Writing about Music: a Primer
Antony John is the author of BUSTED, and the released-right-now FIVE FLAVORS OF DUMB. (You can read an excerpt from DUMB on his website.) He is a full-time stay-at-home dad, and writes whenever he can find a spare moment. Please visit him at: www.antonyjohn.net.
Antony has a B.A. in music from Oxford University and a Ph.D. in composition from Duke University, and has held teaching appointments at Duke and the University of South Carolina. Not surprisingly, his essay is on writing about music.
As a composer-turned-YA-author, I get a lot of curveball questions:
When will you stop writing kids’ books and get back to music?
Don’t you feel bad wasting that Ph.D.?
Britney Spears: Genius or washed-up Mouseketeer?
The answers, by the way, are: NO. NO. GENIUS . . . SORT OF.)
For the record, I don’t mind answering questions like these. Some writers see being a published author as salvation from a job that, if not utterly tedious, doesn’t exactly excite them. In contrast, I always enjoyed composing, so I understand that my career 180 has folks scratching their head.
But the truth is, writing and composing satisfy the same creative urges for me. What’s more, the planning of a large-scale composition is not wholly unlike the planning of a book: establishing themes and structure, editing until it’s as efficient an expression of my ideas as possible. In fact, I’d say the transition from composer to author has gone seamlessly, if it weren’t for one tiny problem:
I’m a music-in-lit snob.
There, I said it.
We all have pet peeves, and mine is the way that music is described in novels. When the author gets it right, I do a mental fist-pump. When it’s wrong . . . oh boy, I weep on the formerly pristine white pages.
Therefore, to help authors understand the finer points of writing about music—or at least how not to make me weep—I humbly present:
WRITING ABOUT MUSIC: A PRIMER
RULE 1: DON’T WRITE UNDER THE INFLUENCE (OF MUSIC)
I have a sneaking suspicion we’ve all comes across this one at one time or other, either in our own or in someone else’s writing.
An example: I read a book recently (no, I won’t name it) in which the main character was listening to a song (which is named in the book). As I read the passage, I just knew that the author had written it while the song was playing in the background. How did I know? Because instead of describing the music, the author simply relayed lines from the song like they were an emotional IV drip. We were supposed to be rocking along with the author/main character, because, seriously, who can’t rock to this tune, huh?
Me, apparently. Because I didn’t know the song!
When writing about music, the author’s job is above all to convey the physical, mental, and emotional sensation of listening or performing. If you can convince a reader that a song has your main character bawling, no one will care if it’s “Unchained Melody” or “We Will Rock You” (though we might be fascinated by the latter); the important thing is that the music has stimulated a credible response in the main character, and by extension, in the reader. Two excellent examples are K.L. Going’s FAT KID RULES THE WORLD and Cecil Castellucci’s BEIGE, in which music is the catalyst for the main characters to (finally) express themselves. In both, it is the effect of music on the minds and bodies of the main characters that makes us rock along with them, not the specific songs they play.
So, am I saying that writers should avoid lyrics altogether? Not at all. A line of a song that has particular relevance to a scene or character can be invaluable in tying everything together organically. But beware...
RULE 2: NO ONE KNOWS EVERY PIECE OF MUSIC
Obvious, right? Yet, authors often seem to assume that readers not only share their taste in music, but know the same songs. A fan of dance music may find it hard to believe that some people remain blissfully unaware of Lady Gaga, or Ke$ha, say. But it happens. And as a reader, being repeatedly reminded of an amazing song one ought to know doesn’t exactly foster warm and fuzzy feelings; more like frustration, even narrative alienation.
One way to avoid this is simply to invent a new song, and describe it to us: the style, the instrumentation, a few carefully chosen (fictional) words. The titular track of Robin Benway’s AUDREY, WAIT! is musically ambiguous throughout the novel, but the author does a great job selling us on the song’s appeal. Plus, when she relays the awkwardly autobiographical lyrics, we buy wholeheartedly into narrator’s distinctly uncharitable feelings toward the song.
An alternative technique would seem to be to stick to only the most famous pop and rock songs (or pieces of classical music). But revisiting these same canonic songs over and over still won’t guarantee that readers will know them. Plus, you risk falling foul of...
