Saturday, July 18, 2009

Player Piano

by Ann Regentin

I didn't used to think of myself as a writer. I used to think of myself as a musician who wrote sometimes. Even now, I'm one of those people who always has a tune playing in their head, and sometimes I even sing along, which undoubtedly worries passers-by. Certainly, it annoys my son. His first attempt at a complete sentence was, "No sing!"

To set the record straight, my voice doesn't suck. It's just that my son hates people singing around the house. Really.

When I was a kid, we had a Grinnel Bros. piano, one of those ancient upright monstrosities, and when I was about five, I started picking out tunes on it. Nothing complicated. I wasn't a baby Mozart. It's just that once I figured out what all of those white keys could do, I took the best advantage of them that I could. Eventually, I learned to use the black keys. People taught me songs, like Heart and Soul, that amateur piano classic, and eventually I had lessons.

I went from piano to flute, and then to voice, guitar, and a handful of other instruments, subbing in my tiny high school band for whatever might be lacking, like trombone for marching band or marimba for a half-time percussion feature. Even so, I was writing obsessively at this time, first a terrible SF epic, then an equally terrible piece of historical fiction, and then a series of erotic short stories. I had writing classes as well as music lessons, and classes in languages and literature, so however I may have thought of myself back then, I was learning music and writing together. To this day, they have not really separated themselves.

Music has a profound impact on how we feel. To get an idea of how intense that impact really is, turn off the sound on your television set and follow along using subtitles. It's a different experience. Even so-called silent films weren't really silent. Long before they figured out how to record speech alongside the video, there was music in the theaters, even if someone had to sit down at a piano to play it.

Video games also rely on music to set mood, as anyone who has felt the adrenaline boost of good boss music can attest. One of the first things I learned when I started playing Mabinogi was how to swap out the MP3 files to replace music I didn't like or was tired of, and in the process I discovered yet another way to musically annoy my child. It turns out that filling a three-floor dungeon with Christmas music is about the worst thing a mother can do to her teen's sense of audio aesthetics, but here, too, turning the sound off entirely changes the experience. It's still possible to enjoy the games, but a layer of emotional depth is removed in the process.

Even life itself is affected. I don't think anyone who went to high school where and when I did can hear Stairway to Heaven without tripping over it mentally, for good or ill, and everyone at some time or another has had an "our song". Our favorite children's songs linger, as do the songs we heard when we hit our teens. I'm in the peculiar situation of hearing the hits from my adolescence as background music while I'm shopping, and it's disconcerting. Am I that old? And how is it that I can still sing those songs, even though if you asked me, I could make a list of them to save my life? And yet I know all the lyrics. Weird.

The impact of music isn't limited to those who can hear it. The most famous example of a deaf musician is Beethoven, but there have been many others whose hearing impairments haven't impaired their relationship with music. The need for pitch discrimination can make most brass instruments difficult, but the body can respond to the vibrations, even if the ear itself can't. A deaf musician, with her arms wrapped around her tuba, can play well and relate to the music in a way that a hearing musician might miss. After all, if you can hear the sounds, you might miss out on what the raw vibrations have to say.

How can music inform writing? Well, one way is if you listen to music while writing, which I often do, sometimes playing the same song over and over again for hours. If it weren't for headphones, I'd have yet another way to musically annoy my kid.

That isn't all, though. Learning music teaches you about rhythm. It teaches pacing. It teaches dynamics. It teaches mode, and mood. If you branch out into the music of other cultures, it teaches you to question assumptions and experiment with different forms. The most obvious intersection between music and writing is song lyrics, which I sometimes write, but it goes much deeper than that.

Speech itself is a form of music. The tones and rhythms can express everything from emotional emphasis to a change in the definition of a word, if you're dealing with one of the inflected languages. Even when you're not, it's possible, if you're paying attention, to figure out at least some of the content of a conversation in a language reasonably similar to your own if you listen to those tones and cadences while armed with a small vocabulary. The words give you the content, and the sounds give you the context, telling you how the speaker feels about the subject. You won't get it right all of the time, but you'll be right more often than you'd expect.

