Monday, May 24, 2010

The Write Note - Music and Writing

There's no obvious connection between writing fiction and music. Writing is primarily mental, and making music engages the physical body as much as it does the brain. The connection...?

Any writer who's used music to help them write knows the answer. Because writing primarily engages the brain, it's a constant battle for writers to choose the right words to evoke sensual, physical reactions. Music, famous for its physical effect on people, helps writers “make music” with their words and create prose that explodes into life.

Listening to music, whether instrumentals (such as soundtracks – brilliant for writing!) or vocals, doesn't just set the mood and inspire, it actually can improve the prose by weaving in themes, threads, and subtle variations the writer couldn't achieve with silence.

Just the other day I discussed this with someone and they wanted to know how music could affect the writing itself. Certainly it could affect the writer, but how could the intangible essence of the music get into the words?

“Don't look at me,” I said, “I haven't a clue! All that I know is that it does.” Perhaps it has something to do with the subconscious. A psychologist could theorize, but as writers we don't need to know why music works for us, we just need to believe and let the music sing through our fingers into the words.

One of the most dramatic times music has affected my writing happened when my cowriter and I were editing our WWII novel A Fire Is Woken. I was working on the first romantic climax, the scene where the two main characters (FINALLY!!) admit they love each other. Sentimental, happy sigh kind of stuff was how the outline shaped the scene. A satisfying ending, a calm and happy oasis in a rather turbulent sea.

How boring! The first rule of good writing is keep the reader turning the pages! What a disaster to have the reader, halfway through the novel, put the book down with a satisfied smile thinking they'd reached the happily-ever-after?

No, of course that wouldn't do. But one week and a bout of pneumonia later, my aching head couldn't come up with a solution. Finally, I decided “Oh to heck with this, I'll just write it,” turned on some writing music and dove in. The scene played out as outlined. No conflict, no tension. I sighed, muttered, kicked by chair away from the keyboard and stared up at the ceiling in despair. And then... I realized this song was playing on repeat, tinkling, sunshine-y music. Romantic sweeps and trills of exultation. Just like the scene.

Then beneath the surface I heard the background: dull low notes, ebb and flow, almost reaching a crescendo, then sinking back below the surface, hidden but not gone.

An idea started to tingle on the edge of my brain. I sat there for a second, held my breath, then flew back to the keyboard. My fingers couldn't fly fast enough as the scene played out in my mind.

The end result? The scene is romantic, and satisfying on the surface. But below the outward happiness, there's a strong undercurrent of trouble. The reader can feel the trouble ahead; not blatantly, but as a subtle shiver...they know there's a heck of a lot more book to come. The one comment we get consistantly about the scene is that the readers are unable to put it down. They can't wait to find out what happens next – because they know something will.

That never would have happened without music. The odd part is, I don't know where that piece comes from. It exists on my computer simply as “Track 01”. But somehow, in a mysterious way, that piece inspired and saturated me enough with its message that I was able to pass that mystery, that apprehension onto black and white, paper and ink.

Pretty amazing, huh?


What are some instances music has drastically changed your writing? What sort of music inspires you?


Note: this post is part of AbsoluteWrite's May blog chain! Below are links to the other participants in this enticing endeavor!

The AW May Musical Blog Chain's Fantabulous Links Are:
Aheïla: and direct link to my blog chain's post
Stefanie Gaither: and direct link to the blog chain's post
AuburnAssassin: and direct link to her post
xcomplex: and direct link to her post
Proach: and direct link to her post
8thSamurai: and direct link to her post
vfury: and direct link to her post
CScottMorris: and direct link to his post
Hayley E. Lavik: and direct link to her post
FreshHell: and direct link to her post
LadyMage: and direct link to her post
DavidZahir: and direct link to his post
Aimée Laine: and direct link to her post
egoodlett: and direct link to her post
Semmie: and direct link to her post
Sbclark: and direct link to her post
Razibahmed: and direct link to his post
ArcticFox: and direct link to her post
Lilain: and direct link to her post
Truelyana: and direct link to her post
CowgirlPoet: and direct link to her post
Alpha Echo:


Elisabeth said...

I don't actually listen to music while I'm writing. I'm not a background-music type of person. I may be peculiar in that way, but I like to concentrate on my music! But music certainly has inspired my stories in a variety of different ways.

When I listen to orchestral music I often picture scenes being played out to it, like a film score. The most direct musical inspiration I can think of was when I took a basic idea and developed it after listening to the Largo from Dvorak's 9th Symphony, 'From the New World.' I pictured the whole story as a film scored completely with variations on themes from that movement, with different themes assigned to different characters or plot line. The connection with the song 'Goin' Home' also played a big part in my thinking as that could be considered one of the themes of the story. It's unwritten as yet, but I think it's one of my most promising ideas-in-waiting.

