In the course of my life I’ve had many music teachers for piano, voice, music theory, and music history. I’ve taken classes in movement and drama, but I always knew that I would never be a professional musician. For me, music was another language in which to communicate. And even though I never had any problems with performance, I felt the conversation was between me and the music. It was almost religious. But let me not get too grandiose because my three B’s are Bach, Biggy and Fall Out Boy. What I really want to explain is what music has done for my writing.

When an idea first hits me, it’s usually a concept.

Setting: a beach with green sand and a solitary palm tree and three coconuts are left. 

Then I think about what that could mean to the people on this random green beach.

Problem: 4 friends and only three coconuts and they’re lost.

After that it’s a game of which sounds more like a story you want to tell a friend over drinks.

Solution 1: One friend shares the coconut.

Solution 2: Two friends fight until one is left standing and gets the coconut.

Solution 3: They play Rochambeau to figure out who should get the coconuts.

Solution 4: They crack them all open and put them in a vessel so they can all share.

Solution 5: They discover that the green sand is really enchanted and can add it to sea water for desalination saving the coconuts for cups and the coconut water for added flavor.

I don’t get around to figuring out what the characters are like until I know all of that first. Sort of like learning a piece of music.

I find a piece I want to play or sing, but it’s only a concept—notes on a page that sound one way in my head, but may change when really examined. I try to understand what the piece is trying to convey to others. Then I play with the different ways to express that idea. It all sounds very technical until you get to my favorite part—the characters.

Characters are the best part of writing a story and the way I make the story real. What kind of people would make any of those solutions worth retelling? I need a martyr for solution one. Solution two needs aggressors. The last three needs clever, outside-of-the-box thinkers and a leader to orchestrate it. But I still need to know about what makes them tick. That’s where music really comes in. My secret, which really isn’t a secret but more of my trick, is to find a song for each of my characters.

Since I love all kinds of music (even crappy pop music that is specifically for booty shaking) I have quite a wide selection. I also use songs for interactions between characters and situations in which characters find themselves. For example, one of my character’s from a novel I wrote is very independent and generally shuns help, but at a certain point she needs to ask for help from the last person she thought she would. While I was writing the scene I could hear Jill Scott’s I Need You playing in the background. Another secondary character had a lot of backstory I needed to keep in mind about why her life turned out as it did and I listened to Cath by Death Cab for Cutie.

I’ve used Broadway show tunes, Hip Hop, classical, Dixieland jazz, opera and anything else that will make me better understand this person I’m trying to invent, but probably already exists in the strains of a melody.

Now I keep in mind all the things my music teachers have told me in the past that can help me finish it.

  1. Always keep your nails trimmed
  2. Practice everyday
  3. Rotational neglect (when you obsessively focus on one thing and then leave it alone for a new obsession that requires your attention)
  4. Remember when it’s hard why you love it anyway

I may have learned to write through years of schooling, but music is what helped me become a writer. And prepare for the appalling lack of income! 😉

4 thoughts on “Music For Writers

  1. Loved this musical analogy! Made a lot of sense to me, even though I’m not a very musical person. It’s interesting watching a writer’s process of an idea evolving.

  2. Music is great for inspiration! Often when I’m working on a story I’ll hear a song that would be perfect incidental music for the movie version, and playing the piano gives my brain a welcome rest when I need a break from writing.

    1. It does have a way of “soothing the savage beast” of sentence structure. But mostly I end up hearing (or playing) a piece of music and thinking, “This is exactly how my character feels.” It’s really helpful with writer’s block, too.

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