Tuesday, November 13, 2012

4 Writing About Music: Guest Post by Antony John

I'm delighted to turn this week's craft piece over to Antony John, whose new novel, ELEMENTAL, is coming out November 21st. He is the Schneider Award-winning author of FIVE FLAVORS OF DUMB (Dial, 2010), as well as THOU SHALT NOT ROAD TRIP (Dial, 2012) and BUSTED (Flux, 2008). He has a B.A. in music from Oxford University and a Ph.D. in composition from Duke University, and has held teaching appointments at Duke and the University of South Carolina. Not surprisingly, his essay is on writing about music.

Writing About Music

by Antony John

As a composer-turned-YA-author, I get a lot of curveball questions:

  • When will you stop writing kids’ books and get back to music?
  • Don’t you feel bad wasting that Ph.D.?
  • Britney Spears: Genius or washed-up Mouseketeer?
  • (The answers, by the way, are: NO. NO. GENIUS . . . SORT OF.)

Truth is, writing and composing satisfy the same creative impulses. Sometimes they even come together in a single work. When that happens, here are five rules I try to live by:


An example: I read a book recently in which the main character was listening to a song (which was named). I’m fairly sure the author was listening to the exact same song. Why? Because instead of describing the music, the author simply relayed lyrics like they were an emotional IV drip. We were supposed to be rocking along with the author/main character, because, seriously, who can’t rock to this song, huh?

Me, apparently. Because I didn’t know it!

When writing about music, the author’s main job is to convey the physical, mental, and emotional sensation of listening or performing. If you can convince a reader that a song has your main character bawling, no one will care if it’s “Unchained Melody” or “We Will Rock You.” The important thing is that the music has stimulated a credible response in the main character, and by extension, in the reader.
Two excellent examples are K.L. Going’s FAT KID RULES THE WORLD and Cecil Castellucci’s BEIGE, in which music is the catalyst for the main characters to (finally) express themselves. In both, it is the effect of music on the minds and bodies of the main characters that makes us rock along with them, not the specific songs they play.

So, am I saying that writers should avoid lyrics altogether? Not at all. A line of a song that has particular relevance to a scene or character can be invaluable in tying everything together organically.

But beware . . .


Obvious, right? Yet, authors often seem to assume that readers share their taste in music and know the same songs. As a reader, being repeatedly reminded of an amazing song one ought to know doesn’t exactly foster warm and fuzzy feelings.

A way to avoid this is simply to invent a new song and describe it to us: the style, the instrumentation, a few carefully chosen (fictional) lyrics. The titular track of Robin Benway’s AUDREY, WAIT! is musically ambiguous throughout the novel, but the author does a great job selling us on the song’s appeal. Plus, when she relays the awkwardly autobiographical lyrics, we buy wholeheartedly into narrator’s distinctly uncharitable feelings toward the song.

An alternative technique would seem to be to stick to only the most famous pop and rock songs (or pieces of classical music). But revisiting these same canonic songs over and over still won’t guarantee that readers will know them. Plus, you risk falling foul of . . .


When a movie is finished and edited, the director will frequently compile a “temp track” (temporary soundtrack) to give the composer a sense of what ought to happen musically in each scene. Unfortunately, some directors fall in love with the temp track, and ultimately reject the composer’s original score altogether (e.g. Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY).

What does this have to do with writing?

The issue is that the director has overlooked the emotional baggage that music accrues throughout our lives. In 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, images of an astronaut space-walking are accompanied by Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz. It’s surreal and humorous. But if you know the waltz already, it’s also distracting. Suddenly you’re thinking: Where have I heard that before? Or: Wow, Strauss really sucks! Crucially, neither of these responses is useful to the director . . . or an author, for that matter.
If you’d like a song to be narratively meaningful, begin to establish why it is meaningful before the song is “performed” (e.g. played on a stereo, sung by the characters, quoted repeatedly, etc.). In this way, you’re setting your own parameters for what the song means, and supplanting those that the reader brings with him/her.

An example: In Roddy Doyle’s THE COMMITMENTS, the ragtag band discusses the cultural relevance of R&B before and during a series of chaotic rehearsals. By the time they come together musically, they’ve taken ownership of the music so completely that we’ve almost forgotten former versions of classics like “Mustang Sally.” If this sounds like a clever sleight-of-hand, well . . . that’s because it is.


