Music is a universal creative force, one that has inspired poets, painters, actors religious followers, writers, dancers, and filmmakers since the earliest beginnings of the human race. There is something elemental in music that cuts through our logical brains and reaches right to our feelings. From classical arias to death metal dirges, well made music has a unique ability to inspire our imaginations and stimulate our emotions.
Is it any wonder that most artists you talk to will tell you that they listen to music while they paint or write? As a writer, I’ve always found that certain songs will inspire images or characters or scenarios in my mind that are completely unconnected to whatever meaning the original artist intended when they wrote it. Maybe some of you out there do the same. Here’s a question for the writers out there: Is there a certain song that always reminds you of particular character of yours, regardless of whether it seems appropriate for that character or not? I’m betting the answer is yes for a lot of you.
Here’s an example: For some reason, the No Doubt song “Don’t Speak” brings images to my mind of the previous relationship between my heroine Caroline and her long-time lover Sebastian, now the villain of my story. If you read the book, you might see how strange a choice that song is, but you may also find that you can see why it might be appropriate. Naturally, it’s not the words of the song that bring me there: it’s the feeling of the song, its tone of longing and regret.
Music has always been a part of my creative experience. I love listening to music while doing anything, but especially while writing. Like many writers, I build specific playlists for major characters in my story. What’s interesting is when the character and the playlist diverge significantly. For example, in my most recent novel, the main character is a jazz loving New York gangster during the 1930s. Naturally, I spent several months immersing myself in the music of the period. I listened to Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Paul Whiteman, Tommy Dorsey, Chick Webb, and dozens of other musicians until I felt I had a good feel for that period and what artists my protagonist would favor. But a funny thing happened when I started writing. As appropriate as that music was to the period, a lot of it just didn’t have the kind of strong emotion that I need to inspire me. Over time, I discovered that my gangster’s “soul” sounded more like Frank Sinatra, the Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, and Kid Rock, at least as far as the feeling I needed to write him.
That was an important lesson for me, since I had always tried to pick music that I felt was “appropriate” to the character, but what I realized was that the music is a tool for me, not the character. Knowing that your character loves Barry Manilow is a necessary part of character creation, and you should probably listen to some just so you can discover what about that music your character enjoys—but it does you no good to build a Barry Manilow playlist to write to if it’s going to put you to sleep.
I don’t regret for a moment the time I spent learning about 20s and 30s jazz and swing, however, because not only did it allow me to understand an element of my character better, but it also broadened my musical horizons and introduced me to some early artists that I now genuinely enjoy. The same thing happened on my first book, which featured a cast of Native American characters as protagonists. I got to discover the wide and fascinating world of Native American music, both traditional and contemporary. There are some great artists out there like Robbie Robertson, Brul’e, and others who bring a magical spirituality to their music that transports me out of myself. Granted, not all of the music I listened to effected me in that way, some of it just wasn’t to my taste, but it broadened my perspective and gave me an insight that I needed to write those characters more effectively.
Actors often use music playlists to help them get into the emotional headspace of a character and, for me, this is one my favorite parts of music. I’ve never been musically gifted myself, which I regret, but it has always been a big part of my writing process. Naturally, rock or pop music isn’t the only choice. For those that find lyrics too distracting, there are always classical music and film scores to use. The music used in films and TV is designed to heighten your emotional reactions, so they often make ideal listening choices for when you need inspiration.
So, the next time you find yourself blocked and looking for inspiration, try listening for it instead and let your muse out to dance a little!