Writing is speech. Even if you don't read it aloud, you still read it inside your head, complete with those tones and rhythms. It's why bad writing jangles our nerves. Poor grammar and spelling throw off our pacing, and poor sentence structure does the same, confusing us and making us wonder what on earth the writer meant.

Until the 19th century, it was difficult to hear a professional musical performance in one's own home unless one happened to live with a professional musician. Even people who owned early phonographs had to put up with a lot of distortion. Most families made do with whatever member happened to have some natural talent of their own, and anyone who could afford one and had the space for it had a piano.

In 1876, three working devices were displayed in Philadelphia that were the predecessors of the player piano. Using perforated paper rolls and air pressure, the player piano could reproduce a professional performance exactly as it was played, without any of the poppy, scratchy noises of early recordings. Even better, the experience could be as interactive as the owner desired, anything from simply plugging an electric model into the wall, to using foot pedals and valves to control the air flow, to actually playing along. A player piano was, after all, a fully-functional piano.

Writing works in much the same way. Each word, like puffs of air through each perforation in a music roll, strikes a key in the reader's brain. If the words are arranged properly, the sounds come together in a way that creates something whole and new, whether it's a visual image or an emotional response. Done well, it's the equivalent of a paper roll recorded live by someone like Richard Strauss or George Gershwin. It inspires as well as entertains, whether that inspiration is a change of mood or a change in direction.

I don't pretend for a second to have perfected this. It's just that if you ask me how my other art affects my writing, this is it. When I play the guitar, I generate music. When I write, I generate a kind of mental music roll. The form might be different, but the end result is the same.

Or something like that! I try, anyway, and maybe from time to time, I get it right, a result as nebulous in writing as it is in music, which brings me to another similarity between the two. If you want to get good at it, you have to practice, because good only comes after you've put in hours and hours of bad.


Ann Regentin was introduced to erotica at a tender age, when a raid of her mother's bookshelves netted such gems as The Perfumed Garden and Lady Chatterly's Lover. She started writing it during her ninth grade biology class, then dropped it for about twenty years to become a musician, a college student, a cripple, a bookstore clerk, an artist, a model, a mother, a parrot rescuer, and finally a reference writer before coming full circle back to erotica.

Her stories and articles have appeared in a variety of places both online and in print, and she is a Contributing Editor at She lives in the Midwest with her son, two parrots, and an elderly Gibson guitar.

Visit Ann Regentin at:


  1. Welcome to the Grip, Ann, and thank you for a characteristically wonderful essay.

    I never really thought about the possible relationship between my musical ability, such as it is, and my writing, but you've really pinned it -- writing _is_ a kind of music. I fight with editors over commas and semi-colons because in my mind, I hear exactly the pause I need to convey the emotions I am trying to evoke.

    Reading your post was something of an "aha" experience.


  2. I totally agree. Writing, especially writing speech, has a rhythm to it, which we hear in our heads. When an editor tries to change it, we get touchy about it. LOL

    Lovely post, Ann, thanks for sharing with the Grip readers!

  3. Hello Ann!

    Good post. I was surprised you were writing erotica when you were so young. I've heard of a couple of other instances like that, all women. Women catch onto this much earlier then boys. I've heard about people listening to loud music when they write, Stephen King listens to heavy metal music when he writes. Music doesn;t work for me, but I like to write in noisy coffee shops and the human noise around me gives me energy for some reason.

    Good post!


  4. Ann,

    Thank you so much for this article! I've always heard my writing as a sort of rhythmic thing, with rising and falling tones and cadences. Not quite what I would call music, but very closely related!

    You're last line really hit home though. You've got to get through the bad stuff (practice, practice, practice!) before you hit the good.

    Thank you again Ann!

  5. Ann, what a wonderful blog entry. I so agree with you about writing having a rhythm. I love music, but I rarely, and I do mean nearly never, listen to music while writing. I wind up typing the lyrics. Sigh! I do listen to music and have been very inspired by different songs or singers to write a variety of stories.

    I've also found myself humming while I type. A character will have a certain rhythm to his speech or movement.

    Really interesting stuff. Thanks so much for stopping by the Grip.


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