Writing Right with Dmitri: Background Music

1 Conversation

Words, words, words. That's what we're made of. Herewith some of my thoughts on what we're doing with them.

Writing Right with Dmitri: Background Music

A man in green with a feather in one hand and drawing a theatre curtain with the other

You're writing away at your short story or novel. Your characters go into a café/restaurant/bar. Music is playing.

Quick: what is playing? What do your characters think about it? How do you describe it for the readers so they hear it in their heads? And does it matter?

I have lost count of the number of times a writer has told me the name of a piece of music, as if I were supposed to know it, and moved on. In spite of the fact that this dork has taken no time to explain the mood of the piece to an ignoramus like myself, I am expected to understand its effect on the characters in the story. Phooey.

This happens a lot with classical music. The cognoscento who's writing expects his audience to 'get' it. Bah. Another kind of insider music writing involves jazz aficionados or rock nerds. They usually take a different approach. They'll describe the music as 'smoky' or 'intense' or whatever. The fun part about it is that when I'm reading, I believe them. If I heard the music, I would probably leave the room/auditorium/stadium, to protect my ears. I'm not a big fan of jazz or rock.

You need to decide two things about your background music: what do you want the reader to think about it, and how do you want your character to react?

One of the best uses of background music I know is in the excellent novel Trinity's Child, by William Prochnow. In this 1983 novel, the crew of a B-52 are airborne because World War III has broken out. They're on their way to deliver death, and they know that everyone and everything they love has just been wiped out in a first nuclear strike. At a key point in their flight, they pass over Oregon, where a lone radio operator has managed to keep his station on the air. The struggle and decision-making in the cockpit continues against the backdrop of these lyrics:

The three men I admire most, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, they took the last train for the coast, the day the music died.   – Don Maclean, American Pie.

The reader gets the irony. After this song ends, and while the fight over 'turn back/go on and drop the nukes' rages on, comes this poignant line from another song:

If the world should stop revolving, spinning slowly down to die. . .   – Bread, If.

Now, that's effective music. It adds a layer to the discussion, and makes you want to scream, 'Stop!' at the warmongers. So how do you pull it off, especially when you know your audience has been niche-marketed into listening only to Top-40 hits/easy listening/Afropop/whatever? You should probably practise.

Try this exercise. Listen to this old folk song, which you probably won't like unless you're me. As you listen, make note of some words or phrases you would use to describe what you're hearing.

What words were on your list? Did you come up with 'plaintive', 'lonely', 'defiant'? Did you think the tune 'transported you back in time'? Did the tune make you ache with an 'indefinable longing'?

If you wrote down 'corny old Scots ballad', or 'now I know why they call it a Rant', or 'beam me out of the folk club', don't talk to me. You have no taste, and should go back to your saxophones with my blessing.

A traditional Cherokee warrior stands in front of the white Cherokee rose.

Okay, trying your patience once more, I will ask you to experiment with this very amateur performance of an American Indian song. If the player doesn't go right to it, you want Number 4, 'Cherokee Morning Song'. Listen, and see how your character would describe hearing it. We'll wait while you dial it up.

Okay? What did you come up with? Here are two versions by me. The first is from the point of view of Sheryl from Virginia, who is seeking to connect with the spiritual roots of her country.

The calm words of the leader made Sheryl's heart beat with anticipation, and the introductory sound of birdsong took her mind to a place she had travelled 300 miles to find: the place of the ancestors, the home of connectedness with these ancient hills. The chant of 'wen-day-ya-ho' resonated deep inside her soul. Although she did not know this language, she felt its meaning. . . 'I am of the Great Spirit'. . . she closed her eyes and listened. . . 'ya, ya, ya'. . . suddenly, an image arose in her mind: the sight of the mountains, shrouded with mist, tinted with the rosy hue of the morning sun. Sheryl felt a deep sense of peace and oneness with it all.

The second version describes what Alan Hicks, a 15-year-old native of Cherokee, NC (I made him up, apologies to any 15-year-old up there who happens to be named Alan Hicks). Alan is sick and tired of being dragged to these 'cultural events', and his favourite author is JD Salinger.

My grandma made us come, as usual. 'You need to know about your roots,' she says. She's always going on about 'roots' and 'our values'. Like that mattered, anyway. I try to tell her, that old stuff is, A. boring, and B. probably heathen and ain't we Southern Baptists like everybody else? She just tells me to Have Respect. Grandma is big on Respect. But she don't respect my choices. Nobody does. Well, first this phony dude in a made-up Injun costume got up and whined on about 'the Great Spirit' (even I knew better) and then they started making crap bird noises. Puh-leeze. Then the awful chanting started. They weren't even very good at it – I mean, that group from out West, Walela? At least they can sing, and they're good-looking chicks, too, but these guys? Phony AND outta tune. Besides, didn't our ancestors know any lyrics besides 'hey-ya-ho, hey-ya-ho'? It seems like every Indian tribe in the country does nothing but chant 'hey-ya-ho'. Thousands of languages, and 'hey-ya-ho' is what you come up with? Get a grip. I couldn't wait to get some Björk in my headphones. Now, that chick is spiritual. Umlauts are COOL.

You get the idea. Music listening for writing practice. Try some stuff you like, try some stuff you hate, try some stuff that bores the socks off of you. Imagine being Alan Hicks, or Sheryl, or Lady Arabella Duncastle. Hear with their ears.

They might just be playing your song.

Writing Right with Dmitri Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

18.06.12 Front Page

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