Story & Music

I played the viola in my schools’ orchestras up until I auditioned and played in my first semester of college, when I came to terms with the fact that I wasn’t cut out for “pro” performance (that is a whole other ball game, folks).  Still, this has influenced me greatly, along with playing piano for fun.  I’m always listening for musical qualities and patterns in things, even in something as simple as a birds chirping or something as abstract as how an object rings when it is struck, or the notes that can be played by blowing across a bottle’s opening.  (I could tell you what note it approximately hums at; my friend used to say it’s perfect pitch, but I don’t like the word “perfect,” heh.)

In any case, I can’t tell you how much I am inspired by music.  I believe it affects my writing.

Music in Movies

When I watch a movie I often judge its quality in part by its soundtrack because that, too, comes with the package.  Sometimes I think the music causes a movie to reach a level of transcendence that it may not have reached were it left to the movie script, actors, effects, or the other elements of a film.  The music is so special that it causes the viewer overlook some of the movie’s flaws, just for the pleasure of getting caught up in the atmosphere that is established by the soundtrack.

I have two examples of where I think this has happened.  The first is in M. Night Shayamalan’s The Village:

Do you recall the score?  It was utterly gorgeous.  And the funny thing was that in spite of its undeniable beauty, it felt incredibly understated in the movie!  Which is fine because I don’t think a soundtrack should ever overpower what is happening in the film; it should complement and augment it, but if it’s the only thing going for a movie…well, you get the idea.

For me, the soundtrack for The Village is like a girl, or a woman, who privately is aware of her beauty but never calls attention to it.  There’s such a modesty about it, despite its grandeurIt’s also very haunting, which contributed to the mystery/thriller element of the movie.

I think the violin in this soundtrack represents the theme of the preciousness of innocence, which is personified by Ivy, played by the lovely Bryce Dallas Howard.  It also represents hope.

Though it is much simpler, I think the soundtrack for The Adjustment Bureau, composed by Thomas Newman, did a similar thing for that movie:

There’s just something very surreal and magical about this particular track around 0:39, but it fits the scene from the movie perfectly.  At this particular spot Matt Damon’s character, David, is watching a woman named Elise, played by Emily Blunt, dance in a performance with her studio.  (The movements in their dance could also be described as surreal.  Very atmospheric.  It was an unusual stage set-up they performed on, as well.  At least for me.)  It’s a very simple scene, but for some reason it struck me as very special.

You have to understand the nature of their relationship for the beauty of this scene to make sense.  At first meet (in the men’s restroom, of all places), it is very clear there is something unique happening between Elise and David.  Elise herself has something very uncanny and fey-like about her.  When she and David are together, it is magic.

I think the one track above captures these qualities beautifully.  There’s another that picks up on the exotic, free-spirited nature of Elise, as well, if you’re interested:


I also think the soundtrack for Lust, Caution is another good example of how music can raise a movie to loftier heights and has some of the same themes of the other two movies I listed, but I won’t bombard you with more of the same stuff.  (I’ve got a whole list in my head!)

That’s great, Tiyana, but what does this have to do with writing?

Hold your horses, people!

Here’s my point: You can learn from music because like writing and film, music can be used to tell a story.  The mediums are quite different, though they can all come together splendidly.  The novel differs in that it is limited to the written word, of course, and perhaps also the cover design of the book if it is published.  Still, just as music can color a movie and add style, atmosphere and drama, so can the words you choose as you write your story.  Every word you use can help contribute a thematic punch to your work, if you let it.

From certain musical elements in The Village I derived the qualities of beauty, modesty, grandeur, innocence, hope and haunting(-ness, heh).  Some belong to the themes in this movie and others serve as motifs.  From The Adjustment Bureau I was left with the qualities of surreal, magical, special, uncanny, fey-like, exotic and free-spirited–all of which united to help create the overall atmosphere and flavor of this film.

