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The Soundtrack to Life

Analysing sound in text - part 1

We all know that poetry is simply dreaming. Entire franchises and the careers of numerous psychologists have been built on the premise that images you see in dreams can be interpreted to have some kind of symbolic meaning for your own life. So too, poetry: the images you see there can be analysed as relevant to the context of the poet’s life, and/or the narrative themes of the poem itself.

Now add in the music that you sometimes get in dreams. It pervades the background, and provides an atmosphere to the events that may be in contrast or in harmony with the narrative. It adds a tonal framework to the dream that gives greater meaning to the symbols depicted.

Today, think of poetry like you think of music in dreams. The words we use are still important in creating images, but now we’re going to be thinking about the sounds themselves that build those words. We’re going to decide what those sounds are, and how they reflect the attitude of the speaker, and the atmosphere in which they exist.

For this session, let go of the concept that words have a clearly defined, mutually agreed-upon meanings, and think instead of the sounds that they make.

So, how do we analyse sound in poetry?

Step 1 - Atmosphere.

Decide what atmosphere is being created in the text.

What is atmosphere? Let’s say it is the mood that is created in the text. We might use words like: joyful, ominous, despondent, conflicted, peaceful, frenetic, romantic, discordant.

It is usually at this point that you might panic and wonder if the atmosphere you are identifying is the correct one.

Remember, a lot of English is the ability to argue successfully and persuasively (no matter what they tell you!). There really isn’t a right answer in English (though you can occasionally misread texts, but will discuss that in a different post). If you think a mood is despondent, then go for it - and confidently argue your point to the end! Note as well that this atmosphere does not have to be static throughout your text. If you feel that the text begins with a joyful tone and then moves to one that is more depressing as the text progresses, this is perfectly fine, and perhaps even to be expected. But once you have chosen what the atmosphere is, even if you have chosen that it will fluctuate, stick with this during your analysis and do not falter from it – especially if you are in timed conditions.

Step 2 - Analyse the sounds in the words of the text - but make them fit whatever atmosphere you have chosen.

Once you have chosen atmosphere of your text, it is now time to analyse the sounds in the text and argue that each of the sound supports the atmosphere or tone that you have identified. But here is where a lot of students struggle. How do you know which sound creates which meaning? Or which sound supports which atmosphere?

Here we are going to look at all the sounds that may be apparent in text and we’re going to show you which ones you can use or identify as relevant to different atmospheres.

To do this, we are going to split phonetic sounds into soft and hard. Please note that some alphabetic letters may appear on both lists - this is because they might make different sounds in different words, and we will interpret the sounds differently. These lists also contain combinations of letters that make phonetic sounds. The way in which the letters are pronounced (so the sound they make) is given in brackets after each letter or phoneme:

Soft sounds

Hard sounds:

Every soft sound can be used to indicate an atmosphere that would also be considered soft: gentle childhood, innocence, peace, naivety, calm, quiet, isolation, nature, harmony and so on.

Every hard sound can be used to support an atmosphere that would also be considered hard: poverty, violence, conflict, aggression, disharmony, discord, cacophony, awkwardness, jagged relationships and so on.

Make sure that the sound you choose supports the atmosphere you’ve chosen for that text. So, if you are dealing with a poem that seems to you to be about a fractured relationship which is creating an uncomfortable atmosphere, look for lots of hard sounds - for example, g’s or t’s at the beginning of words, or words that end with k’s and c’s.

When you get into this, you might notice sometimes that you find some conflicts. For example, it’s very common to notice repeated ’s’ sounds in poems or texts that seem to be presenting an atmosphere of wickedness or evil. Though the ’s’ sound is soft, you realise that it also mimics the hissing of snakes, and so in this context it would reinforce a soft, but sinister atmosphere of viciousness. Or you may notice that there are a lot of hard, invasive sounds of b’s or d’s in a poem about joy. Here you could interpret the sounds as exclamations of excitement; a failure on the part of the speaker to keep their happiness contained. Pay attention to the sound the letters make, not the letters themselves!

Once again (and a thousand times!), you can’t be wrong. Argue your point effectively, and be confident in supporting your viewpoint!

Once you’ve found the sounds, you’ll probably want to be able to use a literary device to frame what you’ve found in your writing. We’ll deal with that in part 2!

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