I also have an idea in the works in which the lyrics of some classic 1940s and '50s songs shape the plot - as a matter of fact the title of the story is a song title.

However, curiously enough, I've found it almost impossible to describe music in words! Writing a scene where someone sings or plays is something I've almost totally avoided up till now. I don't know why I'm so handicapped in this area, but there it is.

Ellen said...

That's really cool! I had a track like that, really inspirational but just titled "Track 5" or something. Luckily I was listening to Pandora one day and it came on, so I was able to find out the artist and title :)

Anonymous said...

I love that you wrote this, Nina... Lots of times songs give me ideas for stories. Songs keep me motivated to write stories. Songs put me in the mood to write stories. It's nice to know that I'm not alone. I've thought about taking a whole music album and making it into a linked story. One of my writing books suggested interjecting a lyric into a story when it needs spice.

Right now I love listening to chill, moody music while writing my story. The artsy stuff. Imogen Heap, Coldplay, Regina Spektor, Snow Patrol. It inspires me. The Finding Neverland soundtrack is good for inspiration any day.

Trulyana said...

That is pretty amazing, that you found a connection with the story through the undertone of the music! It's wonderful what imagination can do, when it hits certain notes.

Great post!

Danielle said...

Nice. I like the little glimpse into how the song helped you solve your plot problem!

Nina Hansen said...

I love that idea of taking a album and making it into a story, Scarlett! What a brilliant idea - I hope you do that some day!

Thanks, Trulyana and Ellen! The imagination is insane and wonderful. :)

Elisabeth: hmm, that's interesting that you don't like to listen to music while writing. I love the idea for using song lyrics, tho - awesome!

Anonymous said...

The word "undercurrent" is wonderfully descriptive of the correlation between music and writing. I love it!

Anonymous said...

Interesting! I usually prefer silence when I'm writing and use music as a way to block out distractions since I write in public spaces for the most part. Often, I'll listen to the same cd over and over so that I'm not focused on it and it doesn't change the mood of what I'm writing.

Harriet said...

I have a playlist titled "work" where I throw music to listen to while writing. Now, I write about music (i.e. nonfiction), so I have to be careful what I play while I'm writing and a lot of the time I just play what I'm writing about. But when I'm doing more historical work, I like a soundtrack for the work itself. It's mostly lyric-less, a mix of styles, with lots of repetitive rhythms and enough energy to keep me going.

Anonymous said...

I love that the song is Track 01 and it just exists as "that one song" with no context, nothing else connected to it. You're lucky, it's "your" song.

Nina Hansen said...

I'm interested that someone else doesn't listen to music regularly, freshhell! Harriet - music writing! I bet that's a fascinating job!

Yes, anarchicq, in one way I don't want to know where the song is from. :) I like not knowing.

Anonymous said...

I love that you found that ominous undercurrent to an otherwise tinkly happy song. That's what's so cool about music and writing if well done, it can have so many concurrent layers. And oh, the dreaded "track 01". I kick myself every time I find one of those.

Anonymous said...

I use music to get myself into character. When I was writing *Give the Lady a Ride* I listened to a lot of Chris LeDeux. His rodeo songs, particularly "Hooked on an 8-Second Ride," kept me in the heart of my bull riders!

Nina Hansen said...

so right about the undercurrents, clairegillian! The multiple layers are what make great novels so good. :)

I love Chris LeDeux, Linda! I've written a couple short stories based off his songs...

Anonymous said...

Very nice take on the subject. I never thought of analyzing the effect the music has on me but what you said resonates with my perception.


Nina Hansen said...

Thanks, Aheïla!

Alexandra said...

Loved this post. I always have a "soundtrack" for each novel I'm writing...sometimes it's a romantic instrumental, other times it's a song with lyrics that have to do with a certain scene...I also "cast" my characters off of real people (as in celebrities, etc.), which leads to what happened the other day...

In my current WIP, one of the main characters is cast from a popular singer (who happens to be my fave ;-)). I was listening to one of his CD's the other day and realized that one of the songs was perfect for the character's death scene...the lyrics were almost exactly like the dialogue I had planned for the scene. It was really weird in a neat way. ;-)

Nona King said...

This is creepy! I am currently working on a similar article for the NCWA newsletter!

*creeped out*

Nina Hansen said...

That's really cool, Alexandra!

Nona: really? Wow! That's strange...

Anonymous said...

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