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Spoken Word Poetry: The Aesthetics of Sound





In recent years, spoken word poetry has seen a significant boom in popularity, going from a once underground form of entertainment to a mainstream art form. This post will discuss not only the history of spoken word, but also the science behind it, as well as some tips you can employ to create beautiful spoken word poetry, even if it's your first time trying your hand at it!


(image from https://theeyeopener.com/2019/01/how-the-internet-elevated-spoken-word-poetry-but-also-made-it-worse/)


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About spoken word poetry


Spoken word poetry is a type of poetry meant to be performed or read out loud, and has a strong focus on rhythm, storytelling, and emotion. With a large prominence in African American and minority communities, spoken word is often used to comment on social and political issues. Themes of race, class, and gender inequality are often found in this poetry style. In terms of technique, spoken word poetry tends to feature sophisticated rhyme, rhythm and meter, heavy use of repetition, and uses of a combination of slang, colloquial, and complicated vocabulary.



What is phonoaesthetics?


According to wikipedia, "Phonaesthetics is the study of beauty and pleasantness associated with the sounds of certain words or parts of words. The term was first used in this sense, perhaps by J. R. R. Tolkien, during the mid-twentieth century and derives from the Greekφωνή (phōnḗ, "voice" or "sound") plus αἰσθητική (aisthētikḗ, "aesthetics")."


Phonoaesthetics can be viewed as the interaction between science, psychology, and poetry, and aims to explain what sounds are pleasing and displeasing to people, as well as how people ascribe meanings to certain sounds.


There are two broad types of sounds - cacophony and euphony. Cacophony is used to describe sounds that sound harsh, jumbled, or discordant. It is often used to convey anger, confusion, or chaos. Euphony on the other hand, refers to sounds that are pleasant, melodic, and rhythmic. They may be used to portray happiness and peacefulness.



Tips for creating spoken word poetry


According to researcher David Crystal, there are certain elements that make some sounds sound more beautiful than others. Keeping these in mind as you are writing spoken word poetry may help elevate your piece and give it that extra flare. I chose the following 3 elements as I thought they were the most practical for poets.


  • Words that have 3 or more syllables are perceived as more beautiful ( ie. symphony > song)

  • Words where the stress is on the first syllable are perceived as more beautiful than words that have stresses in other places (ie. melody > mechanic)

  • Words with short vowels are favored over ones with long vowels (ie. lid > lied)

Aside from these more technical rules, I also created a list of some helpful tips for writing and performing spoken word poetry.


  • Pay extra attention to rhyme, rhythm and meter: Out of all the different types of poetry, spoken word places the most importance on rhyme and rhythm. So when you are writing make sure this is at the forefront of your mind.

  • Always have a tab open to a rhyming dictionary: Following the previous tip, this will be a great tool for creating the rhythm of spoken word.

  • Repetition: Using a lot of repetition is a key feature of many spoken word poems, so consider including repetition into your own work.

  • Before you start writing spoken word, listen to it as much as you can: Just like it is important to read a lot of poetry to become a good poet, it is important to listen to spoken word to develop your craft.

  • Read your poem out loud even as you are writing it: While you may be tempted to not read your poem out loud until it is finished, it is still a good idea to read it out loud as you are going because it will make errors in rhythm more noticeable.

  • Pay attention to the way you read your poem: When performing spoken word poetry, it is important to pay attention not to just the emotion in the poem, but to the emotion in your voice as you are reading it.

  • Don't go overboard with acting: A little contradictory to the last tip but nevertheless important, it is crucial not to overact when performing spoken word or else this may make your poem come across as comedic. Try to maintain a balance between showing emotion and not being overly dramatic.

  • Instead of writing your poem, try playing around with a voice recorder: If you are feeling stuck trying to write a poem, try switching things up and playing around with some improv into your phone's voice recorder.


Poems to draw melodic inspiration



A video to check out





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10 Comments


Marc  Brimble
Marc Brimble
Jan 16, 2022

Great blog very interesting. As an English teacher the idea of how certain words sound more beautiful is very interesting. It's strange how 3 syllables sounds more attractive. It seems that the pesky number 3 turns up all over the place. The rule of thirds in photography comes to mind.

And that video blew my mind

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Ken LeMarchand
Ken LeMarchand
Jan 09, 2022

This is such an inquisitive read Soph and I enjoyed learning about the spoken word in more depth because I've never taken much stock in it; outside of the Open Mic nights.


I took a keen eye to your mention of "Words that have 3 or more syllables are perceived as more beautiful ( i.e. symphony > song)" because it makes sense. I read aloud both words that you shared in the example and "symphony" definitely sounds much smoother and pleasing to the ear. The notion of syllabic structure and rhythm came to mind almost immediately, and I couldn't help but delight in the differences between written prose (often read with head voice) and spoken word. How each word is…


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Sophie
Sophie
Jan 10, 2022
Replying to

I definitely think you're on to something with the number three! For some reason, the human brain evolved to find the number three particularly pleasing, which is why it is featured across so many dimensions (ie. photography, marketing, writing) as you mentioned. Though I'm not into numerology myself, I found what you wrote about the spiritual significance of the number 3 across different cultures really interesting.

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.
.
Jan 09, 2022

This might your most tactical blog yet.I enjoy your rules as some of them,I might be already doing and haven't realize it.I want to point out something in regards to listen to spoken word.Everything were saying is spoken word.What I mean is,any speech,monologue or presentation you spoke from has a spoken word element to them.Its just not in a poetic sense,however,if one replicates what they're hearing into their spoken word pieces,then they are already on the right track.I never drawn my experiences from listening to spoken word pieces(outside of one,technically speaking it was a self help video).

I love how you specify to not over act.This is extremely helpful,especially with this new direction I am taken my poetry,although if you…


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Sophie
Sophie
Jan 10, 2022
Replying to

Hi Bendy! I really like what you said about seeing all speech as poetry. I think that's a great way to draw inspiration and a beautiful way to live life in general.

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.
.
Jan 09, 2022

As with @Suchita There is so much to take away from this blog. For my personal You Tube channel and submissions to the Poetry Cove Radio. I found the concept of Phonaesthetics very interesting. ( coined by Tolkien!)

The interaction in science, psychology and philosophy and of course how your voice impacts the audience is very helpful to me.

I also enjoyed the different formation of syllables and which are perceived as beautiful, and how short vowels are favorited over long.

The tips and guides are great and I’ll refer to them before I upload, record or submit again. (especially the part about too much emotion)

Thank you Sophie for this informative and helpful piece.🕷

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Sophie
Sophie
Jan 10, 2022
Replying to

Thank you so much Garish! I'm glad you found my blog helpful helpful :)

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Suchita Senthil Kumar
Suchita Senthil Kumar
Jan 09, 2022

Wonderful post Sophie! I am quite amazed at how we find certain number of syllables, or stress on particular syllables more pleasing to the ear. Thank you for including that in this post! I also just watched the spoken word performance you'd suggested at the end and it broke my heart into so many pieces before mending it right back. I am taking back so much from this blogpost :)

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Sophie
Sophie
Jan 10, 2022
Replying to

Thanks Suchita! I also found the stuff about syllables and stress cool while I was researching for this blog

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