RULE 3: WELL-KNOWN MUSIC BRINGS BAGGAGE
I used to teach courses on Hollywood Film Music, and one of the classes was on so-called “temptitis”: a fictional ailment that affects directors. When a movie is finished and edited, the director will frequently compile a “temp track” (temporary soundtrack), to give the composer a sense of what the director imagines happening musically in each scene. Some directors fall so head-over-heels in love with the temp track that they ultimately reject the composer’s original score altogether (e.g. Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY). But what, you ask, does this have to do with writing?
The issue here is that the director has overlooked the emotional baggage that music accrues throughout our lives. In 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, images of an astronaut space-walking are accompanied by Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz—a surreal and humorous effect. But for those of us who know the waltz already, hearing it in this context momentarily pulls us out of the filmic narrative. In that moment, we may be thinking any number of things—Where have I heard that before? . . . Oooh, a waltz. Pretty! . . . Wow, Strauss really sucks!—but the key point is that not one of these responses is useful to the director . . . or an author, for that matter.
My advice to writers is this: if you’d like a song to be narratively meaningful, begin to establish why it is meaningful before the song is “performed” (e.g. played on a stereo, sung by the characters, quoted repeatedly, etc.). In this way, you’re setting you own parameters for what the song means, and supplanting those that the reader brings with him/her. As a result, subsequent baggage that the song accrues is “useful” baggage, which reinforces the story (or character arc) rather than distracting from it.
An example: In Roddy Doyle’s THE COMMITMENTS, the ragtag band discusses the cultural relevance of R&B both before and during a series of chaotic rehearsals. By the time they come together musically, they have taken ownership of the music in such a way that we have either all-but-forgotten former versions of classics like “Mustang Sally,” or have attributed our memories of the song to The Commitments themselves. If this sounds like a clever sleight-of-hand, well . . . that’s because it is.
RULE 4: BE TRUE TO YOUR CHARACTERS
Thank goodness for editors. Without them my books would feature such inspiring terminology as “tempo rubato” and “Neapolitan Sixth chord.” I can already hear my readers moaning: “But the Neapolitan Sixth is, like, so baroque!”
It’s hard for me not to throw these terms around because they’re part of my vernacular. And if I were writing from the perspective of a precociously gifted musician, the same terms would be part of my character’s vernacular, too. For instance, Andi Alpers in Jennifer Donnelly’s REVOLUTION casually discusses the “Tristan chord” and the “diabolus in musica,” which will either nudge you into geek heaven or leave you plain confused. Most likely the latter. But Donnelly knows this, of course. Using these terms is basically her way of saying: Dear Reader: I know you don’t completely understand what I’m talking about, but I’m okay with that because I need you to know just how serious/nerdy my main character is. Besides, you get the gist of the story, right?
I’m actually completely okay with this. I don’t think Doogie Howser, M.D. would have been as credible if one of the adult docs had periodically taken him aside to explain that the heart has four chambers, or the difference between antibodies and antibiotics. But if Doogie had been a sixteen-year-old patient at the hospital, I don’t think any of us would have expected him to know these things.
So before you put all that research to use, and build entire sentences using only Italian musical terminology, ask yourself if your main character would describe the music that way. If the answer is yes, geek out! Go ahead, you nerd, you!
Finally, a bonus rule:
RULE 5: KEEP PLAYLISTS PRIVATE
Lots of authors compile playlists for their characters, and I’m all for it. It’s like adding a musical appendix to the character’s backstory. And let’s face it: anything that makes a character more three-dimensional to the author will make the character more real to the reader.
However, while most authors choose not compose entire blog posts on the details of a character’s backstory that don’t explicitly feature in the finished novel, several do publish their characters’ personal-private playlists. And I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.
See, the problem is twofold: almost no reader will know all the songs (your personal taste in music is, after all, personal); if they do know most of the songs, they may disagree with the choices (akin to the annoying tendency of book covers to ignore the main character’s very carefully described physical appearance).
That being said, I’ve received more requests for a DUMB playlist than for anything else DUMB-related, and so I’m already guilty of having broken this rule on multiple occasions.
Still, that’s what all writing rules are for, right?