Sonic Texture – Sound and Sense

What’s sharper, a rock or a stone?

The words mean roughly the same thing, but one of them intuitively feels sharper, somehow, and the other feels smooth. This is a feature of language worth noticing. The ‘k’ sound in ‘rock’ just feels kind of sharp, and the ‘n’ sound on ‘stone’ feels soft, smoothing off the word.

What’s pointier, a bauble or a trinket?

Again, the words mean roughly the same thing, but one of them feels pointier, the other rounder. ‘Bauble’ is a round word, somehow, whereas ‘trinket’ is full of sharp edges. Our corresponding mental picture will naturally map on to the shape of these sounds. Probably, a trinket is pictured as something like a little pointy item, maybe star-shaped, whereas a bauble is a round-edged thing.

What’s heavier, a bauble or a trinket?

The weight of a word depends in part on the vowel sounds. To me, it feels as though higher-pitched vowels are lighter (like in ‘tip’), and deeper-pitched vowels are heavier (like in ‘toop’). The felt weight of a word also depends on whether the consonant is voiced or unvoiced; in the following pairs, the first item will feel heavier, because its consonant is voiced: ba/pa, da/ta, ga/ka, za/sa.

Probably, you feel like a trinket is lighter than a bauble, almost weightless, and the bauble you might imagine to have a little bit of weight in the palm of your hand. This is because ‘trinket’ has higher pitched vowels and unvoiced consonants, whereas ‘bauble’ has lower pitched vowels and voiced consonants.

These things have to be sensed, and not everyone is going to feel them exactly the same way. But the point is that sounds have a kind of texture that corresponds to the mental image they create. We can call this the “sonic texture”: the mental impression created by a series of sounds (irrespective of or in addition the semantic meaning of the words they comprise).

Probably the best example of this phenomenon is the poem Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll. In this poem, a strange landscape with alien plants and creatures comes to life in the mind of the reader, all through the use of nonsense words that have been engineered to create a sonic texture:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;

Long time the manxome foe he sought—

So rested he by the Tumtum tree

And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

He chortled in his joy.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

Lewis Carroll was playing with sonic texture when he made Jabberwocky. Carroll was acutely aware of the “shape” of sounds, and how they invoked images in the mind of the reader. He exploited this feature of our language to create a rich landscape out of the sonic texture of his made-up words. He used simple grammatical structures so that we can understand where the nouns and verbs and adjectives were, and used a basic plot so we can follow the story easily, but the sensory content of the poem is built from the sonic texture of nonsense words. Even though they are made-up words, the poem succeeds in creating vivid mental images.

Learning Goal

Writers should develop sensitivity to the shape of sounds. It will improve their ability to convey the mental image that they are striving for. If a word doesn’t feel quite right, it might be because the sonic texture is not contributing to the desired tone or image.

The following exercises are meant to develop an awareness of the sonic texture of the various sounds -the phonemes- of the English language. If you want to do these exercises, you should probably get a few sheets of paper and something to write with. It’s better for learning.

English Phonemes

Phonemes are the sounds of a language.

Vowels

Our written language doesn’t correspond exactly to all the sounds of our language. We have five written vowels. We have three times as many spoken vowels.

One of the important features of our vowels is that they can be arranged in a pitch-scale.

Exercises for Vowels: learning the vowels and the pitch-scale

  1. Write out all the vowels in a column, arranged into the pitch-scale
  2. Think of two example words for each vowel in the scale

Vowels: Pitch-profile

Any string of syllables will have a pitch-profile: how the pitch of the vowels rises or falls. If the profile goes from high to low, it will contribute to a sense of a mood getting worse; if it goes from low to high, it will contribute to a sense of a mood improving.

Consider the following line from The Princess Bride:

“On the high seas your ship attacked, and the dread pirate Roberts never takes prisoners.”

This sentence has an overall decline in pitch, contributing to the sense that something bad has happened. Moreover, if we break it into its three constitutive peaks, each of them has a descending profile: “on the high seas your ship attacked”; “the dread pirate Roberts”; “never takes prisoners” -each of these segments has descending pitch-profile. This creates an intuitive sense of descending emotional tone, which works with the semantic content of the line to achieve the intended emotional effect. The line wouldn’t have worked if it was written this way:

“The dread pirate Roberts never takes prisoners, and your ship attacked on the high seas.”

It means the same thing, but the line isn’t good. One reason this line doesn’t work* is because the pitch-profile is mismatched with the intended tone. It goes from low to high, ending on “high seas”, which runs counter to the feeling that the sentence is meant to evoke. It should end on a low note, not a high one.

I don’t mean to imply that William Goldman was consciously engineering a pitch-profile for this sentence. But good writers have an intuitive sense of these things, honed through a lifetime of practice. They feel their way around the sentence until it does what they want it to do; they sense when a sentence isn’t working and they try changes until it does. And sometimes, what’s not working -or what could be made to work better- is the pitch-profile.

