Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Music and Writing

By Mark W. Danielson

Stephen King may write with hard rock blaring, but I prefer silence. If I’m riding as an airline passenger, I’ll listen to instrumentals to block out the noise while I type. I can’t listen to lyrical songs when I work, because they draw me in. Once that happens, I’ve broken my connection with my subconscious thoughts and my writing stagnates. A good lesson comes from this, though, for a mystery novel must consume its readers just as a song’s lyrics should command their listeners attention. In this regard, song writers and mystery authors share an inseparable bond.

Music has changed dramatically since I grew up. In a very real sense, music grew up with me. During the Fifties, rock music was fun and care free, in spite of the daily threat of nuclear war. But the Vietnam War sparked a new era of music with powerful lyrics on making love, not war, and protesting Yankee Imperialism and flawed politics. As the war dragged on, the Beatles sang about strawberry fields forever. To this day, the answer is still blowing in the wind. Few would argue that the Sixties produced some of the most thought provoking music in history. Because of its timeless value, I will sometimes include musical references from this era in my stories.

Whether you’re novels include rock, rap, or country music, adding lyrical references not only enhances your characters, but your readers can’t help reminiscing over the tune. Think about the words, “All the leaves are gone”. If you’re old enough to remember, your brain will recall The Mamas and Papas tune before realizing it’s describing a scene. The same holds true for, “I can’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction”. Those lyrics are as meaningful now as they were during the Vietnam War.

Use caution with lyrical references, though. Inappropriate phrases can turn your readers off as quickly as they were turned on. Tease your readers with music to get them in tune with your character. If your reader is not familiar with a particular lyric, the reference may not be as affective, but if they do relate, adding music can be one of your greatest assets.


Jean Henry Mead said...

You certainly brought back old memories, Mark. I still prefer listening to '60s rock, the golden age of music. But, like you, I can't write while listening to music with lyrics. I prefer classical music such as Mozart.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Last weekend, Lyne and I saw BeatleMania Now; an excellent Beatles tribute that incorporated video from the turbulent 60s and 70s as a background to their musical journey. Many of the young attendees knew the songs' lyrics, but little about the civil protests of the time. Music carries enormous weight, and I'm sure these attendees left with a whole different appreciation for this time period.

Helen Ginger said...

I love the songs of the 70s, but when writing and using lyrics, you have to keep in mind what the probably age of your readers will be and choose lyrics they can relate to. You're right, lyrics can evoke feelings and memories and really add to your writing.

Straight From Hel

Mark W. Danielson said...

You're absolutely right, Helen. Readers must be able to relate. At the same time, lyrics can be used to date your characters. It's all intertwined, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Interesting subject. Like everything, "it all depends." My favorite background noise is a golf tournament, maybe because the golf courses are always in such beautiful places, who knows?

About using music in a novel -- I think you can use music you like as long as fits the scene.

I'm a blues fan so I'm using 2 numbers by Jelly Roll Morton in my WIP. In a scene in the newsroom, the editor closes his door and the reporter hears him playing "Your Feet's Too Big," one of the numbers on a CD that is a Christmas gift from a local store.

In another scene, when the protagonist learns something disturbing about her live-in lover and decides to let it pass, she
goes to the CD player and puts it on "Hesitation Blues," then does a teasing bump and grind. Fits the character, fits the scene, and I love Jelly Roll's version. (:

As I like to say, who has more fun than writers?

Mark W. Danielson said...

Sounds fun, Pat -- no pun intended:)

Chester Campbell said...

Funny how I've gotten away from music in recent years. I grew up with music. My organist/music teacher aunt taught me piano. I also played violin in elementary school, and was a bugler in a drum and bugle corps. As a teen I knew the lyrics to all the popular songs (mostly via the Hit Parade on radio). I've always been a big band fan and later was a symphony subscriber. Once in awhile I'll think to put on a Mahler symphony or a Gershwin CD while I'm at my computer, but most of my novel writing is done on my laptop in the living room where, likely as not, the TV is blabbing away. I totally ignore it. Maybe if I made an effort to play music while I create it would improve my writing. I dunno.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Goodness, Chester -- you live in the heart of country music and you're not a music fan?? Try turning the TV to CMT and listen to your local talent:)