Describing a song nobody can hear is one of the oddest challenges a writer can face. Usually when a writer is tasked with describing something they can tackle our basic senses. They can describe how wet leaves smell, how a burger tasted, how a blast of snow felt on your face, or the bang of a gun. So where’s the difficulty when it comes to music? Isn’t it just a matter of appealing to a reader’s senses? Not exactly.
The previous examples reveal an interesting point about descriptions in general. They all deal with direct reference to our senses. With the wet leaves example, it triggers our memories of what wet leaves smell like. An author can basically instill the memory of wet leaves and so as you’re reading you get some indication of the smell. It really boils down to a matter of triggering a memory.
But what about if the reader hasn’t experienced the thing the author is talking about?
Take a sword fight for instance. Two characters are in a furious battle and at one point one of the character slashes the other across the chest. Chances are the reader has never been slashed by a sword themselves so the author can’t really rely on a reader’s memories of being slashed by a sword. Instead he relies on comparisons, associations that don’t necessarily rely on direct links, but rather what being cut by a sword is similar to. We’ve all been cut, and we’ve all felt the sting that accompanies it, writers can draw on that experience even if the reader has never been sliced by a sword specifically.
With these two things, memory triggers and association, writers have quite an arsenal at their disposal when it comes to describing things. We can describe incredibly complex and even intangible things in this manner and it’s really impressive at times. Through the power of words we can have a reader feel, smell, taste, and touch things that may not even exist at all.
Still though, this doesn’t seem to cover writing music scenes. There’s something missing there from our formula. So what’s the problem?
The trouble with writing about music is that it can’t rely on memory or association. Unless the writing mentions a specific song or an artist, chances are we can’t really rely on a reader’s memory to know what the music is supposed to sound like. After all if the song is from the author’s own imagination it’s hard to draw on the reader’s memory since, unless you’re a skilled telepath, you’re the only person who knows what the song is supposed to sound like.
What about association though? Surely we can say it sounds like something right? Can’t we just say that it sounds like a cross between the Beatles’ “Let it Be” and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”? Sure… If a comparison like that would make sense in your story. After all it’d be weird for a writer to describe the music at a king’s court to sound like a “ Bob Dylan tune with a touch of Judas Priest.” Because making analogies to things that don’t exist in the setting of the story is just… strange. Hilarious sure, but really awkward.
Okay, if not for direct comparison maybe we can rely on more basic sound description? We can describe what a heavy metal song sounds like; screeching and grinding guitars, growling vocals, beating thunderous drums etc. etc. But the trick here is that no matter how well I describe the song we’re all going to have drastically different interpretations of what that sounds like.
But isn’t that just a matter of human perspective in general? You know that whole, “there’s no way of communicating what red is and there’s no way of knowing if the red we see is the same as what others see” deal? Its interesting for sure but somehow civilization hasn’t collapsed into a frenzied madness whenever we say, “that’s a red balloon”
With colors especially even if our perceptions of the color differ slightly there’s enough overlap in our perspectives that we’ve come to an agreement that the balloon is red. Basically, there’s enough agreement on what “red” is that we’re willing to accept that red is what red is. Music on the other hand is a bit more complex.
The thing with sound association is that there’s so much room to move around in. Sound descriptions when it comes to music can invoke radically different interpretations between readers much more than just than just a red balloon. Sure we all have some agreed upon notion of what “bang” “pop” “fizzle” “crack” and “splat” sound like, but music can’t be accurately described just by sprouting off onomatopoeia. With that in mind it’s easy to see that writing music scenes is more than just getting the description of the sound right.
Music scenes have to make the reader imagine a song they’ve never heard before. Go ahead and try to describe a song that doesn’t exist to a friend without making a comparison, singing, dancing, playing an instrument or doing anything else except talking about it. Chances are they’ll stare at you confused and bewildered as they slowly inch their way towards the door.
So what’s a writer to do? After all music is important, otherwise it wouldn’t be included in the first place. The important thing here is to realize that the point of music is to set a mood, to invoke a feeling. In the end it doesn’t really matter if six different readers imagine the song different ways. What matters is that they set a similar mood, aid in establishing a scene and invoke a similar feeling.
At times its best to let your reader decide how to feel about a particular piece, since leaving it up to your reader can give your scene flexibility. Other times its best to directly state how it should make them feel by describing a character’s reaction to it. Maybe they dance wildly, maybe they gasp in awe, or maybe they hold their hands over their ears and pray for the end of their torture.
Sometimes music can be used as a cruel tool of misdirection. Maybe there’s a light, classical even whimsical melody being played at a dinner party while the murdered slips behind the duchess and slits her throat. In this case, the music can make the murder feel that much more uncomfortable. Because a vicious act is now associated with a rather light feeling. Uncomfortable yet?
Music is often seen as the tool of television, video and er… music. Rarely is it seen as a weapon for print mediums. No other medium can establish subtext, invoke a feeling or portray thought as effectively as the written word can. That doesn’t stop with writing a scene with music. Music isn’t a weakness for writers, its just another tool in their arsenal.
So what do you think? What makes a scene with music effective? Who does it well? How can we do it better? Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section below.