Thank you for attending the Music: Your Novel’s Soundtack session at ArmadilloCon 41. I appreciate our moderator Sandord Allen and fellow panelists Holly Lyn Walrath, Michael Wolff, and Cassandra Rose Clarke. Below are some key thoughts I may or may not have shared during this session on music in fiction. But, first, a bit of shameless self-promotion of my most heavily music-themed work:
Gabriel’s Trumpet (scheduled for release later this month): an expansion of the award-winning short story, this Jazz Age supernatural mystery that spans the country from the Mississippi Delta to New Orleans and the deep bayous to Harlem at the height of its renaissance. Gabriel’s Trumpet is steeped in the era’s music / music scene, including historical musicans and industry figures.
“So Lonesome I Could Die” (part of the anthology Descansos): Texas Gothic meets the classic ghost story in this tale of music, love, betrayal, and more music set among the country and western swing scenes of the Depression-era Hill Country.
Chupacabra vs. Rougaraou (scheduled for release in 2020) A struggling punk rocker and a down on his luck bull rider may be all that stands between humanity and ultimate extinction, as a showdown between two cryptids in a small Louisiana town proves to be so much more.
And, for any gamers out there, a large proportion of my writing for rolepaying games is conntect with music in some way, feel free to check it out here.
Long before I turned my attention to fiction, I worked as a music journalist and music historian, specialized in blues, county, and punk. I am best known for my original research into seminal blues guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson, my chronicling of the Louisiana Hayride, in-depth biographical pieces, and festival coverage.
Why Music in Writing?
Music is a universal human experience. Anthrolopolgists know of no human culture that that does not have some form of musical expression and it has been part of our species for a very long time. The earliest known instruments are simple birdbone flutes found in Germany and dated to around 40,000 years ago. More complex instruments (silver pipes found in a grave in Ur) date at least far back as 2,500 BCE, with the earliest written musical notation arising about the same time (also in Mesopotamia). This universality helps readers connect with characters, backgrounds, and situations radically different than their own, or even completely fictionally.
Bone flute, Germany. c. 40,000 years ago
Music can be especially effective for writers of historical fiction and historical fantasy. Many books emphasize the sights of the past to the exclusion of other senses (excluding the now obligatory passage about how bad the past smelled). Music is a great way to insert the sounds of the past. Referencing Verdi, the Doors, or medieval troubadours immediately provides expositive shorthand regarding location and setting. It helps build mood and atmosphere. Because sound is so visceral and people often have very personal reactions to music, it puts readers right there in the story.
A Quick Glossary
Diegetic Music: (also known as source music) music that actually occurs in in a book (or film): the cassette tape played the protagonists as they leave on the Great American Road Trip, the War Hymn sung by the Battle Maidens of Koth, the Nursery Rhyme repeated over and over by the creepy hitchhiker, etc. For the purpose of the work of art in question, diagetic music is “real” it can be heard to and reacted to by chracters.
Incidentdal Music: Music intended to enhance a viewer’s experience of a movie (rarely, for obvious reasons, in a book). It exists only for the viewer and is not real from the perspective of the work’s characters.
Furniture Music (a term coined by French avant-garde composer Erik Satie) diagetic music occuring in the background (the string quartet at a Ventian masked ball, the endless loop of “Girl from Ipanema” inside a stuck elevator, etc.). Furnitue Music could be said to be part of the scene, not part of the story and, as such, kind of straddles the line between diagetic and incidental music.
Video Killed the Radio Star
When in the late 19th century or beyond, don’t forget the possibilites created by recording, playback, and broadcast technologies. Consider the following sentences:
- After cranking the Victrola, she delicately set a phonograph record on the platter.
- Jamming a cassette in the car’s 8-track player, she slammed her foot on the accelerator
- Flipping through her phone, she wanting to share the album she’d downloaded just hours ago.
Each sentence suggests an entire scene, a defined character, and an unmistakable time period. Indeed, it’s not hard to go from there to plot and motivation.
STEAL THIS PLOT TWIST: Speaking of recording technology, if you’re looking for an unusual way to challenge protagonists, stick critical information on some obscure pre-phonograph recording technology (cylinder, wire recorders, etc.). Now, send them scrambling to find a way to play it!
Broadcasting technologies, especially radio, also deserve special mention as a great vehicle for exposition. Between ads, DJ chatter, and news breaks, authors can convey a wide range of information to readers. It can establish era or setting (a news story about the eruption of Mt. St. Helens), provide local color (don’t forget the annual Strawberry Days festival this weekend, come on down and see the crowning of the Strawberry Queen), or advane the plot (a hook-handed killer has just escaped from the nearby institute for the criminally cliché).
Players Only Love You When They’re Playing
As long as we’re talking about music, lets talk about musicians … and their advantages as supporting characters, foils, or even protagonists.
Jazz pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith , one of many musicians performing in Gabriel’s Trumpet.
Archetypal musicians are colorful, larger than life, flout social conventions, and have interesting backstories. In other words, they are precisely the kind of characters that most authors like to write.
While, historically, often considered somewhat disreputable, musicians come into contact with people from all classes and walks and life. That makes them a great vehicle for providing information that protagonists might otherwise have difficulty accessing. That musicians often travel widely offers similar benefits.
Musicians are often portrayed with unusual (and frequently shady) backgrounds. It is easier to believe that a down on his luck punk rocker knows how to hotwire a car than an CPA. Or more likely that the grizzled old Meistersinger knows the high passes out of Hapsburg lands than a simple peasant.
In sort, because of the enduring and portable archetypes we associate with them, the romantic and liminal musician can be played as something of a wildcard.
Great Fiction About Music / Using Music
Dragonsinger by Ann McCaffrey: In Pern, musicians are the true king makers, the power of their music letting them say others’ thoughts and emotions. The young Menolly, an apprentice harper, must overcome gender bias in addition to the standard trials and tribulation before blossoming into a formidable talent.
Dr. Faustus by Thomas Mann: Faust meets Robert Johnson, in this retelling of the classic legend, the titular character is a musician/composer bargaing his soul for musical brilliance.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornsby: Sure, we’ve all seen the movie. But do yourself a favor and check out the book.
Idoru by William Gibson: The definitinity novel about AI celebrity musicians.
“Incommunicado” by Katherine MacLean: Good luck finding a copy of this decades- ahead-of-its-time story of AI musicians and musical mind control, featured inthe June 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.
Kamikaze L’amour by Richard Kadrey: In the near future, a burned-out rock icon fakes his own death and journeys to southern California, which has all become rain forest for some reason, where he falls in love while rediscovering himself as well as a passion for music for music’s sake.
Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux: Seminal novel of both horror and music ficition about masked weirdo stalking a talented starlet.
The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason: Middle-aged piano tuner recruited to travel to (what was then) Burma, make his way through the jungle, and tune the piano of an eccentric Royal Army doctor. Through his musical talents, he ends up getting dragged into intrigue and skullduggery, with a bit of a “music as a universal language” theme at the end.
I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive by Steve Earle (yes, THAT Steve Earle): Southern Noir meets Magical Realism in this mystery where the ghost of Hank Williams is major chracter.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: a post-apocolypic novel about a traveling symphony trying to keep music alive in a shatterd world.
Tolkien, obviously (though I am old enough to be traumatized by the music in the 1970s Rankin-Bass cartoons)
The Vinyl Detective Series, by Andrew Cartmel: Fanatical British vinyl collectors kill each other over rare records.