Have you ever watched a movie without music in the background? No? There’s a reason for that. And it’s why even in the silent film era, many theatres had a pianist or organist adding a soundtrack to augment the Keystone Cops shenanigans or tender moments with Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Music has a way of adding emotional heft to what we see on the screen.
Taking that one step further, in this 10 on the 10th we’re offering ways that writers can opt to use music to support, inspire and even direct words on the page.
1. Mind Cleanse – A focus on music can offer you a type of mindfulness at a time when your muse is obstinate and your creative brain refuses to kick in. Television host Stephen Colbert, in his “Colbert Questionnaire” asks guests “If you could have only one song to listen to for the rest of your life, what would it be?” The answer is likely to change over time for most people but if you were asked this question right now, what would you say? What piece of music brings you joy? What song elevates your mood or deepens your thoughts. Whatever your answer is, that is the song or music that just might be the key to finding your way back to feeling creative.
2. Main Character – Many movie heroes have some form of theme music that plays when they show up on screen. So, what about your main character? Does she have a theme song? Is he pensive and brooding? Are they powerful and energetic? Doesn’t your main character deserve to have their own theme music? Ask Spotify to play mood music that matches your character’s qualities. Or spin the dial on your radio and discover a song that represents the power (and weakness) of your main character.
3. Villain – This one may be more important than a music theme for your Main Character. Many writers have to work harder at their antagonist character. Developing the Main Character for readers to cheer for and worry about is usually not a problem. But villains – human or otherwise – are often more of a challenge to peek inside and figure out their innards. They don’t always cooperate or want their story to be told. Finding a theme song or piece of music might be the ticket to open up the inner workings of the one who opposes your Main Character. For example, when Darth Vader shows up in the Star Wars films, you know from the music that this is not a good thing for the heroes.
4. Plot Structure – The three-act structure (beginning, middle and end) is a common plot form. The beginning is short, the middle holds the meat and is longer that the first and final acts, and the end often carries echoes from the beginning as well as the climax. Similarly, classical music structure has three basic elements: Exposition (begining): The material is presented for the first time. Development (middle): It’s where the music in the Exposition is transformed (key changes and modulations) through various movements, pulling the threads along. Recapitulation (end): Here, the music in the Exposition appears again but in a slightly different and shorter form. If you’re having trouble with your plot, consider yourself to be the conductor of your symphony and apply the basic elements of classical period music. It won’t hurt to listen to a Mozart or Bach symphony to hear the “plot structure” play out and then you can play on with your own plot.
5. Scene Development – Similar to using music in plot structure, a song might be key to deepening a scene or increasing the pace. Seek out emotional, haunting music such as John Williams theme for the film Schindler’s List (featuring the amazing Itzhak Perlman) to heighten your own response and it may find itself embedding into the scene you write. If you want some mood music for a high-energy or battle scene, treat yourself to Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, part of his four-opera Ring Cycle
6. Jazz It Up – During the Beat era of poetry, jazz figured largely in coffee houses and poetry readings. It’s no coincidence – the energy and the surprises that jazz delivers is a lovely match to way a poem builds through rhythm and wordplay to reach audiences. Successful writers recognize that prose needs to offer varying rhythms and unexpected developments to keep readers engaged. So before you put fingers to keyboard next time, try a little Charlie Parker or Billie Holiday or Benny Goodman. The genius of drummer Gene Krupa in Goodman’s Orchestra’s Sing Sing Sing should wake up your muse and get your creative toes tapping.
7. Speculative Reset – Science fiction, fantasy, surrealism – it’s all weird and wonderful forms of fiction. If you can fall easily into that different place, if you never find yourself with a flat brain that gets stuck in the linear, well you can skip this one. But, if you ever struggle with finding the sweet spot of sci-fi in your writing, try a little musical medicine: go alternative. And not just a gentle slip into alternative rock of the 90s – instead, go deep into experimental sounds and compilations. Just as speculative fiction pushes boundaries, musicians and composers who experiment to create new unexpected combinations push the boundaries of traditional music. Marcus Layton’s YouTube channel offers a taste of experimental music and samples a range of approaches.
8. Time and Place Immersion — Maybe you’re writing a historical novel set during Prohibition. Or a biography of a 1960s Civil Rights activist. Or a story located in contemporary England. What music was common in historic settings? What are the kids listening to today in the West End of London? And that last question sets up an important point. Be careful about your “generic” ideas of music. Sure, in North America jazz was popular during the Roaring Twenties but there was all kinds of music playing on the radio and in performance places: old time music, Christian music, country music, and so on. Listening to the music of a particular era can give you a “feel” for the time and place, and that “feel” can help you recreate the setting. And it can be used directly in the story. Just watch you’re not being stereotypical in what you choose or how you deliver it.
9. Absence – When music is stilled by decree or when the opportunity to learn a musical instrument is kept from certain members of society, that is powerful energy. What about a world in which music never existed? Or simply could not be allowed? We often forget the power of absence to energize a story. Consider Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and the oppressive decrees of Gilead — no buskers on street corners, no concerts for ordinary folks. Or the alien invasion in the movie, A Quiet Place, in which the characters had to remain silent to avoid being killed. We take our access to music for granted, don’t we?
10. You in Music – Finally, here’s another way to use music: your own theme. Each of us approach the page differently — we have our own take on the craft: pantser, plotter, researcher. Our inspirations are also individual: an overheard conversation, an article in the paper, a deadline in a contest, and so on. You may have a theme song for each character. Or you may choose music to echo the emotion in a scene or to recreate the feel of a setting. But what about you, as a writer, as a creative person? Why not choose a piece of music that somehow reflects you? A pop song or a classical piece or theme music from a movie or something you composed yourself. Use it before you start a writing project. Use it when you finally put The End on the last page of your current work in progress. Use it when you sign that publishing contract. Use it any way you want and see if it gives your inner self a truly good feeling.