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Take, for example, the second book in my as-yet-unpublished sci-fi series, Fallen From Grace.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.