Communicating theme, motif and style through music is more abstract a process than it is with writing, I think, but the same idea applies: Take cues from the context of your story–both on a micro (within scenes, sections and sentences) and marco level, and let the ideas and themes of your heart spill and bleed onto your manuscript.  Thread them through every fiber of your story.  Each idea and element in your work can be connected and tied in with the others, coming together in striking artistic resonance until you are no longer writing simply fiction but fiction with a palpable song, one that has a story to tell.  Over time, I think it gets easier to tell when a “wrong note” or chord is played, or when prose becomes flat and one-note.  It also gets easier to fix these things and add variation and complexity.

Sometimes I feel like the story is, at first, trapped within the mind of the author, in the vastness of the aether, and it is the writer’s duty to give them shape and form and set them free.  Words are the writer’s instruments, and they are begging to be played!

What kind of song does your novel/story sing?

If your current work in progress were a song, how would you describe it?  Which words best evoke the pictures and themes you’d like for others to envision as they read it?  What qualities to do wish for them to experience?  You can name them in a list, if you want, such as the following:




Maybe yours is shorter; maybe it’s longer.  Regular sentences work just fine, too!


14 thoughts on “Story & Music

  1. I like this post. There is a music to a book. Themes, rhythms, a chorus of resonance. For me, songs can inspire a scene. My whole second novel was born out of one line from one song by Evanescence.

    I did some thinking months ago about what I wanted people to experience when they read Angel Odyssey. The top three were:

    There are others but those are the top three. But those weren’t the themes of the novel; those were love, determination, the rites of passage from boyhood to manhood, becoming human and the conflict of love vs duty.

    Those were the goals at least, time will tell how close to the mark I hit.


  2. I love Evanescence! What song was it that you got the line from?

    I like how you have a hierarchy or “Top 3” for reader experiences. Stories can get really complex, and I’m sure we can find more themes and motifs than we thought would be in our work. To know which ones are the most proiminent is good for creating focus.


  3. Ah, nothing as incredible as music, Yoyo.

    Music can indeed summon great creative powers within to explode upon one’s writing projects. There are so many different genres to jump-start one’s creativity, the selections are daunting.

    A good exercise I was thinking of is to, like you said, write down in one word of your piece then explore music to compliment your creative efforts.

    Thank you for such a surreal post. 🙂


    • I guess that can be daunting, huh? I tend to turn to movies that have themes and content (espionage, war, a fantasy element, etc.) similar to what I want to write about then listen to their scores and put together a playlist I can listen to for inspiration while writing.

      However, this can also serve as a hinderance if you attempt to match what you’re trying to accomplish in your novel too closely with what’s happening in the score. Soundtracks really are cutom tailored to the stories told by their movies, so naturally there will be some conflict if you do this.

      I did something like that exercise you mentioned once with a short string composition, except I wrote with a specific scene in mind rather than a word. It’s currently unfinished and could still use some tweaking to be honest. (I want to try out Garage Band because I think it’ll mesh well with my “creative process,” but I can’t afford it right now ’cause I don’t own a Mac, lol.) Still, it was a lot of fun.


  4. There are certain chapters in my book that have a different but related sound, (various movements within the same score?). Sometimes I can hear the overall music, but I lose it when I work on one small part at a time.

    I never thought of comparing the mood of the story to music, but it’s a cool way of looking at it! Tonalities, harmonies, rhythem, dishord… hmm…


    • That’s a great way to look at chapters–movements!

      I have trouble seeing the “big picture” sometimes, as well, when working on small sections, though I guess this is common with any detailed creative process. After the first draft, it gets easier to look back and see it all and make decisions as to what belongs and what doesn’t.

      This is certainly the case for my interior design projects at school!


  5. I do what you describe in one of your comments: I look for movies that are thematically similar to what I’m trying to write and scrounge through their soundtracks for musical tracks that are even more thematically precise to what I’m writing, and build a playlist from that. But there are some movies that, though I love their soundtracks, I just can’t use because their soundtracks are too iconic, and just the sound of them instantly brings the movie to mind more than the scene I’m working on. Star Wars comes to mind in this regard.

