One of my passions outside of writing is music. I don’t just love the music itself, but also the creative process and the tools that go into making it. I ended up spending so much time at the Musical Instrument Museum here in Phoenix that I now volunteer there. Seeing all the amazing ways music is created around the world got me thinking about the parallels between an excellent musical arrangement and superior writing. A well written book is music to the eyes.
Like orchestral composers, writers have a lot of instruments at their disposal. In addition to different characters with diverse voices, we also call on things like location, weather, historical timeframe, and a host of other factors to breathe life into a narrative. So, let’s strike up the band and see how we can utilize these instruments to build our stories.
Just like a musical score every story needs a foundation to build on. I liken this to the percussion section in a band. Percussion sets the pace of the music and punctuates it, adding emphasis to specific moments and giving breathing room when needed.
Sentence lengths and punctuation marks perform the same function. The roll of a snare drum builds drama in the same way quick, short sentences do, while the crash of the cymbals adds the exclamation point!
The brass and string sections paint the mood and bring color to the music. I see the physical environment, such as weather and settings, in this section of the orchestra. Think about the first time you heard "The Flight of the Valkyries." The deep tones of the bigger horns conjure up visions of thunder clouds and raging storms, while the strings recall sweeping winds. The bright, brassy passages let the sun break through the clouds, lighting up the landscape.
Similarly, we can use the world around our characters to show what’s going on inside of them. We all know weather can set the mood for a scene, but how your characters interact with their environment also gives the readers clues to what drives them. One character may hold onto his hat, hunch over, and trudge through a downpour, while another might dance and sing, stomping in puddles like child at play.
The woodwinds can play the main melody in a movement, but quite often are called upon to play a counterpoint, filling spaces and adding to the overall mix. They can bring attention to specific details by complimenting or contrasting the other instruments as they play their parts.
Secondary characters perform the same function. They give your main character someone to bounce things off. It might be a conversation designed to introduce needed information or they may take the opposite side of an argument and complicate things. Sometimes secondary characters are called on to take the lead and fill the space when the main character isn’t present or is otherwise unable.
That brings us to the soloists—the featured players. These are the people you’re really paying to see. The whole orchestra may play the music, but the spotlight shines on these talented, creative, and sometimes surprising instrumentalists. The entire concert is built around them.
The soloists in our stories are the main protagonists and antagonists. Sometimes they play in harmony, other times they fight for the spotlight, creating conflict and tension. In the end, only one can be the star. Whether the monster our main character fights is internal or external, it’s that conflict that drives the story to its crescendo.
The entire arrangement is brought together by the conductor, the one standing between the players and the audience, signaling each movement to the group. While we, the authors, are the ones writing the music, it’s the conductor that emphasizes certain elements of the score and pulls the musicians back on others.
In third person, the narrator is the conductor. They point details out to the reader and lead them through the story, scene by scene. When we write in the first person, the conductor is usually the soloists, your main character. We see the performance through their eyes, allowing the reader to be a part of the experience.
Then again, your first-person conductor could be the music critic sitting in the wings watching the show and giving us the play by play as the concert unfolds. Think of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Holmes was clearly the soloist and Watson, the reporter.
There’s always that one musician who was the last one to make the cut. They try their best but sometimes get a little out of tune and out of time. Everyone else in the orchestra struggles to figure out how to work together to recover from his missed beats and sour notes and bring the score back into balance.
This guy is the plot twist—the one who throws a monkey wrench into the gears. Just when things are rolling along smoothly, he drops a beat and plays one of his sour notes, sending everything sideways. Whenever things are going a little too well for your soloist, he throws in another one of those sour notes. Now you’ve got a story.
Sometimes we can get in a rut. We listen to the same style music from the same musicians over and over again. It’s a formula we don’t like to deviate from because it’s comfortable. The same thing can happen with our writing.
But why sit and strum the same three chords on the guitar when we have so many instruments at our disposal? By carefully combining all these elements in just the right mix, we can go from singing the same old song with a slightly different tune, to creating magnificent symphonies. Who knows? Maybe one of us will end up writing the next big hit.
Do you listen to music while writing? Are there certain songs you use to help create the right mood for a scene?
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Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma, Catching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room, Treble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.
When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives). His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.
The top photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
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Wow, what an amazing analogy, Bob! Never heard that before, but it's true! And I seriously need to check out that musical instrument museum.
For me, it's almost always classical when I write. If it has words, I find myself singing instead of writing. The upside is, I've developed a love of the classics I never would have had before.
Oh, except for one book - my July release, Cowboy for Keeps. The protag is a ballroom dancer, and she danced slow with the hero to Nora Jones - love her work.
Thanks for the great post!
Thanks, Laura. If you're ever in Phoenix, let me know. I'll give you a personal tour.
The idea for this post came to me one day when I was looking at our 3-D orchestra display at the museum. It lets you hear what each component of the orchestra contributes to the overall score before letting you hear them all together. I really made the whole thing click for me.
