Mood Music

When I was in college the first time I once got into an argument with one of my professors about the impact of music.  I made the argument that music is intended to make us feel.  He thought that was nonsense.  I remember part of his argument: “When you hear a march you march, when you hear a waltz you waltz.  Feelings have nothing to do with it.”

I thought he was wrong back then and I still think he’s wrong.

Music, by its very nature, is emotion.  It conveys things that are too deep for us to express in words.  It creates a sense of empathy among those who listen to it.  A sad song makes you sad, a happy song makes you happy.  In fact, the complexity of emotion contained in music can sometimes provoke us to a response that is happy-sad or conflicted or longing in ways that there just aren’t words for.

This is why I find it incredibly useful to write while listening to music.  I’ve heard a lot of debate on this topic as well.  Some people swear by their soundtracks, some people can’t stand the distraction while they’re working.  I’ve noticed way too many times that the music I am listening to helps to shape the scene I’m writing or inform the character.

It doesn’t always happen, mind you.  Sometimes I just have music on because it’s more pleasant than silence.  But sometimes, just sometimes, a song forms the seed of an idea that takes shape and grows into something well beyond its original strains.

Take, for example, the second book in my as-yet-unpublished sci-fi series, Fallen From Grace.  I wrote the first book and then got a little lost.  Granted, I knew what I wanted to have happen, but my creative juices were not flowing.  I knew that I wanted the second book to be from the point of view of the character Danny.  But how?  That’s when Pandora saved me.

I was fiddling around with the story one day when suddenly the perfect song came on.  This was a song that spoke to what was going on in Danny’s mind, the emotion that would turn him from a scientist content to manipulate genetics through a computer interface to a butt-kicking, gun-toting vigilante determined to save the woman he loved, even if he had to march through six feet of snow to do it.

The song was “Let it Rock” by Kevin Rudolf with Lil Wayne.  In and of itself the song has nothing to do with my speculative sci-fi novel about colonists stranded on an uncharted moon, but the emotion behind it is exactly what keeps Danny going when any other man would have given up.

I’ve had other experiences where the music I was listening to gelled so well with the scene I was writing that it could have been a bona fide soundtrack.  While writing the first draft of The Faithful Heart, during a particularly poignant scene between Jack and Madeline, the Josh Groban song “February Song” suddenly came up in my iTunes shuffle.  The music and the lyrics in that case fit so perfectly with what was happening to my characters that I had to stop for a second and just breathe in the perfection of the moment.  Granted, that scene was later cut and the plot was altered a bit, but I still think of that as Jack’s song.

So what am I trying to get at here?

Music is a writing tool.  It can get you out of a rough spot and keep you going when all hope seems lost.  That sounds like a cute cliché or maybe even wishful thinking, but I swear by it.  It all goes back to the argument I had with my professor in college.  Music is about emotion.  A good story, be it character or plot driven, is about emotion.  We wouldn’t care about the characters and what they’re doing at all if we didn’t feel emotionally invested in their story.  The best stories draw you in as a reader and make you feel something, just like the best pieces of music captivate you.

Think about that word.  Captivate.  Isn’t that what we’re trying to do?  To hold someone in a state where they can’t stop thinking about what we’ve created?  Even if that person is us as the writer.  The key to an unforgettable story is that emotional captivation.  Music heightens those emotions.

Granted, I’m not talking about handing out a playlist with every book.  Music is a very personal thing and the songs that work for you as a writer might not connect with your audience.  But even if the songs themselves don’t, what you’ve felt as a writer when that music was playing will come across.

In fact, as I’ve been struggling through revisions on my latest novel, especially when it comes to pinning down the hero and heroine, I’m finding it helpful to refer back to the mood inspired by a certain song I recently discovered, “Irresistable” by Temposhark.  It’s not an exact interpretation of my characters and their wild relationship, but it gets the mood across.  And that’s what this is all about.

So does anyone else use music as a writing tool?  What songs have helped you out of a tough spot or inspired you to create?

