Poetry & Music

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There are many connections between poetry and music. In a way, poetry serves as a link between the sound of music and the language of prose. Poetry and music seem to share two aspects of sound particularly in common: rhythm and tune.

Perrine writes the following about the music of poetry:

Our love of rhythm and meter is rooted even deeper in us than our love for musical repetition. It is related to the beat of our hearts, the pulse of our blood, the intake an outflow of air from our lungs. Everything that we do naturally and gracefully we do rhythmically…. There is a strong appeal for us in language which is rhythmical. (148)

Rhythm is a force present in both music and poetry. In a way, this rhythm—dictated by meter—shapes the lines of a poem into a type of music, providing the ear with the same sense of pleasure it would derive from music played on any other instrument.

Just as rhythm depends on duration, and rhymes depend on tone-color (as discussed in the previous section), “tune” depends on pitch (39). However, there is a significant different here between music and poetry. “The scale of music omits many possible tones between its limits, selecting only certain tones according to a definitely arranged order of intervals: the scale of verse embraces all the tones possible within the limits of the human-speaking voice” (57). Thus, the changes in pitch that take place in the recitation of a poem are much more complicated and subtle than the changes in pitch that take place in the playing of a song.

Lanier claims that “tunes—melodies, distinctly formulated patterns of tone varying in pitch—exists not only in poetic readings, but in all the most commonplace communications between man and man by means of words” (252). Evidence of tunes being present in speaking voice is seen in our use of nonverbal communication to decode meaning in everyday interaction. Imagine a phrase being said in a completely flat, robotic voice—this would likely seem rather odd. This is proof that tunes are present in everyday speech. Imagine all the different inflections one could put on the following sentence: “I didn’t do it” (“I didn’t do it.” “I didn’t do it!” “I didn’t do it.” etc.). Each of these would convey a different meaning.