Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark on music and writing


Roy Peter Clark is America’s preeminent writing coach. The vice president and senior scholar of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fl., has coached countless writers, editors and other journalists through the years. As many who have heard Roy speak know, he’s also a fine musician who uses music as a teaching tool as well as a means of enjoyment.

I wanted to know how Roy thinks about music and its interplay with writing. Here’s what he had to say in our email conversation:

Q: A good story and a good piece of music can share some similarites, it seems to me: an attractive opening, development of a theme, a sense of tension. How do you compare the process of writing a story and composing a piece of music? Are their some characteristics that good music and good writing share?

A: There are similarities and differences, of course. The most important similarity to me is that writing a story and composing a song both require sitting down, getting your hands moving, and discovering lots of cool things you didn’t know along the way. A story title may be in my head, or a musical phrase, but they will stay there until I sit on the chair or bench and get my hands moving on the keyboard.

Q: You’ve written about how some of Paul McCartney’s writing tricks – using an “accident” such as a misplayed chord or a random phrase – mirror some of the tips you have offered for writers. Can you elaborate?

A: I have not taken a music lesson for years and years, so most of what I’ve learned has come from listening, watching, and experimenting. Usually, I can never actually repeat what I am seeing on, say, an instructional video. But that’s OK. Usually, I learn enough to play something, and that something usually includes a cool sound — a chord change — that I didn’t intend, but that sounds good. The trick is to capture that move and put it in your tool box.

Q: I’m interested in your thoughts on the use of music in multimedia journalism. Do you think there’s room in the toolbox for music? What are the perils of using music to augment multimedia journalism?

A: One of the great teachers on how to use music is National Public Radio. Because they are a sound medium, music is crucial to how they experience the world. They don’t usually play music behind a story — unless the story is about music — because sound tracks are editorial — not only do they create mood, but they make a statement. A chord in a minor key says: Shit, the world sucks. So I prefer music used as interlude, that is, as something that comes in between elements of story. NPR does this brilliantly — and responsibly.

Q: Who are some of your musical heroes? What do you consider some of the best-written songs in modern times?

A:  Heroes almost all from the rock era: Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, Buddy
Holly, the Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, and the best bands of the British invasion, especially the Beatles (but not the Stones), the Animals, Dave Clark Five. Absolutely loved the Young Rascals. More recently Springsteen, Professor Longhair, Dr. John, Louis Prima (lots of other New Orleans musicians). The late great Eva Cassidy. Getting a little into American classic jazz: Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Diana Krall, Nat King Cole.

Q: Has being a musician in any way affected your writing? Has being a writer ever affected your use of or appreciation for music?

A: I do think of the structure of a piece of writing like I sometimes thinkof a piece of music, especially when it comes to the repetition of
themes, the movement from one part to another. And I use musical examples all the time in my teaching of writing.

Thanks Roy. I have my own thoughts on some of the subjects Roy discussed, which I will save for another post soon.

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5 Responses to “Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark on music and writing”

  1. Roy Peter Clark Says:

    Chris, I forgot to answer your questions about some of the greatest songs. Here are some, most of them performed by some of my favorite artists:

    Mustang Sally, Wilson Pickett
    In the Midnight Hour, Wilson Picket
    When A Man Loves a Woman, Percy Sledge
    Respect (both versions)
    Theme to Peter Gunn (any version)
    Hey Good Lookin’ Hank Williams
    I Won’t Back Down (Johnny Cash version)
    Great Balls of Fire, the Killer
    Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On, the Killer
    Over the Rainbow, Eva Cassidy version
    Fields of Gold, Eva Cassidy version
    I’ve Got You Under My Skin (Frank Sinatra)
    Walk Don’t Run, The Ventures
    96 Tears, Question Mark and the Mysterians
    That’s Amore, Dean Martin
    Thunder Road, Bruuuuce
    Jump, Jive and Wail, Louie Prima
    Any Neapolitan love song
    Sleepwalk by Santo and Johnny
    Get a Job, by the Silouettes
    Long Tall Sally, Little Richard
    Be My Baby, the Ronettes
    Unchained Melody, Righteous Brothers
    Louie Louie, the Kingsmen and many more

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