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Music 2 : Write 2
Why music matters more than most writers care to admit.
I’m sorry this newsletter is a couple of days late. I’ve been busy putting the finishing touches to my first novel’s manuscript. There’s been more advisory revisions, with plot and action wound tighter and inter-character tensions heightened (so he says). Now the pressure to complete the
damn thingepic work has never been greater, with perfectionism the enemy of submission and publication. Most of all, I risk disappointing good folk like yourself. In a stentorian Gandalfian voice, I can hear you intoning: ‘This will not do, Mr Reid!’
Swiftly moving on from these excuses…
Music is more than ‘the food of love’
I’m a huge admirer of musician songwriters. Not only do they write words, but they combine them with sounds in such a powerful way, that the resulting music can make our bodies move without conscious volition. Music stimulates an ancient and primitive layer in our brains which brings together multiple senses and emotions. We use music to mark both birth and death; to coax love and wage war; to demarcate a teenage tribe; and to celebrate special occasions, like a king’s coronation. ‘Happy Birthday’ is the most commonly sung contemporary tune on the planet, despite the copyright lapsing only recently. (Indeed: shame upon such curmudgeonly behaviour!)
My own personal view1 is that the generation and appreciation of music became a deeply-conserved genetic adaptation for enabling the long-term transmission of human knowledge. More simply, music is an external augmentation for language, to improve our memorised retention of knowledge crucial for a tribe’s survival: where to travel in a drought; what to eat in a forest; how to treat a fever. In comparison to music and language, writing is a relatively recent invention for homo sapiens, books and widespread literacy more so. Why do we fail to recall what we wore yesterday, that damn soliloquy or a line to a famous poem, but can easily recall and sing along to a tune we haven’t heard in a decade?
That’s got you thinking, hasn’t it? Yet we take all the above for granted, despite it being almost unique to humans.
We truly might follow our songs as they travel through history under their own motive power, mutating of their own accord with time and repetition, uncaring of how many of us remember or forget them.
The above is why I believe music is infrequently mentioned when authors speak about generating their words.
Lawyers and publishers within these commercially segmented industries might avoid the comparison (even when both are owned by the same media-owning behemoth). Literary purists might scoff (do they do much else?). Poets might opine verse is a valid half-way house without wishing to strike a note of discord (we’re just so polite - mostly). But I think a lot more might be going on when linguistic symbols enter a writer’s eyes and leave through their fingers to the sound of music.
Often music is being played ‘in the background’, via oscillating membranes in headphones or speakers, which in turn vibrates eardrums and tiny bones, then miniscule hairs and stones. (I’m serious. No-one would have designed this nonsense, any more they did our eyes, believe me). In this long-winded way, deliberately generated waves of compressed air are sensed by our brain, all at a subconscious level. We say we ‘hear’, but the interpreted sound is only in our heads, as with our sight or any other sense. Our brains are quite brilliant hallucination generating machines.
Though only a few notes or refrains might be retained when focusing on another task, the brain knows what it likes or needs, and when a beat or lyric does resonate, it creates waves of synaptic influence to stimulate ‘the parts wot most other sounds cannot reach’.
It gets more complicated: songwriters often hear another musician’s riff or even imagine one. They then fit words to it, not the other way round. Which brings me to this conclusion:
What writers put into words can be strongly influenced by the music they hear. Or the music they recall may resonate with what they write. Furthermore, any author so influenced will struggle to distinguish between this dual interplay, such is the depth within their mind at which music intertwines with words and vice-versa. For one has been the vehicle of the other for millennia.
I am no musician (Grade Two piano doesn’t count), so this is all I have to say on this matter. However, you may wish to comment further.
Below are a few samples and examples of the interplay between music and writing:
Let me know if there’s another book which has been or could be musically brought to heel in this manner. Better yet, share the playlist of a novel you took on as your own project!
They all do it
My own novel’s influences:
I’ve created a playlist of tracks which have influenced or resonated with many of the scenes in my unpublished novel. Feel free to to click a track to listen to one or more samples, or if you’re a Spotify user, dig into the whole listing:
Without lyrical distraction:
Finally, if you’re a writer who needs no lyrical distractions in their ears, or a reader wanting to eliminate extraneous background noise, or you just want help to relax, then this is for you: five hundred Spotify tracks which I’ve curated to provide an uninterrupted twenty-four hours of ambient, uninvasive soundscapes:
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I have never bothered to research if my hypothesis (‘theory’ is perhaps too grand a word) is either remotely valid or utter bunkum. Please feel free to do the necessary legwork and get back to me with your more informed opinions.