Hearing things that aren’t there

Silk’s Post #13 — I briefly considered changing the number of this post. Since I lead off the week here at 5 Writers central, I’m the minder of the post number count. Last week was 12. This week is the number that many buildings choose to skip. (Check out how many elevators go from the 12th floor directly to the 14th floor).

But I’m not really superstitious. Well, other than always throwing a pinch of salt over my left shoulder any time it’s been spilled. Any fool knows enough to do that. And, yes, if I have the choice, I’ll walk around a ladder instead of under it. Harmless stuff, really.

But when I admit I’ve been ‘hearing things’, it has nothing to do with phantom voices or bogeymen. It actually has to do with real voices and boogie men.

I mean music, man – sweet, sweet music.

See, as I’ve been writing, I’ve been hearing soundtracks in my head. No, I don’t have the hubris to be dreaming of a movie version of my novel. (Well, it would be awesome, but at this stage the only thing I’m dreaming of is just getting the first draft finished on deadline). I’m just hearing what my characters hear. The music that moves them, soothes them, makes them get up and dance. The rhythm of their lives.

Writers think about what their characters look like, what they think, how they move, what they wear, who they hang out with, what they care about, how they do the things they do. But, oddly, not all that many writers seem to think about what kind of music their characters listen to. Or what that says about them.

There are spectacular exceptions to this music blindness in writers. I’m not talking about books where music is simply inserted as a kind of cultural prop, but books with characters who truly have a relationship with the hit parade in their heads. Some of my favourite characters in crime fiction come to life through the music they love. For me, this dimension makes them more real, more immersed in the world they move through, than characters who seem untouched by the culture’s most accessible and expressive art form. Who can think of Harry Bosch without his jazz? Or John Rebus without his rock?

Benny Goodman Band with vocalist Peggy Lee.

Benny Goodman Band with vocalist Peggy Lee.

Maybe music isn’t a big factor in some people’s lives. It always has been in mine. Both my parents were professional musicians when they were young (read: before they actually had to consistently make a decent living and when they still had the energy to stay up to all hours entertaining tipsy night clubbers). But even though my childhood home had no fancy hi-fi equipment – just the old AM radio – their musical style permeated my early consciousness. For them, there was only one kind of music – Big Band Swing. It was their personal soundtrack.

motown labelMy own soundtrack, like most people’s I suspect, kicked off with the music popular in my youthful glory days. Dating and mating music. Folk, British Invasion, and most of all Motown. Music to dance to and make romance to. With my soul sister, and still best friend, I used to sing in high school rock groups at proms and battles-of-the-bands. I would never be able to tell the story of my own teenage years without music. It animated everything.


Jazz great Miles Davis (Oliver Nurock photo)

Around the time I had to start thinking of myself as middle-aged (with great reluctance and not a little surprise), I suddenly realized I wasn’t listening to the latest music anymore. One day I turned on the radio and I just didn’t know any of the groups. Or much like them, either. Overnight, it seemed, I was looking for a new soundtrack for my life – one of my own choosing, not one dictated by playlist managers and Rolling Stone magazine. I could have welded my radio dial on the oldies stations. As it turned out, I gravitated to jazz and blues, which expanded to rhythms from around the globe, especially African and Latin. I still love rock and roll, though. It’s in my bones.

The point is, I can’t imagine living without my own soundtrack.

And that goes for my characters, too. Take my protagonist. She’s young, smart and single. She grew up in a household with an instrument maker who plays music in a specific ethnic genre. She’s very self-directed. She doesn’t follow trends, she makes them. And she lives in a city famous for its innovative music. So who is she in musical terms? Does she follow the bleeding edge of indie rock, always finding the new new thing before anyone else does? Does she rebel against technology and seek out the humanistic vibe of acoustic artists? Does she take her family’s musical traditions to the next level, delighting in original sources of roots music? Does she buck every expectation and go symphonic?

I haven’t answered this question yet, but when I do I will really know what makes this character tick, from the inside out. And so will my readers.

Am I not only hearing things, but also imagining things? It this music obsession really relevant in a book? After all, the reader will never hear it. Maybe music will play a role, but unless the story is about an actual musician, it will be a small role – perhaps only a mention in a few scenes.

A book is more than words on a page, that’s my answer. When I read, I’m playing a movie in my head, and I think a lot of readers do the same. Paula had some great insights on this in her post about why people often say “But I liked the book so much better than the movie.” And have you ever seen a movie without a music? Imagined a love scene or a fight sequence or a car chase that wasn’t driven by the soundtrack? Been captivated by an unforgettable character who wasn’t accompanied by a recurring musical theme, perfectly fitted to his or her role, that evoked a strong emotional response?

That’s the kind of soundtrack I’m trying to put on the page to bring my characters to life – with only words as my instruments.

Do you have any favourite examples of books or characters that planted a soundtrack – a musical dimension – in your mind as a reader? I’d love to hear about them.


5 thoughts on “Hearing things that aren’t there

  1. Both as a reader and a writer. Peter Straub, one of my favourite authors, uses music in his work – jazz for the most part, and I always felt I was missing a huge part of his subtext because of that – I didn’t know enough about jazz to be able to understand what the pieces were supposed to be doing. Then I had to start learning about jazz because of Kote Jones, the main character of my now cooling off SF novel. First person narrative and I lost his voice partway through, then stumbled across him going about his life at the back of my head while listening to a couple of jazz pieces on the Ipod. Got home from my walk, turned the little jazz I had on while I wrote and he was back, big time. That led me on a search to learn about and listen to jazz, which got me through the rest of the draft and opened up a whole new, wonderful world of music for me. It worked, because Kote was a musician and music was important to him, and to his relationship to other characters in the novel.

  2. What a great comment Bev! I do think music can get into your head and touch some part of the brain that nothing else does. It can be like an accelIerent thrown on a spark. It can be like truth serum. It can be like a balm … or a bomb. I love your story about unlocking your character Kote Jones through jazz. Very cool!

    • I’ll check this out. Another great book you might like, written by Vancouver author Esi Edugyan, is “Half Blood Blues”. Jazz musicians in pre-WW2 Europe. Fantastic.

  3. I am just reading the posts from December while I was away, so this comment is after the fact. I love this post and can relate. In my own writing, I always have some music, just like I can’t resist writing about food. One book that planted a soundtrack in my mind: The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie. U2 wrote a song based on that novel. A great crazy novel by the way.

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