What music teaches us about our writing tone

Image, silhouette of a singer

Get the right reaction from the sound of your voice. Image by TeroVesalainen / CCO 1.0

It’s not every day that I can put my music degree to use in the world of plain language. But when I find a theme, you can’t stop me!

Tone has been a hot topic around the office recently, especially with the launch of our latest online course about tone and voice, Tone Matters. We all have to communicate with each other, but what sort of tone should we use? And what makes a sentence sound good or bad?

Tone in writing has many aspects, and so many of these fall into grey areas. But for a pianist like me, tone is pretty much black and white.

What is the meaning of tone?

Let’s go back to basics. You might be proud to show off your extremely large vocabulary, but do you know how to use it? Not every word sounds the same, and each one has a different impact for the reader.

A musical tone is made up of duration, pitch, loudness, and timbre (quality). When you string a whole bunch of well-chosen notes together, they make up a melody. You choose notes based on the musical scale you’re working in. And you emphasise different notes in the melody to tell a story, changing the volume, speed, and tonal quality of each note. The resulting melody invokes an emotive response from your listener.

The same thing applies to words — every word has a different meaning. And when you string a group of well-chosen words together, they form a sentence. The meaning of each word can change, depending on which group of words you string together and what order you place them in. So the words you choose can affect the response you get from your reader.

Know when to strike the right chord

People tend to have an emotional reaction when they listen to a piece of music. And the same thing happens when they’re in the middle of a conversation. Your voice projects your emotions, and at the same time, you’re trying to match your voice for the person you’re speaking with.

For me, I prefer a friendlier tone when writing emails, letters, or reports. I write exactly how I talk — or at least try to! But at the same time, I know when to use a more serious tone in writing. Being aware of your audience and then gauging how they might react is key to a successful conversation.

Think about who you’re writing for. Humour or terrible music puns might fall flat if you haven’t got the right audience. Stay sharp, always keep your reader in mind, and think about their reaction to your tone.

Image, Mariah Carey

Your message has the most impact when you hit the right notes. Image by 12019CCO 1.0

What do you sound like when you’re in your element?

One of my favourite examples of tone is the musical piece by Richard Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra. This type of piece is fittingly known as a tone poem, as it was inspired by the philosophical novel of the same name by Friedrich Nietzsche.

The initial fanfare is best known for its use in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Paired beautifully with the opening scene, the music invokes a strong emotional response of wonder, amazement, and discovery (or new horizons, for a literary interpretation of the eclipse). You can check out this masterful use of tone to set the scene here.

On the flipside, you might know exactly what you want to sound like, but you don’t know how to get there. Unless you refine how you sound, it can turn out like this.

Believe it or not, the above example by Portsmouth Sinfonia had a purpose. The orchestra was made up of people with varying degrees of skill in musical performance. They had to take the performances seriously, try their best, and turn up to all the regular practice sessions. And they would play pieces that were well-known or at least musical classics. So they inherently knew what they should sound like, but didn’t always get the tone right.

Anyone can string a sentence together, but it’s important to refine how the sentence sounds for others reading it. So think about your audience and strike the right chord when you next pick up your pen and paper. Or fingers on the keyboard, for all you percussive performers!

Need to find your voice?

We’ve just launched a short online course, Tone Matters, to help you find your voice and connect with your readers. Over five lessons, you’ll learn how to craft the right tone with short videos, valuable resources, and activities focused on your real-world experience.

Refine how you sound with our online course on tone

Tone is important when it comes to politics — see what makes for a great campaign speech

Learn how to write with purpose and engage with your audience

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