan

    Fran. Good one.

    Stephen and Blair? Start a band. Serious. Suck those reeds, Stephen and get your licks back.

    and quit makin’ fun of my Van !!!

    (smiley face)

  31. Susan

    Tal Wilkenfeld is my new favorite bass player. Australian. Say she’s been doing this since she was 15!!
    Thanks for sharing, Stephen!!!!!!

  32. SaxMan

    Love the comparison of words to music and words as music. Always loved Joyce, especially Dubliners. I never cared for Kerouac, but I hear him in a new way now. Thanks!

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