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Cindy L. Freeman, Using Imagery, 03/08/2020

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I’ve discovered that conducting a choir is a lot like writing a novel. Maybe that’s why I love doing both. Making music and writing a book are creative activities that fully engage the brain. Notice I didn’t say “listening to music and reading a book,” which, while valuable pastimes, are not the same as writing and making music. Whereas listening to music tends to be passive—The Mozart Effect was a flawed study—singing, playing an instrument and conducting are active, engaging the whole brain. Likewise, creative writing causes brain cylinders (neurons and dendrites) to fire, especially in the frontal cortex.

As an early childhood educator for many years, I studied the effects of music on the brain. Again and again, scientific studies confirmed that music making stimulates all areas of the brain, causing neurons and dendrites to activate. That’s why early childhood music is so beneficial for young children whose brains are still developing. 

Recently, I found a 2014 study by German researchers published in the journal Neurolmage. These neuroscientists observed the brain activity of people as they wrote stories. According to the study, the brain activity of creative writers, especially long-time writers of fiction, is “similar to the brains of other people skilled in complex action like musicians.”   

Scientific research notwithstanding, my experience in both fields has taught me that the most pronounced similarity between music making and creative writing is in the use of imagery. As a choral conductor, when I ask my singers to visualize the tone or mood of a musical piece, they respond more accurately than when I simply use musical terms like smooth (legato) or detached (staccato), strong (marcato) or light (leggiero), loud (forte) or quiet (piano). While they are familiar with these terms, both English and Italian, their response is far more immediate when I use imagery. Instead of asking them to sing smoothly, I might suggest the image of hot fudge dripping down the sides of vanilla ice cream. “Sing like a diva, not a wood nymph” shows them clearly that I want them to use a fuller, richer tone. “Think of a tennis ball bouncing on pavement or a stone skipping across the water” gives them an image of light, detached singing more effectively than saying, “Sing that phrase staccato.” 

In a similar way, creative writers continually work to “show, not tell” their stories. Experienced writers know what this challenging process entails. We understand that, when our narrative engages all the senses, our readers’ brains are activated to produce images.

“Show, don’t tell is a writing technique in which story and characters are related through sensory details and actions rather than exposition. It fosters a style of writing that’s more immersive for the reader, allowing them to ‘be in the room’ with the characters” (, Jul 11, 2019).

An excellent example of showing rather than telling is this passage from Ken Follett’s bestselling novel  The Pillars of the Earth. It sets the stage in the first chapter where townspeople are waking and starting their day in anticipation of a public hanging:

“Candlelight flickered behind the shutters of the substantial wood and stone houses around the square, the homes of prosperous craftsmen and traders, as scullery maids and apprentice boys lit fires and heated water and made porridge. The color of the sky turned from black to gray. The townspeople came ducking out of their low doorways, swathed in heavy cloaks of course wool, and went shivering down to the river to fetch water.”

Follett could have stated succinctly: It was a cold, winter morning and the townspeople were waking up. But by showing us the candlelit windows and shivering people “swathed in heavy cloaks” he engages all of our senses with powerful imagery that causes our brains to form pictures. We feel like we are right there in the town square with them, experiencing what they are experiencing. In one brief, expressive paragraph we discover the book’s historical setting, the time of day and the time of year. We know that the people are wealthy with servants. We see their sturdy houses. We know how they dress and what they eat for breakfast.

It has taken many years for me to realize how much music has helped my writing and writing has helped my musical expression. In both fields, words must be used in such a way as to activate the brains of our readers/singers, forming vivid images that leave no doubt about what we want to convey. Cindy L. Freeman is the author of numerous award-winning short stories and three published novels: Unrevealed,The Dark Room and I Want to Go Home. Website:; Facebook page: Her books are available from or

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