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AW May Blog Chain: Music

May 28, 2010

I’ve signed on to do this month’s blog chain at Absolute Write. This month’s theme is music – specifically, what does your story/character(s) sound like, although it’s been taken in many different directions by those who’ve come before me in the chain (you can see the full list at the end of this post).

I drop in and out of Absolute Write’s monthly blog chain. I like the chance to read new blogs and the prompts to write, but a lot of the time, the themes don’t really apply to me. They tend, like this one, to be fiction specific, and at the moment my primary WIP is my doctoral thesis. But this one, at least looked like a possibility, because what I normally write about is music. So music to me is not just a way of fleshing out a character or inspiring the story. Music is the character, the story, the whole point of the thing. It struck me when reading this month’s theme that what I do is sort of the opposite of what the question suggests. Rather than using music to flesh out or expand on the story, I try to write the story that the music is telling. Rather than think about what characters sound like, I think about what character the sound has.

What has interested me about the chain thus far is the number of different ways in which music intersects with our work. Some create soundtracks for the work itself – something to inspire them to work. Others create soundtracks for the story, a sort of musical version of the work. Still others identify particular songs with particular characters or events.

I tend to make a clear distinction between the music I work on and the music I work to. The music I work on is usually, although not always, classical, although I also work on film music, assorted world musics, and occasionally jazz or rock. But when I’m working with a particular piece of music, I usually just listen to that piece, or maybe that piece and other pieces that I hear as connected to it in some way. However, a lot of my work is not just writing about one piece, but about some kind of musical historical context. And a lot of those kinds of details are not specifically about sound. Rather it’s all the other stuff you experience when you see experience a piece of music, say at a concert: what was the building where it was played like? Who was in the audience? How was it advertised? How much were the tickets? What was the critical reception? What did the performers wear? etc. Asking these kinds of questions help flesh out the sound itself and give me a sense of how a given piece or performance of a piece reflects the cultural values of its time and place – it creates character and context for sound. You might ask similar kinds of questions when trying to build a scene in a novel.

When I’m asking those kinds of questions, it’s not so imperative that my ears be fixed on a particular piece. So instead of listening to the music I’m working on, I often listen to music that helps me work. I am constantly making new playlists, but I have one that I keep coming back to because it strikes the right balance of energizing, calming and not too distracting. I don’t work well in total silence. I get antsy. I need something to drown out my monkey brain and help me focus on the task at hand. Over time I’ve learned that three particular things make for good working music for me. First, the music needs to be something substantially different from what I’m working on. I’m not looking for inspiration. I’m looking for its opposite. Second, I need minimal or minimized lyrics. If the lyrics are too prominent, they distract me, particularly when I’m working in a coffee shop with headphones on. The direct ear to brain delivery system of headphones make the lyrics harder for me to tune out. Third, and possibly the most important, I need a lot of repetition. A lot of the songs on my favorite lists are based on ostinati – short repeating figures in the background. I think that’s because the repetitiveness creates a sort of neutral background that doesn’t interfere with my thinking.

Here’s my list, which I’ve tagged “Under Ether” after one of the songs on it.

1. Andrew Bird: Plasticities
2. Sloan: the life of a working girl
3. Chris Holmes: rosa (until the sunlight shows)
4. Landon Pigg: Falling In Love At a Coffee Shop
5. The National: Wasp Nest
6. PJ Harvey: When Under Ether
7. Yann Tiersen: La dispute
8. Philip Aaberg: (Diva) Sentimental Walk
9. Yann Tiersen: Avant la chute
10. Iron & Wine: Fever Dream
11. Nickel Creek: Pastures New
12. Nightnoise: Bridges
13. Alex De Grassi: Causeway
14. Leo Kottke: Snorkel
15. Steve Reich: Electric Counterpoint – 1. Fast
16. Steve Reich: Electric Counterpoint – 2. Slow
17. Steve Reich: Electric Counterpoint – 3. Fast
18. Snow Patrol: Shut Your Eyes
19. Andrew Bird: Yawny At the Apocalypse

I’ve blogged about an earlier (and shorter) version of this playlist and why individual pieces were chosen for it here, if you’re interested.

One thing I haven’t seen yet in this chain is a case where someone’s work is actually based on music. I’m kind of fascinated by other people’s novels about music, although a lot of times they don’t seem to get it quite right. The best piece of fictional writing about music I’ve ever read is Kathryn Davis’ The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf. Davis tells the story of a challenging friendship between an elderly Danish composer (female) and a young single mother with a musical past. The descriptions of the composer’s music are so vivid that I feel that I know exactly what they sound like. I have to believe that Davis did too, when she wrote it. I reread this book every now and then to remind myself how effective words about music – even imaginary music – can be.

I will make no attempt at closure here. Perhaps a good ramble is the best you can hope for at the back end of the chain – there are too many thoughts inspired by all who’ve come before me. But I do have one more question in my mind, which is why are we all so compelled to create soundtracks – for our novels, for our lives, for our facebook profiles, for our blog posts? Is it because we were brought up on movies and television? Have we learned to think like that from the media we’re exposed to? Or is there something more to it, something fundamental that needs musical expression?

