Music to My Ears – Using Music to Create Atmosphere in Your Writing

Music is an often underappreciated way to help tell a story. I’ve just finished marathoning the entirety of Nodame Cantabile (Which is partially the reason why this post is a day late), a Japanese Drama set in a university of music following a young man who dreams of being a conductor and a girl who has raw talent on the piano but refuses to study. There’s more to it than that but if I get into it I’ll spend all of my time gushing about how great it is and not any time discussing the music.

Can you blame me for being distracted? Really?

Being a show set in a music school, as you’d imagine there are quite a number of big musical set pieces whether it be a solo piano piece or a full orchestral ‘do, there’s a big number at least once an episode.

But while some of the featured music is mind-bogglingly awesome, that’s not what I want to talk about. What I wanted to talk about was the background music and the way it affects the story.

With such a heavy focus on classical music, it should come as no surprise that largely the soundtrack is more of the same. But it’s the way it’s used that makes it such an effective tool. The music matches the mood of the piece. When big things happen the music is big and grand. When something sad happens the music matches it perfectly. Unfortunately there’s no real way to describe the music’s perfect match without finding a clip and showing it so you can hear for yourselves.

The music in the clip is playful and light, matching what is essentially a scene about a group of friends stuffing aroundand making fun of their more serious classmate. The music enhances the scene and makes it somehow sillier and more innocuous. It does something that I can’t properly express by writing about it.

This is why music is an often neglected aspect of writing.

Unfortunately, literal music often simply isn’t an option when you write. Short of installing speakers into your book (which is something someone should really get on, by the way) it’s difficult to incorporate music into your work.

Wait, I lie, there are some ways of doing it. The first, and most simple, is to simply recommend that your reader listens to a particular song while they read. But that has its limits. Incorporating music this way destroys any sense of timeliness that the music might have had. Part of the reason music is so effective in Nodame is because it comes in when the moment happens and then it changes, moving into the next mood and the next and then the one after that before returning to the original with more emphasis. And unless your piece is a short, moody one, you’ll probably want to do the same for your work. You’ll want to move the music with the story to help with the mood. And that’s impractical in the real world. You could try putting in music cues but that would destroy the flow of your story and that is (or should be) a cardinal sin.

The second way of doing this is by putting in the lyrics of a song that you feel expresses the mood. However, this doesn’t work unless the reader already knows the music you’re referring to (and sometimes not even then). Music is not the words that accompany it and simply typing those words can’t convey the feeling of the music. Not to mention that without the accompanying music, most songs sound like terrible poetry.

So are we as writers denied the use of music to enhance our stories? Are the mood-enhancing effects of sweet and hopeful background music or dark and stormy theme music denied to us?

Well… yes. In that form anyway. Unless you only produce audio books (which, considering the challenge I’m trying to lay down here feels like it’d be cheating and against the spirit of the thing). So for the sake of argument, let’s talk pure text on a page. Music is perhaps a little out of our reach.

But should that stop us? Should we lay down our pens/keyboards/writing implements and give up on the world of emotion and atmosphere that music can give us?

If you answered in the realm of ‘hells to the no!’ congratulations you’ve picked up on the spirit of this post. Go give yourself a gold star and listen to something suitably triumphant.

As writers we work with the tools we have. And our main weapon, apart from pencils which are often deceptively pointy, is language.

Meaning can be conveyed in an almost infinite number of ways. Say that you wanted to express that the day was a sunny one. You could go the standard route of saying that the day was sunny. Or perhaps the day was bright? Or maybe that the sun beat down on our weary travellers (for what other kind of travellers are there?). Or that the sun greeted your face like a warm kiss.

Pucker up.

All of these examples convey the same basic meaning: the sun is in the sky. But each of these sentences has a different tone, a different meaning. What is the difference between a sunny day and a bright day? To me, sunniness conveys a meaning of happiness in addition to light, a feeling that things are looking up. A bright day, however, has harder edges. Bright days are days when sometimes you have to squint to protect your eyes. Similarly, the sun ‘beating down’ brings to mind heatwaves and sticky afternoons spent lying in the shade and praying for a breeze. The last sentence conveys a feeling of stepping out from a cold doorway and into welcome warmth.

But the meaning is the same. All we’ve done is change some words around. As a writer, words are your notes. Words with happy connotations are you bright, high and cheerful notes while others might be the dark and sombre notes of a dirge.

