Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Musical Manuscripts

I have never been accused of musical prowess, in fact my daughter, when she was two, used to cover my mouth when I sang, so my skill is limited. Even my knowledge is limited. I have a friend Leanne who is a violist and bibliophile, and occasionally delights in a book she’s found with musical references or clues—me? They would fly completely over my head, wasted on my ignorance of classical music.

That is NOT to say I don’t like or enjoy music—I love it. It just isn’t something that is easily filed in my brain. HOWEVER, I think for writing books there are some fabulous uses of musical references.


In A Field of Darkness, which I reviewed a couple weeks ago, there is a dive bar with a juke box which is used really nicely to contrast the world views of Madeline, the heroine, and Kenny, the dive bar owner who is a friend, though of a different generation (an ex-military man). They bicker about what he has on it, and without ever having to give huge amounts of background, we can easily see deep differences in these people that give us clues who they are.

I think musical preferences can relay very quickly some important information about who a character is, how and where they were raised, what they value… Classical music junkies are likely to be either elite or classically educated. Country music listeners can be believed to hold certain wholesome (if slightly red-necked) beliefs, or else come from a town (or state) where everybody knows everybody’s business. Pop music. Rap. Heavy metal. Punk rock. All of it says something about the listener.


The mood of a jazz bar is definitively different from the mood of a hard rock club or a country bar—the kind of trouble a person might find is very different, too. A reference to what is playing in the background shortens the description you need to include by pages.


Pop cultural music can set your story in an era, without having to identify a date. There is a danger to this if you want your book to be less time bound—choosing bands with better longevity might help, but with LEGACY, I am setting the story in the early 80s in Portland, and my cues are musical (Quarterflash, Portland’s one-hit wonder, was big at the time), and that Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is still called Union Avenue. I needed that timing because I wanted it before the Iron Curtain fell, but I chose the clues I did, so as not to be heavy handed.


I think my favorite use of music in literature (and movies) is Pavlovian. Creepy scene, accompanied by a certain music… repeat… and by time three, the music alone is enough to make us shiver. Think of The Shining. There reaches a point where Jack hears the music coming from the bar and we all KNOW it is not the empty bar he will find. The music is calling him to his madness.

I’d love to hear how others have included music in their work, or about works you’ve read where it really added (or detracted) from the story.


Terry Odell said...

I used music quite a bit in my first novel--which was understandable, I guess, since the hero turned out to be a gifted pianist as well as the cop I knew he was. There were quite a few musical references in that book.

In another book, music inspired the click moment for the character, but there wasn't much in the book itself.

I'm not particularly musical, and since my characters are not of my generation, I usually ask my kids what my characters would be listening to in any given situation.

I try to keep my references as 'generic' as possible, or at least define the mood, since any book with too many references to music I've never heard of pulls me out of the story.

redcrowkater said...

I agree with Terry. The references have to be as generic as possible, because if the reader doesn't know the song (and even if they know it, they may not know it by title) it will pull them out of the story.
Stephen King makes too many musical references in his novels, in my opinion. And he'll put the lyrics down too, but without the tune in my head, the lyrics make no sense at all.

M.J. Nicholls said...

I find it imperative that music and literature be kept as separate art forms. Blending the two has never worked for me, either as a reader or a writer.

I have written about bad bands, and included the odd musical reference here or there -- as a curio or novelty -- but you can't keep a piece of music "playing" in your narrative as you might do in a film.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

My Memphis Barbeque book includes blues players--necessary, since the setting is a barbeque restaurant on Beale street. Music is part of the setting.

I also have a tendency toward characters who hum. I think this is because my grandmother had a humming habit. And I do, too.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Watery Tart said...

Thank you all--I particularly appreciate the advice on keeping things general. There are a lot of genres I know very little about musicially, so other than a name or two, couldn't do anything else... I also date myself with specifics--until my daughter became a teen, I hadn't really paid attention to the music scene since before I had kids--my tastes have clung to the Grunge era... but I know as a Pacific Northwest girl that a lot of the things that seem second nature to me there, are not part of mainstream knowledge other places.

CONFLUENCE has a band--friends of Jessie, one of my heroines. I think I have two song mentions, but it is because they are trying to convince Jessie to sing with them, and she finds their music rather pedestrian compared to her taste (she's off the beaten path). They finally compromise with an old Clash song.

Elspeth Antonelli said...

I haven't made any direct references to music, but I certainly use its principles in my writing! I have noticed that each character has his/her own rhythm in their speech patterns and when it sounds wrong it's because I've thrown the rhythm off. This may come from my years of piano or years of ballet, but it's there.


Galen Kindley--Author said...

My first book—a love story--is filled with music. The Book opens with it. I have it as intros to the various story segments or parts. I use it as a game between the characters…you know, complete the lyrics thing, one sings a verse then challenges the other to complete the next verse. I use it to set a mood. They listen to Don Williams sing, “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend,” and get pretty somber. And in other ways. Not to sound arrogant, but I’m thinking it worked pretty well.

Best Regards, Galen

Imagineering Fiction Blog

Watery Tart said...

Elspeth--I LOVE the idea that different characters have different cadence and rhythm! I don't think I am musically skilled enough to intentionally do that, but it is FABULOUS!

Galen--I bet it DID work really well! I think in love stories music often plays a role, and it would be unrealistic for it not to. Even my husband and I BICKERING about music is part of our love story (he wants to believe he's the rebel and always acts shocked when I like his early punk stuff, but then he makes fun of my hard rock roots--just part of the background)

Courtney Laine said...

I have to recommend War for the Oaks. Very, very music oriented, yet music (pop, in particular) isn't the story (just the catylist, if you will). But it definitely dates the book, and I regret that later generations won't get the chapter titles and references to cover songs...

*Kas* said...

Music has always inspired my writing. (As evidenced by 2/4 of my fic titles... and countless shots). But really I think that all art is intertwined, and for me it all influences one another. Oh, and LOVE the concept of each character having their own rhythm.