Sounding It Out

This is an essay by John Kilhefner.

It’s unnatural to lose the beat when we routinely read to ourselves or dutifully hammer words onto the page. Discovering the rhythm in the sound of words is akin to uncovering a new language — a language you perhaps once knew, but forgot.

Like any other studious child, I read. I read the books I needed to read. Few of them, if any, interested me. Einstein once said intelligence is fostered in part from the fairy tales we consume well before school age. Toddlers find words exotic — being aloof to deeper meanings, their intrigue owes to the aesthetic; their continued intrigue to the reward of word recognition by sound or visual representation. In school, well-behaved children read. The older I got, the less lustrous the words appeared. They were just words.

Still, I read. Not out of interest in reading, but eagerness to please. I was terrified of not being liked. Of letting my parents down, of academic ignominy at the desks of my teachers. I read, as studiously as I could, to impress.

Undoubtedly, it was the reading which fostered my natural talent for writing. Well, that and my dad’s uncanny ability to tell me a new story from his life every night. But I had no interest in writing, unless it was assigned. Or unless it was on my dad’s typewriter. The sound of the keys spelunking into the metal framework entertained me.

By adolescence, I replaced childlike eagerness with childlike rebellion. The latter satisfied me. And by high school, my head spent more time on desks than in books. Daydreaming, my thoughts roamed free. My senses melded with words which became sounds which became visuals, all simultaneously. Lucid synesthesia. Waking up meant the words were just words again.

Like any other studious child, I involved myself in extracurricular activities. I learned to read music and play the trumpet. I chose band, because my older brother was in it. I chose the trumpet because it was his instrument, and I looked up to him. The magic I would come to know in music was absent from my music classes. The curriculum dulled its hypnotic effects, turning it into another chore.

Then, in the ninth grade, a friend of mine brought in an Eminem CD and played it over the band room speakers. The song elicited a reaction in the band director, one I’d never seen before — his face was beet red when he whipped the CD out of the player and chastised us. As juvenile and explicit for the sake of explicitness as it was, I saw a certain power in words. So I listened.

When we think of rhythm, our minds don’t go immediately to the written word, but to expressive forms like music or dance. Our minds and bodies are naturally hardwired for it. If you squint, you can find rhythm in anything — from our body’s basic biological cadences to the rise and fall of the seasons due to the motion of the planet. It manifests itself in human creations, such as sports, and, of course, in song. When it comes to the latter, the reverberation of two carefully chosen words is literally music to the ears.

An explosion of ecstasy takes place when we hear a pleasing rhythmical phrase or lyric. This is immediately gratifying in music, while it takes a carefully seasoned ear to unlock the rhythms inherent in prose.

When writing, reading our finished work aloud allows us to experience the full breadth of what we just wrote. If it doesn’t flow, reading it aloud is often the lens that exposes flaws. Words, when on a page, only reveal half of themselves. Hearing the sound words make creates a multi-sensory experience fostering comprehension.

Like any other rebellious child, I listened to music my parents hated. I listened, at first, for acceptance. The more I listened, however, the more every word and every note I read coalesced. Exotic. Through music, I discovered joy in the sounds of words. Something I once knew, but forgot.

By the time I was out of high school, I read more than I ever read and played more music than I ever played in all my years as a student. I even started nurturing whatever structure I cultivated as a writer prior to academic-induced stasis. And by the time I took English literature in college, you would be hard pressed to find me not reading.

Reading and writing unveils its truth when both the writer and the reader think within the syncopations of jazz musicians or the choreographed beauty of ballet dancers. Prose consists of the interplay of carefully chosen and arranged words to form a complete composition.

Much like the tone of an instrument, the writer’s tone, too, influences the rhythm of words, sentences and paragraphs. The reader’s task is to infer tonal shifts, using the proper inflection to yield the full impact of prose.

While working at TIME, Hunter S. Thompson re-typed the entirety of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” He did this to understand Fitzgerald’s prose style and feel how writing a novel was like. Thompson was well aware of the rhythms of prose, subtle as they may be. To write well, one must find the natural sound within literature.

My flirtation with sound hasn’t just taken me down a path, it’s created a lifestyle. Today, I’m learning Japanese and, you guessed it, music is the primary motivator. I discovered Japanese hip hop, a marvel of globalization on its own, and am once again transfixed by the power of words. Or, in this case, the power that culture has on words. The English language is more suited to rhymes than Japanese, meaning the evolution of Japanese rap, or J-Rap, required a re-thinking of the structures of the language. I’m transcribing the songs I like into Romaji, and, because I only currently know about 200 words, learning the meaning of each word as I go. Eventually, I’ll cultivate enough of an understanding to be able to read an entire new culture. Now that sounds interesting.

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Johnny Kilhefner is a freelance writer specializing in the intersection of technology and culture. His work appears in Five out of Ten magazine, Unwinnable, PopMatters, Writer’s Weekly, Bridged Design, and much more. When not writing, he raises two young daughters while indulging his Sisyphean quest to brew the finest cup of tea. You can find him on Twitter.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Rima Xaros

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