A Great SAT Essay Is Like A Great Piece of Music?

By Neil Chyten, founder of The Chyten Center

“If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.”
— Author Anais Nin

Writing great essays is not a lost art form. It is often, however, buried deep within a student’s creative mind or held in check by the student’s own fear of stepping over some imaginary boundary that separates creativity from convention. The secret to great writing is a simple one: “Write as if you were creating a symphony.”

A writing assignment is like a symphony. The writer is like a conductor whose instruments are words; the reader (or grader) is a like a member of the audience. Writing unquestionably contains both visual and auditory elements. It is heard as much as it is seen. Words that fit together to create a mellifluous melody replete with harmonies, changes in tempo and mood can inspire a reader just as a powerful piece of music can inspire a listener.

Therefore, assignments should be carefully constructed not just to address the assignment, but to address the ”musical” aspect of writing. As you write, think about words that might fit together to create beautifully constructed sentences, and how those sentences might connect to create masterful paragraphs.  Then, tie together your paragraphs to create a smoothly flowing essay. This is exactly the same way that songs are written, albeit with words, notes and verses.

Here is an example of writing with a musical style:

One minute it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with frost, icicles fringing every roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets.

And then a long wave of warmth crossed the small town. A flooding sea of hot air; it seemed as if someone had left a bakery door open. The heat pulsed among the cottages and bushes and children. The icicles dropped, shattering, to melt. The doors flew open. The windows flew up. The children worked off their wool clothes. The housewives shed their bear disguises. The snow dissolved and showed last summer’s ancient green lawns.

Ray Bradbury – The Martian Chronicles

Now, here is an example of how a musical writing style might be applied to an essay about Abraham Lincoln:

Patience and perseverance were the hallmarks of his presidency. These defining characteristics that would cast a broad shadow upon the throne of world’s most powerful position forever after. He was a living legend, a king among men and a leader such as the world has not since seen. His dogged determination led his country safely through a wild west of conflict. His life, an unforgettable fire. His death, a thorn on the rose of American culture and an everlasting blight upon the American landscape.

This kind of writing may not come easily to you. However, once you begin to think of writing as music, you are halfway there. Then, you just have to let your writing assignments flow gracefully while addressing the assignment methodically. The difference between writing an essay that addresses the musical aspect of writing and one that merely goes through the motions of addressing the assignment is profound. Since so few students employ creativity to their assignments, your pulsating piece of prose is sure to shine more brilliantly than those with which it is being compared.

Here are five tips for creating outstanding essays:

1) Vary your sentence structure. For example, follow long descriptive sentences with short accentuating or punctuational sentences. Example:

(Long) In the aftermath of World War II, many of the Allied partners clung to the new allegiances that had formed with a tenuous grip that was often strained by profound philosophical differences. (Short) Not unexpectedly, some of these relationships were short lived.

2) Use interesting and highly descriptive verbs. Example:

(Normal) Some governments can easily be controlled by the occasional public compliment, just like one boy can become friends with another just because the other boy says something nice about him.

(Improved) Some governments can be placated through the occasional dispensation of well-placed public praise, just as one can garner favor in the playground by lauding one boy to another.

3) Do NOT use your computer’s built-in thesaurus to randomly replace words. Find someone you trust to help police your word use.

(Poor) He was well known to masticate his food vociferously and insolently.

(Better) Those who knew him forgave his tendency to chew his food in a way that could only be described as a feral feeding frenzy.

 4) Choose a bold title that sets the tone for your essay.  Examples:

Boring Title:

The History of the Automobile Industry in America

Bold Title:

Rise of the Machines: The History of the Automobile Industry in America


5) Use alliteration and assonance – but judiciously!

The terms, alliteration and assonance refer to the repetition of consonant and vowel sounds, respectively. Applied well, they create a musical flow, while used poorly, they can sound tacky and trite. Here are some examples:

(Poor) With climate change bringing warmer weather, the cacophonous climate can be attributed to paltry pollution and poor human practices.

(Better) The cauldron-like climate of “Future Earth” will be directly attributable to our inexcusable addiction to fossil fuels.

In summary, the pursuit of spectacular writing is one that begins with a recognition of the fact that creativity is not a four-letter word, even as it applies to non-creative assignments. With practice, each student can learn to master the essay just as he learns to master the scales of a guitar or the rousing harmonies of a cappella. Mastering the art of writing in general begins with a recognition that words are like musical notes, continues with a dedication to the art form and concludes with hours of patient practice.

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