It’s Boxing Day in Britain, a day for family and celebrations. Celebration, to me, usually means music. So what better day to run a blog on music by a fellow writer whose work I love?
The writer’s soundtrack.
It can be inspiring. It can enhance the writing experience, and if shared with readers, add depth to the world within the book.
Or it can fall as flat as that mix you got from that person who you sort of like but not in that way and oh man, are you not into that kind of music. At all.
Music is powerful, demanding, and an unforgiving medium. So is writing prose, and poetry. They are all different forms with different rules. There are plenty of great songs that have lyrics that barely qualify as poetry, and it’s often lousy poetry at that. There are plenty of incredible poems that will never work as songs, too, though that doesn’t stop some musicians from trying, and often failing, to set them to music. A warning to the wise: if it’s already a wonderful poem, could you really improve it by adding music? If not, leave it the hell alone. Thank you. Do not jazz up my Shakespeare. (Rap might be okay if the Shakespeare is included in very small doses, enhancing rather than forming the foundation of the music, IMHO.)
But I digress (only slightly – we’ll come back to tastes in music).
When I was about nine years old my father told me I needed to pick out an instrument. My first choice (after silently discarding the piano and the harp because I knew they were dreadfully expensive and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be smart enough to learn to manage them) I, for no real reason, felt a strong desire to learn the cello. I think my father was incredibly proud, but he also wanted me to have a fighting chance to be a bit social so he suggested maybe I might want something more portable, like a guitar? I cut the difference and chose the violin.
Ah, youthful innocence. Stringed instruments are hard enough. Sure, pick a fret-free instrument as a nine year old. But, it was the right age to start a difficult instrument. My father purchased a full-sized violin, knowing I’d quickly grow into it, and I began my musical education with my small hand wrapped around the elegant neck of an instrument with a distinguished history and a reputation for driving parents insane.
As a result of many years slaving away, often failing and never practicing enough, I’ve developed an appreciation for hearing the layers and structure in music.
Check this out: stories have layers and structure too.
Layers: there’s the setting, the plot, and the character, and each of these things have layers within them. For example, the setting isn’t just a location, but it’s a mood, a time, and it can be a character in its own right.
In music, there are the various instruments, which are often grouped (rhythm, bass, lead, etc) and there may be lyrics, and harmonies.
Structure: Music is usually written in a key that often sets the mood through the usage of some notes to the exclusion of others, with a rhythm framework often called a meter signature (for example, a waltz is ¾ ‘time’ and most rock is 4/4 time) where the top number represents how many beats there are in a measure, and the bottom number tells a musician what kind of beat note is the one being counted (in both of the examples, it’s the quarter note. For more info, employ your Google-fu!)
Stories also are written in a ‘key’. For example, horror stories are dark and full of menace, suspense, and terror. Writers will set the mood through the usage of certain words and the exclusion of others. They’ll also pace the story to advantage. Some stories linger in rooms and admire the settings and characters, while others race along and barely pause long enough for us to catch our breath. (allegrissimo 6/8 time, anyone?)
A lot of these writing factors are chosen or utilized subconsciously. In my case it must remain unconscious until the work is through its first draft, otherwise I spend way too much time sanding and polishing and way too little time sculpting the shape of the thing. Not only does it take longer, but the final product looks awkward and blocky. Oh hey, there are lots of sculpting and painting comparisons that can be made here, but let’s move on.
When it comes time to edit the work? Oh yeah, then I can start really refining it. Word choice, sentence length, chapter length, themes, harmonies, bridges –
Whoa whoa whoa, some of you may thinking at this point. If you’re going to list a bunch of musical terms you’d better start explaining and get down to the nitty gritty as to how these relate to prose so I can figure all this out, or I’m outta here.
Sorry, I get excited. The musical terms and their equivalents in writing aren’t as important to completely understand as the idea that yes, the two art forms relate, and can inform and enrich each other.
I wish I’d known all that when I started writing. I’d be a lot farther along as a writer today.
If you’re a writer and you use a soundtrack to deepen your writing, or at least to get into the mood of a scene, or you’re a reader who appreciates the music that can enhance a book or a movie-buff who knows that a good score can make or break a movie, you already have some appreciation for the relationship between storytelling and music. Actually, I think it’s more like story-seeing than telling, or better yet story-feeling. Music makes us feel stuff, just like stories make us feel stuff, and paintings make us feel stuff. It’s all about the feels.
And now I find myself back to the beginning, about how some music reaches us and some doesn’t, how I can love the story you find tedious and you can love the story I find cliché and lacking in flavor. Like music, prose is a demanding, unforgiving medium that has great power when it connects with someone who appreciates the style in which it is written and the soul of the musician, er, writer who expresses him or herself through words. Music. Words and music. The hidden music of prose; the silent rhythm of words as they pass through the mind.
Because the number of readers who love a certain kind of prose (X) and the number of readers who love a certain kind of music (Y) might not be the same people and in fact may not overlap very much, it makes the creation of soundtracks for stories complicated and fraught with peril. We knew this at the beginning, and we know this at the end. The writer’s soundtrack. It can fill you with inspiration, or make you cringe and fast forward past that witchy rock band scene in the Harry Potter movie where you really, really wanted it to be good but it wasn’t. Quite. Right. But when it all comes together? You click on play and scenes from Dr. Who flow by in perfect time to “Geronimo” by Sheppard. You get more and more excited and then it comes to the bridge where they sing “I’m just a boy with a broken toy” and you think about the TARDIS and Dr. Who and …
So maybe the next time you listen to music while you read, or write, or watch a movie with a great soundtrack, you can analyze how and why they work together (or don’t work together) for you. You might learn something, and appreciate when it’s done well all the more. And you might even understand that it’s natural for stories and music to go together, because at their core, they’re created using similar components in similar ways.
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