If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music. ~Gustav Mahler
Ah Mahler, he of the 90 minute symphonies, you certainly had a lot to say.
Herr Mahler’s bon mot really got me thinking about writing, and whether the opposite of his statement is true. Okay, not the opposite, say, the oblique - whether the oblique of his statement is true. Let me ‘splain.
I’ve worked in theater; I’ve studied film; I watch a lot of narrative TV. All of these mediums utilize music to enhance the other aspects of their scenes: the visual, the emotional, the passing of time, the suspense.
When a song, or a soundtrack, is perfectly melded with a scene in a movie or TV show, it often induces chills. There’s a moment in Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, where Gandalf is stuck at the top of Saruman’s tower, and he whispers to a moth and then lets it go. The music starts as soft singing - lovely, ethereal voices in synch with the fluttering of the moth’s wings, and then it morphs into guttural chanting and tense drum rhythms as the moth flies over Saruman’s factory of war.
Directors such as Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarentino use pop songs to great effect in their films: Think of Nico’s These Days playing as Margot Tenenbaum gets off the bus in The Royal Tenenbaums. Or the gang from Reservoir Dogs walking in slow motion to Little Green Bag. I love these moments in film, because film is about the blending of mediums, and when done well – well, chills.
Books don’t use music, can’t use music, at least not in the sense that the reader can literally hear it. Of course one could argue that books don’t use music in the same way that books don’t use elaborate sets or talented actors. Everything in a book is filtered through the reader’s imagination, and music is no different than any other element: sights, sounds, smells, tactile experiences.
Then why is it so difficult to convey?
Well, conventionally anyway, the music that appears in a book is going to be organic to the scene, and not permeating the action from the heavens, as happens in TV or film.
I say conventionally, because I can think of a couple of exceptions, and I’m sure there are more: Chynna Clugston, in her comic Blue Monday, does a fun thing, where at the beginning of a new chapter or scene, she tells us the name of a song that is meant to be playing in the background while the scene is taking place. The reader, if they wanted to, could actually listen to the soundtrack as they read.
Our very own Jon Hansen, in his terrific zombie novel, Gunslingers of the Apocalypse, does something much less literal, which is to put a quote from a song at the beginning of each section of his book. Not an uncommon practice, and a good one: it puts the reader in mind of a song with a particular tone (in Gunslinger’s case, hard rock or heavy metal) before they start reading. This works very well – if they know the song.
Which brings me back to the difficulty of conveying music in a book. There’s a lot of jazz music in my novel, Ursula Evermore. Since the book takes place in 1928 (well, most of it – it’s a time travel story after all), all of the music is from that year or earlier, and unless you’re a big early jazz fan, you most likely won’t know the songs that are mentioned. Huge obstacle. If I were to insert the Rolling Stone’s You Can’t Always Get What You Want, or Bing Crosby’s White Christmas into my story (although both would be anachronistic), most people would be able to hear the music in their heads, no problem. But, instead I have Louis Armstrong’s West End Blues playing a major role in a romantic scene, and how many of you can hum that?
Ultimately, I’m left describing it the way I’m left describing anything else in a book – from scratch. I describe Louis’s voice and the tone of his trumpet, two aural pleasures with which most people are familiar. I describe the tempo, the build of the song, the surprisingly soft way in which it ends. But mostly, I describe how the music makes my main character feel, and how it alters the mood of the people in the room, alters the emotional landscape of the scene.
At least I hope that’s what I achieve.And now, for you trivia buffs out there… a quiz on music in TV and film.