I’m not sure that’s a question that can be answered, but I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Now go and read the rest of the chain. Next up is Alpha Echo, but if you want to start at the beginning, here’s the whole chain:

Aheïla (our fearless blog chain leader)

Stefanie Gaither

Auburn Assassin



8th Samurai


C Scott Morris

Hayley E. Lavik

Fresh Hell (Friend of Harriet)

Lady Mage

David Zahir

Aimée Laine



SB Clark


Arctic Fox



Cowgirl poet


Irish Annie

Anarchicq (last one)

Harriet M. Welsch (that’s me)

Alpha Echo (next one)

roh (the end of the line)

13 Comments leave one →
  1. May 29, 2010 1:54 pm

    Very cool! I love your comparison of the music being the character itself, rather than complementing the character. Very interesting post from a musician/musicologist – I really enjoyed thinking about the relationship of music and story from a different perspective.

    I’ll be checking out your music list…


  2. May 29, 2010 2:25 pm

    I don’t think movies and television really have all that much to do with why people love music and create their own soundtracks for various purposes. I’ve read descriptions of how people, especially women, reacted to performances by Niccolo Paganini back in the day, so being crazy about music is not new. Most people are not writers. Frankly, most people are just not very eloquent. But they still feel emotions and passions and things that they cannot adequately express with their own words. Pointing to a song or a composition and saying “this right here, this is what is in my heart” is something everyone can do.

  3. May 29, 2010 6:26 pm

    Yeah you are the first person to write about music as the character. What’s your thesis on?

  4. May 29, 2010 7:30 pm

    Thanks for commenting, roh. It’s been interesting thinking about this from the other side. Sonya, you’re absolutely right about Paganini. And if you think his fans were crazy, you should check out what happens from Beethoven on. I’ve been reading about matinee performances in NY in the mid-late 19th c. and some of them sound like the equivalent of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. But I think the idea of a soundtrack is different. In Paganini’s day, you could only point to music that you’d heard at a concert or that you performed yourself (and then probably only if you were upper class or employed by the upper class). But I’m not talking about favorite songs or earworms. I’m talking about a personal use of music as a self-designed accompaniment for daily activities. The option of thinking about music to accompany your activities or represent constantly changing emotions or activities is something that arose after the arrival of the technology for mechanical reproduction of music. Even in the 12 years I’ve been teaching college level music, I’ve seen a dramatic change in the way my students think about music. They no longer talk about albums but about songs. The most recent students listen more broadly than ever before, but are less likely to be familiar with classical standards and less able,without guidance, to listen to long-form works like symphonies. iTunes has changed everything. And they nearly all walk around with headphones all the time. They have literal soundtrack which they talk about them like film scores for their lives. I think the soundtrack ideology started with the walkman generation, but has only intensified as the technology has gotten smaller and more nimble. And somewhere along the line, the soundtrack they are able to choose — and the fact that they are able to choose it — makes it a stand-in for their public identity.

  5. May 29, 2010 7:33 pm

    And Danielle, thanks for asking, but I don’t like to talk about it too specifically here, lest I be too readily identifiable — I try to keep the blog as separate from my academic life as possible. But I work on a variety of topics in American music, from the late 19th c. to the present day.

  6. May 30, 2010 11:21 am

    Interesting how we all approach music soooooo very differently. That isn’t a good comment, is it? But I only just woke up a few minutes ago. Sorry. But there is certainly something visceral, something primal about the way music reaches into our brains…distraction, inspiration or reinforcement, but it does penetrate, yes?

  7. May 30, 2010 5:07 pm

    “But I do have one more question in my mind, which is why are we all so compelled to create soundtracks – for our novels, for our lives, for our facebook profiles, for our blog posts? Is it because we were brought up on movies and television? ”

    A very good question. I don’t do it so I think about why I don’t … which leads me back to the “music” being a part of the story — not tied to any artist out there. 🙂

    Glad to have you “back” in this chain!

  8. June 1, 2010 9:51 am

    ostinati – I haven’t heard that since my conservatory days. Bravo!

    I agree with you about the repetitiveness. It works to keep my mind engaged in whatever scene I’m writing. For instance, I wrote a scene where two people sneak into a house. I slapped repeat on a creepy classical piece and wrote for two hours. I’m sure most would think me crazy and perhaps I am, but it works.

  9. June 1, 2010 5:00 pm

    From the get-go, I knew this post would be interesting and you delivered. Music as a character… hmmmm… I’m pretty sure there’s a story in there somewhere.
    I think you just mused me.
    Nice take on the topic!

  10. June 1, 2010 5:18 pm

    It’s good that you have found the right sound of songs to help you with your writing, and keep the task at hand. I praise you for that! 🙂

    It’s wonderful to read through this chain and see how each person ties in music with writing, makes it that more interesting.

  11. Claire Gillian permalink
    June 2, 2010 7:18 pm

    I’m glad you participated in the chain this month–great perspective of working “on” music vs. to or with music.

  12. June 5, 2010 10:43 am

    Interesting; I think that you’re the first person who writes ABOUT music as opposed to the rest of us who write TO music.

    To write about it is amazing. I can’t even imagine being able to do that. I admire you for that.

    I’m glad you participated…you brought something very different to the blog chain!


  1. roh morgon > music to write by & AW’s May Musical Blog Chain

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