The inimitable Ms Lindsay Ribar has demanded “a blog post on music and how it makes writers write better. Because it is true facts”. Far be it from me to deny the lass who plucked me from slush hell. I march like a robot zombie to obey her commands. Robot zombies are twice as cool, ok?
A note before we begin: Music is one of my top 5 reasons for living. I don’t go a day without listening to the bands I love. I sort my CDs alphabetically and chronologically on my shelves (ie, oldest album left, newest album on the right – yes, I know, I know…), and take more pride in them than my books. I’m a married man on the rough side of 30, and I still sleep out for concert tickets and call in sick to work so I can get good spots in line the day of the gig. If you don’t listen to music, I do not understand you. You are “an other”. If you like the same kind of music I do, chances are I can ignore pretty much ignore all of your other personality defects, including the fact that you cooked and ate your own mum (if you like the same kind of music I do, chances are good that you actually did this).
But how does listening to tunes make you a better writer (because I firmly believe it does) ?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot for the last week, and I’ve come up with the following thoughts, for whatever they’re worth:
Brevity = Power: Novelists are lucky in some respects. We get 90, 000+ words to weave our stories and show off our chops. Lyricists have to bring arenas to their feet with maybe 100 – 150 words, total. Song lyrics show us the power of brevity; how a single phrase, or even a single word in the right context and place can say more than an entire novel ever could. How a notion as complex as love, or hatred or lust can be summarised with a handful of syllables. Unless you’re the kind to write 2,500 word sentences about a cup of chamomile tea, I’ve been told quicker and simpler is usually better when it comes to writing.
Consider, if you will:
“I do formally and wholeheartedly refuse to comply with your command, good sir, and would furthermore like to give insult of the most profound sort, which I, being a gentleman, am naturally loathe to utter aloud.”
“Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.”
Rhythm and structure: To riff off the mighty Bruce “Boards don’t hit back” Lee, good writing is like water. It can flow, or creep, or drip, or crash. Understanding concepts like rhythm – not only in a musical, but also a lyrical sense – helps you build mood simply through the pacing and structures of your words, let alone the actual words themselves.
This notion of “flow” might not be something you don’t consciously think about (I certainly don’t). But I know how sentences and paragraphs feel when I read them, what kind of structures illicit certain responses. How short. And sharp. Means threat. How a really long sentence with no punctuation can help to evoke a sense of pace or need because you don’t give your reader time to think or reflect or even breathe because our minds read words the way we’d speak them aloud. How inserting a comma (pause) can change the tone of a sentence. How repetition can re-enforce a point, how repetition can re-enforce a point and how repetition can re-enforce a point. Oh, snap.
Emotional content: Riffing on Bruce Lee hard today, it seems. Good lyrics are essentially poetry. Good lyrics can be steeped in metaphor and simile, or can be straight up reportage, but they can speak volumes about concepts like “love” or “loss’ without ever actually using those words at all. (I’m talking about good lyrics here, not Beibershite). Understanding how good lyrics do this is a good step towards being able to do it yourself.
The most profound imagery I’ve read is in song lyrics. To put it another way, how many lines from books can you quote that make the hairs on your arms stand on end? Now how many lyrics can you quote that do the same? And yes, this is partially due to the fact that you listen to your favourite songs all the time, and read your favourite book maybe twice/three times in your life. But there goes that “power of repetition” thing I was talking about in point 2.
Rules?: The best music is always the music that takes an existing paradigm and kicks it in the teeth. If the constant evolution of music (and again, I’m not talking about pop here) teaches us one thing, it’s that there are very few rules worth complying with. That the people who do something truly beyond the norm, with a little bit of luck and talent, are the people who do something truly special. Good musicians make you look at the world differently, whether it’s a different way of playing (drop-A tuning, or 22/7 timing, or whatever) or just a different take on the notion of the construct itself. Time was when everyone thought a rock band was a singer, drummer, guitarist and bass player. And then you get bands like the Dresden Dolls or the Decemberists who just flip that notion the bird.
Take a notion like “the good guys always win” or “the hero always gets the girl/guy/tentacle beast” or “my protagonist must, under no circumstances, be a fucking twat that my readers will want to stab” and flip it off. You’ll wind up with something a damn sight more interesting than you probably would have. Sure, it might not be good, but it’ll be something different at least. “Good” is where talent and hard work and a whole lot of luck come in. But “different” is a damn good start.
Broader horizons: Good music can challenge your world view, make you think about stuff outside your microcosm. Whether it’s an alternate take on drugs, sexuality, or relationships, or shooting you a strange word like “intifada” or “Zapatista” (which you then wiki and holy shit, you learned something), good music, like a good film or book, challenges you. And afterwards, the world always looks a little bit different than the moment before you heard it.
Thinking different. Learning stuff. I hear they’re good for you as a person, whether you’re a writer or not.
The subliminal: There’s something visceral here. It’s a truth that’s hard to define. It lives somewhere in that place between the PA system and the crowd, in that split second between the end of the intro music and the first chord. It’s primal, and it’s unspoken and it’s something that lives inside everyone, even if some people refuse to listen to it.
Music transcends the limitations of language, overcomes the artificial barriers that humans have constructed to keep ourselves apart from one another. There’s something in the language of the music we love that lets us know we’re alive, conscious of the breath in our lungs and the blood in our veins. An understanding.
Writers are communicators. We tell stories, we send messages to our readers for them to absorb and understand and take away what they will. Consider that, and then consider the first messages ever sent from one human being to another was probably on the drums.
Then turn that shit up loud.
“And everything owes its existence,
Solely and completely to sound.
Sound is a factor which holds us together.
Sound is the basis of form and shape.
Put that into the modern idiom, and say;
Into the great voids of space came a sound,
and matter took shape.”