Anatomy of A Novel: Part 8: Musical Soundtracks

While this may seem like an odd topic in a series about writing a novel, I feel very strongly about the music I listen to while writing. I’m not musical myself, and can’t play any instrument, but I do love to listen. Especially when I’m writing.

When writing, it’s important that I listen to music without vocals, so that other people’s lyrics don’t interfere with the words in my own head. The human voice is a beautiful instrument in itself, and it seems a pity to exclude it from the stuff I listen to, so I’ll always include vocal music if the lyrics are in a language I don’t understand. Fortunately, I’m no good at languages other than English, so there is a wide range of music available to me.

I’ve always enjoyed listening to classical music, so naturally this is the best for my writing. I have a few favourite CDs (who am I kidding – I have loads of favourites!) and piano music is my first choice every time. I grew up listening to piano music because both my father and my sister played, and my mother could sometimes be cajoled into playing as well. She was a far better player than she thought she was.

My father’s baby grand sat in the lounge in the centre of our house, so when someone played, it was audible everywhere. With the bay windows open, you could hear it across the garden too. My father’s music of choice was mainly jazz, and many of his favourites have become my favourites now. My sister’s playing was more classical – Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt – because she studied music and her playing was noticeably finer and easy to listen to.

While much of my CD collection today consists of classical piano, a close second is classical guitar. Back in my high school years, television started in South Africa and for the first time I was exposed to the beauty of this gorgeous instrument. I saw programmes on Julian Bream and, closer to home, Tessa Ziegler and Dave Hewitt. I bought a classical guitar and tried to learn to play like them, but oh, how hard it was! Much better to listen and appreciate those who truly could play.

Around that time, my father used to make movies, and he had many movie soundtracks in his record collection. I remember buying the double LP of the music from Star Wars, and being quite surprised that it was so heavily classical. That now famous score by John Williams was even more epic than the movie, and I realised for the first time just how perfectly a full orchestral soundtrack can add to the feel of a film. Much later, I saw how I too could add to the book in my head by underscoring it with richer, more classical music.

Long before I started writing, back in the days when I lived in Johannesburg, I had three radios in my flat, all tuned to Classic FM. As I walked from one room to another, the music followed me so I never missed a note. When I enjoyed a piece I had never heard before, I listened to the announcer afterwards, wrote down the names of the composer and the music, and looked for it on CD the next time I was in Musica or Look & Listen. Thus I built up my collection.

Once I left Johannesburg, I couldn’t hear that radio station any more (long before the days of live-streaming, of course!) so my CD collection was my comfort in a city where the local radio stations didn’t play music I enjoyed. My home was small so one device playing a CD in the main room could be heard all over the cottage.

Listening to classical music has always relaxed me, reminding me of those lazy Sunday afternoons as a child, piano music forever in the background. When I began to write, I found that music formed a natural, harmonious background. My first attempt at writing was a novel based on my family’s history, so maybe the musical connection to the family piano was relevant on that level too.

As time went on and I wrote other novels, I tried to find music appropriate to the themes of each book. I discovered the Putumayo series when writing my novel set in Greece. Hours and hours were spent listening to Putumayo’s Greece: A Musical Odyssey. I had no idea what they were singing about, but I loved hearing it, and it helped my own words to flow.

Similarly, when I wrote my novel set in Italy, I had plenty to choose from, including loads of opera, plus the wonderful vocal instruments of Andrea Bocelli and Amaury Vassili.

My most recent novel is set in two different times and places. The contemporary thread is set in modern-day Australia, where both the main characters play the piano in a small jazz bar.

Piano music again – gosh, imagine that!

The historical thread was a little more complicated. This is set in 1960s South Africa, mostly up in the mountains of the Drakensberg. Originally this section was set in Peru, and while I had some beautiful music from South America, I found it impossible to write convincingly about a place I hadn’t been to, so I moved the location to Africa.

There is no shortage of African music in my collection, but the two characters in that part of the novel have a poignant story that is dogged by separation and loss, so the music in my head had to match. The sad classical music I chose was Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. This is a long-time favourite and I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I own no less than seven different copies of that haunting second movement.

My current WIP is set in post-war Britain in 1955, so once again I get to hear my father’s big band jazz favourites from that era. However, there is an older storyline as well, and I’m still searching through my collection to find something that best suits the words in my head.

Writers and readers out there, do you enjoy listening to music as you write or read? If so, what puts you in the right mood?

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10 thoughts on “Anatomy of A Novel: Part 8: Musical Soundtracks

  1. What an interesting post and peek into your life, Susan! I confess when I hear that writers put together playlist to write by I’m a little befuddled. I don’t gravitate to that — except ONE soundtrack. “Conan the Barbarian!” Don’t ask me why, but I can write with that going anytime. We have an Echo (with Alexa from Amazon) now, and I’ve been experimenting with soft jazz (no vocals). I might could come to like that to write by. 😀

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    • I’m not familiar with the Conan music, although I remember the film. I will have to seek it out. I do love smooth jazz, though, and find it very soothing.

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  2. I usually write to silence but like you, LOVE music, and agree that vocals in languages you don’t speak can spark your imagination richly. My favorite in that category is “Mio Babbino Caro” (Puccini).

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