And if you haven’t tried it before, I suggest you give it a whirl.  And then report back and tell me what you felt.

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16 thoughts on “Mood Music

  1. For me it has to be something without words, or I start singing instead of writing, and things get all muddled. My mother used to write all of her term papers to the 1812 overture.

  2. I’ve heard it suggested that our reaction to music is rooted in our ability to read people’s emotion in the patters of their voices.

  3. Leonard Bernstein did a fabulous series ages ago about the fact that music is indeed emotional – so much so that it is the closest thing to a primal language as we can understand. C.S. Lewis also believed it was one of the most powerful forms of expression. Not because, as your prof proclaimed, it makes us obedient, but because it speaks on a level that anybody – language aside – can comprehend.

    • That’s a really good point too. Music really is a much better way to communicate emotions than speech. I mean, how many times have I been unable to find the right words to express something when I’m able to find a song to say it instead.

  4. I have to listen to music when I write- it helps keep me focused and I find I pause less trying to figure out happens next.

  5. Great post – I think there was something in the air today! I actually posted my current WIP playlist today on my blog. I listen to music all the time when I am writing – I tend to associate scenes with songs, and listening to certain songs while writing really helps me get the feeling right on the page.

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  7. I have always used music as inspiration… from Roberta Flack in erotic love scenes to Literal re-inventions of Homeric lays and ancient prayers to Apollo as performed by modern musicians as a background to my latest WIP which is set in Mycenaean Crete. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bydqNRYgbuc
    Sweet Jane informed a lot of my novel ‘Astride’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHRFZFmEq9o – I was really into the Cowboy Junkies then.
    Burning Spear and reggae was involved a lot in the Rastafarian part of my novel ‘Avocado’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRtErrqbHWw

    Music feeds the soul. There is music for every kind of character, every kind of mood and emotion, and on the internet it is all at the author’s fingertips! Love it! Use it!
    Great blog – Christine

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  9. I do the playlist thing. I’ve found, however, that if I do use a song with words in the playlist it has to be several songs into the writing, otherwise I’ll lose track of the writing to sing along instead. That conflict is there because I love to sing as much as I love to write stories. I’m usually far better off finding instrumentals with certain moods (I’ve found karaoke versions work even less for this because it compels me even more to fill in the known, but missing words).

    I get kinda lazy about it though to avoid spending too much time too frequently looking for perfect songs I make playlists on youtube instead, each playlist is tied to a particular scene type, and when I find a new one that fits, I add it to the appropriate playlists. I have sad, playful, tense, dark, romantic, and adventure playlists among others going right now. Some are more full than others and some days I just take a break to find new songs. I buy them as I have the $ if I really like them.

    Every once in a while when a song plays during the perfect moment and just lights up the scene, I’ll pause the replay on that one song until end scene.

    I really enjoyed this post and definitely agree with it. As to your teachers argument…well…why do we march when we hear a march? Why do we waltz when we hear a waltz? This isn’t robotic programming. Marches make us FEEL like marching, just as waltzes make us FEEL like waltzing. Each of these, of course, likely has particular memories involved as well. I’m sure there’s at least one person out there that had a really awful experience related to marching or waltzes, so when they hear one they want to curl up or vomit, or get depressed, rather than wanting to march or waltz. Waltzing, in particular, tends to have romantic notions heavily tied to it. How silly to claim music has nothing to do with emotion. I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that he never made a career out of music in any performing sense of the word (whether it be by writing, or literally performing). I don’t know a single musical person in my life that would agree with him.

  10. And for the record, this is my favourite “adventure” song to the point that it shows up in any play list it’s even partially relevant to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDnPYoGzW78 I just have to share it XD

    IMO it tells a story of danger and adventure with a slight undertone of hope, desire, and romance without a single word at all. I recommend, if you play it, don’t watch the accompanying video first time around (which is the game intro this song belongs to). I simply can’t get enough of that song!

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