This is a skill that can be developed. You can hope to develop it just by reading and writing a lot, and paying attention to what sounds right and what doesn’t. Or you can do some exercises to specifically develop that particular skill.

The goal with the next exercises is to improve sensitivity to pitch-profiles and their corresponding impact on the reader.

Pitch-profile exercises:

  1. Create a sentence with a roughly ascending pitch profile using made-up words; Create a contrasting sentence with the same made-up words, and a roughly descending pitch profile.
  2. Create a sentence with something sad happening, and a roughly descending pitch-profile.
  3. Create a sentence with something happy happening, and a roughly ascending pitch-profile.
  4. Locate a line in a book or movie where something good or bad is revealed. Map out the pitch-profile by drawing a line graph over the sentence, representing the pitch of the vowels. Does the pitch-profile complement the semantic content?

Note: because English places varying stresses on syllables, some vowels will be more important than others in determining the pitch-profile. If you know how to do scansion, you should focus on the stressed syllables when determining a pitch-profile.

The Consonants

This is going to be harder than the vowels. The consonants don’t map on to a neat-and-tidy scale like the vowels do. And we care about more than just pitch: we care about a wide range of potential mental impressions. Some of these sounds feel rounder or sharper, weaker or stronger, smaller or bigger, hotter or colder, etc, and the features we care about will change depending on the context. This is something that has to be intuited.

A list of English consonants can be found here.

The following exercises are meant to (a) increase familiarity with the consonants in the English language (not just the written ones), and (b) develop awareness of sense impressions created by the consonants.

Consonant Exercises – Familiarity with Consonants:

  1. Write out all the consonants in a column (it doesn’t need to be organised in any way)
  2. Think of two example words for each consonant

Consonant Exercises – Developing Sense Impressions:

  1. On a separate sheet, put the consonants on a scale from sharp to round (and “I can’t tell” in the middle). No two consonants can occupy the exact same position (you are going to have to do some tough discrimination -it might feel arbitrary- but try anyway).
  2. On a separate sheet, put the consonants on a scale from heavy to light (and “I can’t tell” in the middle). As above, no two consonants can occupy the same position.
  3. On a separate sheet, put the consonants on a scale from rough to silky (and “I can’t tell” in the middle). As above, no two consonants can occupy the same position.
  4. Are there patterns of correspondence between the different scales? Does an item’s position on one scale determine its approximate position on a different scale?

Sonic Texture Exercises

Okay, we’ve looked at vowels and consonants, now we’ll put them together. These exercises are all meant to develop awareness of the sonic texture created by strings of syllables -vowels and consonants working together to create a mental impression.

Sonic Texture Exercises:

  1. Create a list of ten nonsense words, between one and three syllables (most should be two syllables).
  2. For each nonsense word, choose a colour that best fits, based on its sonic texture; say the word and try to imagine what colour it invokes. You can’t use the same colour twice (but you can use patterns like stripes or dots, etc). For example: which word is “deep purple”, which is “yellow with green spots”, etc.
  3. For each nonsense word, choose an animal that best fits, based on the sonic texture; say the word and try to imagine what animal it invokes. You can’t use the same animal twice. But you can use imaginary animals, or descriptions like “something with a long tail”.
  4. On a separate sheet, place your nonsense words on a scale from:
    1. sharp to round
    2. heavy to light
    3. magnetic to electric
    4. another adjective of your choice to its antonym (or to another pole of meaning)
  5. Have someone else create a scale with the same words that you used. Compare your scale(s) with theirs, looking for similarities and differences in placement of words on the scale. Which words did you place on similar points in the scale? Which words landed in different places in the scale? What do these similarities and differences tell you about the sonic texture of that word?
  6. Write a haiku or a ballad stanza using only made-up words (you can use real articles and conjunctions if you like). Your poem should meet the following conditions:
    • Your poem has a real word(s) for a title (like “alligator” or “lemonade stand”)
    • Your poem uses a sonic-profile to create a sense of changing mood
    • Your poem uses sonic-texture to evoke images based on the title
    • Your poem uses only made-up words (except for articles and conjunctions).

Review

We looked at sonic texture: the mental impression created by a series of sounds. We looked at pitch-profile, the way a string of vowels can rise or fall in pitch and contribute to the changing emotional tone of a sentence. We familiarized ourselves with the phonemes of the English language. We exercised our awareness of sonic texture, for consonants and vowels, and for their combinations. And we practiced using sonic texture to create mental impressions.

Final Comments

I hope you liked this article on Sonic Texture. This site is updated at least once a week with articles about writing.

David


* This variation also ruins the punch of the original line, which was expertly withheld until the very last word, where the full impact of the sentence unfurls on reaching the word ‘prisoner’; in the inferior variation, the implication that Westley has been killed is seen coming, so the line loses its punch by comparison.

2 thoughts on “Sonic Texture – Sound and Sense

  1. Pingback: In a Station of the Metro – David F. Shultz

  2. Pingback: In a Station of the Metro – David F. Shultz

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