But what if we go deeper than that? Can we change the way we use language to express a mood in the same way that music can? I want you to picture a chase scene in a movie. What kind of music is playing?

Something fast-paced, right? Heavy on the percussion with lots of short notes that help to build the excitement up to a fever pitch.

Now what about a written chase scene?

In a good, written chase scene you’ll find something similar. The sentences will be short, the words shorter. Your eyes will fly across the page without pause, giving the scene a fast pace and drawing you in to the conclusion. No stopping for a drawn out reflection about the meaning of life here, just language that screams of speed punctuated with just a dash of haste. Action writers have mastered this technique it’s what makes their books feel like they’re going at breakneck speed.

But that’s not the be all and end all of music when it comes to action scenes. What about when people running around and firing improbably large weapons at each other is accompanied by an operatic score? Things immediately become more epic, right? Like this is the battle to end all battles?

But how would you express that in writing? For one thing, you might try slowing down your writing, using longer sentences with a more… epic style.

…I think the only way to explain that is with some examples.

Example 1 Actiony Action

He ran and leapt, catching the ledge with the tip of his fingers. “You’ll never get away with this Lord Snickerhaven!”

Example 2 Epic action

He ran at the evil overlord, ignoring the pain in his side, ignoring everything. There was one last obstacle. One last— He leapt, his body sailing through the air and crashing against the wall and his fingertips only barely holding on to the ledge. “You’ll never get away with this Lord Snickerhaven!” he yelled hoarsely as his feet tried to find purchase.

That extra bit of description that doesn’t stop the action but rather slows it down without losing momentum is your equivalent of an operatic soundtrack. It can help to enhance the mood of a piece but it has to be used sparingly. If every confrontation feels like it’s the only thing standing between earth and oblivion then it begins to lose its impact.

But that’s your writer’s equivalent to a score. What about sound effects? What would the sound of a ticking clock do if the audience is constantly aware of it? A beating heart? By making the reader aware of a small sound it can change everything. A clock makes us acutely aware of the time; a dripping tap makes the setting feel claustrophobic and too-quiet. Bringing the reader’s attention to something small can give the piece a sense of immediacy and urgency.

Or awaken your reader's OCD tendencies... it's a close call

Music as it’s used in television and movies is difficult to incorporate into your writing. Just like the taste of the best pie in the word or the scent of the air just before it rains, it’s something that can’t be put into words. Only experienced. But that doesn’t mean all is lost.

We can reproduce the sound of music (snerk) through our writing by changing the style, using specific words or even simply making the reader acutely aware of a sound. Music is a tool and we can reproduce the effects of that tool by paying attention to the effects that it has and attempting to translate it into another medium.

In the spirit of the highly experiential nature of music (and because I can’t think of a good way to end this post), I’ve put together some writing exercises you might want to try next time you’re bored if you’re interested on the effect our ‘music’ can have on writing.

  1. How many ways can you express the cool rush of air into a room when you open a door?
  2. Try writing a romantic scene using long, descriptive sentences. Then in short, sharp ones. Bonus points if you get in a few one word sentences. What changed?
  3. Write a story where the character is aware of the beating of their own heart. Include relevant sound effects. Then take them out. Does the mood of the story change?
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About Meg Laverick

I can never be found without a cup of tea in my hand or a notebook in my bag. In between university and generally being awesome I read, write and nerd (that's a verb, right?). I also like analysing things that are probably best left alone.
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2 Responses to Music to My Ears – Using Music to Create Atmosphere in Your Writing

  1. phoenixandtiger says:

    Wow. I have never thought about writing this way – probably because no matter what I write there’s something completely unconnected going on in the background, but whatever. Hmm.
    I’m definitely trying out some of those writing exercises. Three-and-a-half chapters of the MxK written and I want to slam Miguel’s head against the wall.
    Anyways – wonderful post, can’t wait to read the next one as always.

    • Meg Laverick says:

      Really? I love the idea of language as music with its own rhythms and the like 🙂 Maybe that’s just me being strange (possible), or me still being a little in love with Nodame and wanting it to permeate everyday life just that little bit more (more likely)

      If you do try out any of those exercises, can I see the results? I’d love to see what you could do with it.

      And I’ve been a bad person and haven’t reviewed your lovely lovely MxK again! I’ll be fixing this as soon as I’m done here. Promise. (And your BryKa picture is as we speak sitting half-coloured on my computer. The line work and background colours have been done for ages but every time I go to colour the thing it comes out wrong)

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