Ha! Look at me go, sneaking in here under Laura!! I never get "Second Chair" behind her on the blog, unless I'm up so late it's early. (Shhhhh, don't tell her. She frets about my night owl ways.)
I actually hum a lot - more than I ever knew before I had kids. I hum when I'm happy and for white noise when there's no one in the house, and I hum a little bit when I sit down to write (again, never knew until homeschooling happened). I think that's why I don't listen to music - once the story kicks in, the humming stops and I tune into that movie in my head. There is all the sound I need when I'm writing.
Yeah, it tough for us westerners to beat Laura to the draw. Guess we need to set an early alarm!
I sing sometimes, but the dog really doesn't like it. She's such a critic...
Ha! Do you make your dog howl, Bob?
She barks until I stop. Just not much of a fan...
cj Sez: Ah, a learning moment. Thank you! I've never carried a music analogy as far as this post.but the motto of my Lyrical Pens blog is "sharing the music of words," so I'm kind of there.
Bravo! Good writing is good writing, be it words or music. Both tell a story when done right.
Side note story. When I was writing "Remaking Morgan" with its classical pianist protagonist, I asked Alexa to play some classical piano, more for names of pieces I could drop into the book. Big surprise for me. Our dog (we've had her 8 years) came into my office and flopped down to listen. Who knew she liked classical piano? But now, especially if the weather is noisy, she comes into my office and stands in the middle of the floor looking at the speaker until I order up some music for her. Then, she curls up in the dog bed I added to my office.
Animals are amazing. Our Bengal cat was a music critic. Everyone in our house can sing fairly well, but Elliott would only allow our youngest daughter, his favorite human, to sing. He'd nip anyone else. LOL
That is the cutest story, Terry!
I love this, Terry. My Gracie is a music critic. She hates it when I sing.
When you said Musical Instrument Museum, I knew I had found a kindred spirit.
If you ever make it Phoenix, you should check this museum out. It's the largest in the world and the only one of it's kind. Truly an amazing place. Every instrument has a story to tell.
I have always equated putting a book together with building a house. The author is the general contractor and all else subcontractors, especially for self-publishing. I've never thought about writer as composer, using different sounds to weave words into a literary composition. Beautiful! Great post.
Building a house is also a good analogy. I guess I associate it more to music because they are both such emotional mediums.
Great post, Eldrid! When I'm writing I can't listen to music with words. My favorite music to write by is nature sounds. I have a few albums with thunderstorms, tropical rain forest, birdsong, waves, whale calls, etc. While writing my current WIP, a fantasy romance, I found this awesome album of epic fantasy music that sweeps you breathlessly along then quietly patters to allow a rest. I choose a certain title from it while I'm writing a particular scene that matches the mood. I write in a loft that is open to downstairs, so headphones are a must most days.
I sometimes listen to music before I write a scene as a way to get in the proper frame of mind. The type of music I choose is based on what type of scene I'm writing. I also do the reading out loud exercise. You're right about it working out the rhythm and making those sour notes stand out. My wife calls those words and phrases the throw things out of sync "speed bumps."
Ooooh, Barb, I would love a link to that album. I could probably write well with those kinds of sounds.
One extra piece: the plotter is the classical musician, working from the first note toward the crashing resolution of the Alleluia! Everything is planned, everything has a purpose.
The pantser is the jazz improviser, going where the moment might lead.
I think there's a reason I don't like that kind of jazz - I couldn't write that way, either.
I love this, Alicia! I'm a pantser (and love jazz), so I can totally see how this plays right into this analogy!
We have brains that are different - Vive la différence!
This is awesome, Alicia!
Lucky you, Eldred, that you get to volunteer at that museum! It's outstanding. I was blown away by the extensive collection there. As a musician myself, I've also seen many parallels between writing and music. I particularly like reading aloud to hear the rhythm of the words. I detect so many "out of tune" phrases that way that I can then correct. Love Alicia's comparison of the plotter/pantser to the classical/jazz musicians. It fits! The nice thing with writing vs. music is that you have TIME to polish rather than having to perform on the spot. Thanks for the fun post.
I really am lucky, Colleen. I could happily spend the rest of my life wandering the halls of the MIM, and plan to do just that. The pieces on display are only a fraction of the whole collection. Exhibits are updated and rotated in and out on a regular basis, so there are always new stories to experience.
I need to go see it again, obviously! I got the feeling I only scraped the surface the first time. By the way, I'm currently writing a novel during the time when they had the double-reed aulos. It looks so hard to play. Does the museum have one? Just curious. Enjoy! :O)
I believe I have seen one somewhere in the European section of the museum. Greece exhibit maybe?
AND you're a musician, Colleen?? I really think I need to come back as you in my next writing life. You've got all the amazeball stuff going on.
Ha ha. Actually the music came before the writing -- it was my first love. <3 But they work well together.
I love listening to music when I write. Most of the time, it just provides a good background noise, but sometimes, it can fit a scene or just work for a playlist.
So nice to hear of your volunteerism and how you can easily relate it to music.