Thank goodness for editors. Without them my books would feature such inspiring terminology as “tempo rubato” and “Neapolitan Sixth chord.” I can already hear my readers moaning: “But the Neapolitan Sixth is, like, so baroque!”

It’s hard for me not to throw these terms around because they’re part of my vernacular. And if I were writing from the perspective of a precociously gifted musician, the same terms would be part of my character’s vernacular, too. For instance, Andi Alpers in Jennifer Donnelly’s REVOLUTION casually discusses the “Tristan chord” and the “diabolus in musica,” which will either nudge you into geek heaven or leave you plain confused. Most likely the latter. But Donnelly knows this, of course. Using these terms is basically her way of saying: Dear Reader: I know you don’t completely understand what I’m talking about, but that’s okay because I need you to realize how serious/nerdy my main character is.

Besides, you get the gist of the story, right?

So before you put all that research to use, and build entire sentences using only Italian musical terminology, ask yourself if your main character would describe the music that way. If the answer is yes, geek out!


Lots of authors compile playlists for their characters, and I’m all for it. It’s like adding a musical appendix to the character’s backstory. And let’s face it: anything that makes a character more three-dimensional to the author will make the character more real to the reader.

However, while most authors choose not compose entire blog posts on the details of a character’s backstory that don’t explicitly feature in the finished novel, several do publish their characters’ personal-private playlists. And I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.

See, the problem is twofold. First, almost no reader will know all the songs (your personal taste in music is, after all, personal). Second, if they do know most of the songs, they may disagree with the choices (rather like a book cover that ignores the main character’s carefully described physical appearance).

That being said, the one thing my publisher insisted should appear in the paperback version of FIVE FLAVORS OF DUMB was a playlist. And being the obedient author that I am, I gave them one.
Which reminds us that all rules, even musical ones, are made to be broken.

Coming November 21, 2012
(Giveaway here on the blog 11/16/12!)

A lost colony is reborn in this heart-pounding fantasy adventure set in the near future.

Thomas has always been an outsider. The first child born without the power of an element—earth, water, wind, or fire—he has little to offer his tiny, remote Outer Banks colony. Or so the Guardians would have him believe.

In the wake of an unforeseen storm, desperate pirates kidnap the Guardians, intent on claiming the island as their own. Caught between the plague-ridden mainland and the advancing pirates, Thomas and his friends fight for survival in the battered remains of a mysterious abandoned settlement. But the secrets they unearth will turn Thomas’s world upside-down, and bring to light not only a treacherous past but also a future more dangerous than he can possibly imagine.

Dial: ISBN 10: 0803736827 • ISBN 13: 978-0803736825

Pre-order from Amazon.com
Pre-order from Barnes&Noble.com
Pre-order from IndieBound.com


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  2. Love this post (and loved 5 FLAVORS...DUMB). I write about the arts a lot and I find his Antony's points very accurate. For me, it is the structure of an art form (be it dance, jazz) that I hope informs my writing--not references to ballets or compositions but that act of shaping writing like movement, for example. Also appreciate thoughts about playlists. I've never made one before but am finding myself building a list for my current novel but will think hard about sharing it. Thanks for this post. As always, your blog is a great help.

  3. Thanks so much for having me along today!

    Good luck with the writing Stasia. And don't worry too much about the playlist - I've spoken to some teens who happily head over to YouTube to check out the author's playlist. It's almost like the extras on a DVD - if you adore the movie, you want to immerse yourself in everything the author has to say. (Still, I kept my playlist REALLY vague, so that I wouldn't break my own rule too badly!)

  4. I agree wholeheartedly! I HATE it when I read a novel and the character's throwing out all these lyrics or song titles, and I've never heard of them. Just as bad--when they're obviously the author's retro taste and a teen character is really into that (older) musical style. I mean...really?

    Music is SO subjective!! In my novels I usually make up my own music/songs/bands, and yep, I describe them as how they affect the character rather than relying on a song I assume the reader knows. Thanks for the great article! ;o)


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