Music and Writing

Music can be a great catalyst for writing. Some writers find music a companion for a long writing project. Many of Stephen King’s novels resound with rock; Peter Straub often works jazz into his stories.

Things get a little complicated when the music actually turns up explicitly within the piece of writing. Sometimes it’s OK, as in the King and Straub examples. But what if there is a chronological problem? What happens when someone finds inspiration in lush 19th century romantic music for their historical romance set in Renaissance Italy? Unless the plot involves time travel, the music must remain invisible, with only its passion and the other emotions it provokes manifesting themselves in the written work.

When I was writing The Friendship of Mortals, I listened to J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the Allegri Miserere, and Loreena McKennitt’s album, The Mask and the Mirror. The setting of this novel is early 20th century New England, specifically H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional city of Arkham. So it was OK to have my principal characters attend a concert which included parts of the Goldberg Variations (although I’m not sure that this work was as well-known or as often performed then as it is now, especially in a version for string quartet). It was OK for one of my characters to remember hearing the Allegri Miserere in a church service.  But McKennitt’s setting of St. John of the Cross’s poem “The Dark Night of the Soul” must lurk unseen, despite its huge influence on the book.

The second book of the Herbert West Trilogy, Islands of the Gulf, was directed entirely toward a conclusion inspired by Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium. Listening to that great musical storm, I had a vision of that scene, and then had to create a series of events that would put my protagonist (Herbert West/Francis Dexter) into that situation. But Spem in Alium does not appear in the story, strangely enough. For some reason I did not even consider that.

The concluding book of the trilogy, Hunting the Phoenix, includes some musical shenanigans (Shostakovich, no less!), but is not imbued with music. Its narrator, Alma Halsey, is not really a music lover, unlike Charles Milburn, the voice of The Friendship of Mortals.

My fourth novel, Winter Journeys, is actually about a musical work, specifically Franz Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise. Writing this was somewhat risky because although I love music, I am not a musician and my perspective is that of an outsider.

And in case you are wondering, the second volume of Islands of the Gulf and Hunting the Phoenix will be available on Smashwords later this year.

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3 comments

  1. This blog caught my eye, although my main inspiration is rock and roll rather than classical music. Whenever I write, I fire up my Internet radio connection for inspiration. Classic rock has a way of conjuring up scenes, emotions, and dreams from my past. Yet as you say, one of the biggest challenges in writing is to explain just how the music motivates the characters. There’s also the irony that so many musicians self-destruct, yet their songs seem to convey the joy of being young.

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    1. Any music that a writer loves can serve as fuel for the writing process. And it may be (unfounded speculation here!) that the process of creating great music sucks a lot of energy from the creator, leaving them unbalanced; OR maybe only people who are “unbalanced” to start with are good at that form of creation. Finally, a lot of writers were (are?) pretty self-destructive themselves.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  2. Thanks for writing this. I usually write in silence, but sometimes I play something to get in the mood for a certain scene. Other times, I play the gong to push everything out and start with a clean slate after a busy day.
    Music plays the mind, strums it, reorganizes it.
    Good luck with your novel. I like the metaphysical aspect of it.

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