    Oddly, though, this works in favor of the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, probably because LotR is now so archetypal in fantasy that any given part of it is almost more about the idea of that type of fantasy than it is about Tolkien’s work specifically…

    I almost always try to write to music…


    • Also… in answer to the question in the post… though I’m not yet actively working on the wip, the theme-words would be:

      …and maybe a few others, but that’s how we start it off.


      • Hi, Stephen. Thanks for sharing your list!

        Yes, you are right about some soundtracks being simply iconic. John Williams is particularly famous for creating such scores. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park… He is ridiculously genius at creating unique musical brands for movies which inevitably stick in the viewer’s mind; they become timeless. You could hum one little snippet of a theme from Star Wars and instantly everyone (who’s heard of it) knows where it’s from. It’s crazy.

        That’s interesting what you say about Lord of the Rings. I never went crazy over that score (though it was beautiful), but I think you’re right: It really does represent something much larger than itself. I wonder why it manages to come across this way when the score for Star Wars does not?


        • An interesting question, and one I’m not 100% sure of the answer on.

          For one… I really did fall in love with the LotR Soundtrack. It has probably replaced my previous favorite Soundtrack as my new all-time-favorite. (The previous, of course, was one by Williams; specifically that of original Star Wars trilogy.)

          Why it comes off sounding archetypal instead of iconic: well, for one, as you point out Williams is kind of a genius in that regard. (In fact, I’ve only heard two pieces/tracks among all the soundtracks of his that I’ve listened two across different films wherein the one reminds me of the other, and that’s one of the Genereal Greivous tracks from Star Wars Ep III soundtrack, which reminds me greatly of the Raptor Attack sequences in the Jurassic Park soundtrack.) That he can score so many movies with so little cross-series contamination, as it were, is a testament to his versatility. Few other composers have that gift.

          Howard Shore, the composer of LotR isn’t one that has that gift, even if he is a pretty great composer as well. Still, there are several iconic tracks in the LotR sountrack, and the soundtrack is pretty unique and stirring in its own regard. But the images those iconic tracks bring to the mind, upon hearing them… are of archetypal scenes rather than iconic scenes, if that makes any sense. Visions of the intrepid band of heroes making their way through the mountains, of a terrible evil hunting down the hero, of an army of mounted cavalry bearing down on the barbarian horde, of flights through fiery realms of darkness. Though all of that and more is present in LotR, the scenes themselves have been repeated so many times throughout the body of fantasy literature that they don’t feel specific to LotR. So, when I key up this soundtrack, there’s always a perfect track for any such thematically similar scene I may be writing.

          That’s my thought on why it works, anyway.

          But with Williams… I can’t hear the opening strains of Star Wars without seeing the opening crawl. I can’t hear the heroic fanfare to Superman without seeing the man in the red cape flying toward’s Earth’s blue globe. I can’t hear the stirring main theme of Jurassic Park without seeing a herd of brachiosaurs reaching their impossibly high necks toward the trees.


          • Lol. God, I love Jurassic Park…and the ride at Universal Studios.

            “…one of the Genereal Greivous tracks from Star Wars Ep III soundtrack, which reminds me greatly of the Raptor Attack sequences in the Jurassic Park soundtrack.”

            Huh. Great, now I have to go watch those parts to hear this! Haha. Because I totally love picking up on that kind of stuff.

            Yes, John Williams does have a gift in this regard. I remember hearing a theme in The Spiderwick Chronicles which sounds almost exactly like one used in Casper. It also bugs me when commercials use the same songs, even if they are spaced apart about a year or so. (Hello? I will still remember.) Even after five years I will remember, if I’ve heard of it before.

            I prefer when music is unique to the story being told, be it in a movie, a TV show or even a commercial. Still, I can understand that it gets difficult to come up with fresh stuff all the time. It’s just disappointing when you hear recycled stuff, you know?

            Also, I get what you’re saying about “archetypal” versus “iconic,” I think. It’s almost like a difference in brush strokes; where maybe Howard Shore was trying to create broader impressions in LotR and capture a general essence, Williams really wanted to zero in on every little detail within the scenes in Star Wars, capturing the twists and turns and details of each individual moment as they occurred. It might be that they just approached their scores differently.


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