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 grandeur. It’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!