10 Musical Gifts for Writers

10 Musical Gifts for Writers

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.

Weddings and Writers

Weddings and Writers

Ruth E. Walker

Later this week, I’ll watch my youngest child get married to his beautiful bride. I’ll likely cry a bit — happy tears. And I’ll be relieved that my son is the last one of our children to choose a life partner. That’s it for now, until the grandchildren start the cycle all over again.

Many mothers of the groom will tell you our role has challenges: Will the rehearsal dinner menu be a nice complement to the wedding themes or a mish-mash of wrong choices? Will my dress be appropriate and not clash with the mother of the bride’s chosen colour and style? Will I remember all the names of the large wedding party, their partners and great-aunt whoozits from out West?

For a writer, there are even greater challenges that come with this territory. For example, my husband and I have written speeches together for all the other kids’ weddings. While we rarely write anything together, this one task seems to go quite well. Over four decades of marriage helps with that one. So, no, that’s a challenge but it’s one we manage to pull off. It helps that we love all our kids’ partner choices.

No, this is a different kind of challenge for me. It’s the mother and son song that is making me run around in a conflicted tizzy. I do love to dance. I’m not very good at it and likely show up in a few party videos as the one who doesn’t quite get the beat or the moves but looks happy while she’s messing it up. No. It’s not the dance itself — it’s the song choice that’s so difficult.

Lots to choose from

If you Google “mother and son wedding songs” you’ll get over 8 million hits. And links to hundreds of sites that list the “top” mother and son dances, from country to rock to contemporary to traditional and variations thereof. YouTube is a treasure trove of music videos for this one important dance. One bride website lists 40 Best Mother-Son Dance Songs. So, with so much to choose from, how can this be a problem?

I’m a complete sucker for the sentimental yet charming film, Love, Actually. I tear up at the great airport love-in montage at the end as the Beach Boys sing their hit, “God Only Knows.”

A song about love — all kinds of love. So logical choice, right?

Not the melody; it’s the lyrics

Let’s get real people. I’m a writer. So while I may love the overall sentiment of a song and enjoy a beautiful melody, the words matter. Let’s consider “God Only Knows” — great lines likes God only knows what I’d be without you — so true. Most of the grey hairs on my head can be traced back to life with children, the youngest perhaps accounting for more than all the others put together. But the opening line on that Beach Boys song stopped me cold: I may not always love you.. Nope. Not that song. Because I will always love him.

Surely, with 39 other songs, I will find the perfect song.

“Forever Young” sung by Rod Stewart. Are you going to drop the bomb or not? Bomb? I don’t think so.

“Because You Loved Me” sung by Celine Dion. I’ll be forever thankful baby/You’re the one who held me up/Never let me fall…  Just who are the lyrics meant for — mother or son?

“I Say a Little Prayer” sung by Aretha Franklin. While combing my hair now/And wondering what dress to wear now/I say a little prayer for you… 

As much as I love my son, I don’t stand before the mirror every day and think of him.  Obsessive mama, I’m not.

Who picks these songs, anyway?

Oh the songs I’ve listened to. Some are so sickly sentimental, I need a glass of water to dilute the sugar. Some stretch the boundaries of rhyme and rhythm to excruciating levels. And some make no sense at all. And speaking of “combing my hair and choosing my dress,” exactly what lyrically challenged person thought “Wonderful Tonight” sung by Eric Clapton is an ideal mother-son wedding dance song? How about that last stanza:

It’s time to go home now and I’ve got an aching head
So I give her the car keys and she helps me to bed
And then I tell her, as I turn out the light
I say, “My darling, you were wonderful tonight
Oh my darling, you were wonderful tonight

Good grief. My son’s bride won’t have to worry that Mommy is driving him home after the reception, putting him to bed while he calls me “My darling.” Nope. Not this mama.

So you see my challenge? I can’t tune out the words because they matter. Words mean something. Right now, I’m waffling between two different songs, the sentimental but lyrically true song, The Man You Have Become sung by Molly Pasutti and the sweetly upbeat 93 Million Miles sung by Jason Mraz.

Of course, my son may have some ideas on the song choice. In fact, he’s written a few lovely songs himself. But remember those grey hairs? It will likely be just before the reception before he manages to tell me what those ideas might be. Ah well. I will always love him no matter what song we dance to.

Which brings me to a song I hope we will dance to: “Love is All You Need” by The Beatles. Because, if I had one thing to tell him, it’s this: Love is all you need. Love for yourself. Love for your family. Love for the world and its inhabitants. Remember love my son, especially at times when it is the furthest thing from your mind. It will bring you back to what really matters.