Bring on the trumpets: Using music as a writer4 min read

by Jun 23, 2017Writing0 comments

Unlike films, writers can’t make the violins swell (or screech) when the romantic leads kiss (or the murderer gets their stab on).  In films music is an amazing tool to engage the emotions of the audience.  But writers can also have a strong relationship with song and score.

For starters, many writers listen to music while writing in order to help with focus, or to motivate and inspire.  I use plenty of playlists full of tranquil piano or electronica when I want to concentrate and block out the real world.  Likewise, I have specific songs I know will help me write stirring pre-battle speeches.  Music can inspire you to write, and it can keep you motivated as you write.

As well as a tool for yourself, music can be a tool within your writing.  The style and instruments you choose to use can help set the location and time period.  From the (beautifully named) sackbut of the European Renaissance, to the blarfgon nergul flute of your alien empire, music can be used to world build.

But we also have times in our stories when we describe a melody, and that can be tricky.  How can language describe that bass guitar slide, or explain the sound of an arpeggio?  Music is a wonderful ability we have, as humans, to communicate without words.  So how to then bring the words back in?  A collection of notes is pretty much inexpressible.  The main idea is not to try.  Certainly not in the technical way.  Even if you play an instrument or have some technical grounding, writing about pitch, timbre or the a capriccio style the pianist uses is likely to alienate a decent proportion of your audience.

The best music writing uses metaphor.  Which is great news for writers.  Metaphor is where we can get our ridiculous amounts of creativity flowing.

Listen to the song you have in your story (just listen to the made up melody in your head if it’s not a real piece) and really, really think.  What does that glissando slide in the guitar part sound like in picture form?  If it’s a bit choppy and imperfect, how would you describe it? Is it like an adult trying to fit down a child-sized slide, getting their hips wedged every few inches?  Or is it smooth, like when you try to ice a chocolate cake that’s still too warm and your icing runs everywhere?

Be specific.  Describing the song as sad is no good.  It won’t emotionally resonate with your reader because there are too many kinds of sad.  Describing it as the feeling when you return from the funeral to find a letter on the doormat from the friend who doesn’t know yet…  That just might work.

How do you use music as a writer?

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