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Music as a creative force in writing


Katie Basil Screenprint

I come from a family in which music is very important. Last week I wrote about the healing power of music as written about and illustrated in Quentin Blake’s gorgeous children’s book Patrick. As I was growing up, everyone in my extended family played at least one or two instruments, lauded over by my musician grandmother who was a violinist, pianist, organist and singer amongst some of her musical accomplishments. As for me, over the years I have played recorder (ha! haven’t we all?), cello, piano, ukelele and guitar. Next on my list is the oboe which I am just longing to learn, and learn I shall once I have the time (or, rather, when I prioritise it, I should say.) A good way I can check in with myself and my emotional state of mind is to observe how much I sing or hum to myself – it’s like an internal happiness barometer – when things are out of sync, I find I stop singing.

ME Ologeanu mixed media collage

But what does all this have to do with writing? Well, a surprising amount. I’ve always been interested in the connection between what we write and what we hear; in other words, if music can influence to write from a different place, more expressively and expansively. Many years ago, whilst teaching an advanced English language class to a bunch of TEFL students, I veered away from the syllabus (ever in search of creative outlets for myself) and brought in my ipod and speakers, playing some music for them to write to. They produced some of their best written work I’d seen from them. And then, more recently, with a creative writing session for a couple of teenage boys, I was inspired by this article on ‘Using ‘music writing’ to trigger creativity, awareness and motivation’. The boys were not impressed when I started to play the slightly spacey music suggested by the writer of the article and spent ten minutes moaning and chewing the end of their pencils. I could see we weren’t getting far, so switched it to some jazz. The effect was instantaneous: both their heads dropped to the page and they began to furiously scribble.

john lee

John Lee Hooker

As for novel writing, some people need complete silence to write in. Others welcome familiar, comfortingsounds: ticking clocks, the swirling hisses of coffee machines, the hum of background chatter. I need music personally, but not just any old music. What I do is create on spotify a playlist for the novel I’m working on (how did I exist before spotify?), music that just ‘works’ with the plot. What I find as a result of this is that when I come to sit down at the laptop for my next writing session, the minute I put this same music on, I can drop far more quickly back into my writing zone, connecting with the characters and landscapes. There’s really no formula to this but for me, it’s nothing short of magic.

What happens is that the music conjures an image, or a series of images in my head and then I write them down. The characters don’t tell me what they are saying, but they start moving and their movement can lead to actions or to words. I don’t really know how else I can explain this, but I’m telling you, music works…at least, it does for me, in a more powerful way than anything else.

To give you a small taste of my playlists, for The Poet’s Wife a song I often listened to was El Quinto Regimiento (The Fifth Regiment) by Lila Downs. If you understand Spanish, the lyrics of the song tell an interesting story about the start of the Spanish Civil War. Even if you don’t, this video is worth a watch as the song is set against some interesting old photographs of the war.

As for my current novel, I have a playlist with a number of pieces of instrumental music on it (no singing), but there are two in particular I have got stuck on and sometimes (this may sound nuts) I spend an entire morning writing with a single piece of music on repeat, playing over and over and over again. I never get bored of it. In fact, it helps me to write in a way that nothing else can. Here is one of the pieces, the sublime ‘On the nature of daylight’ by Max Richter, set to a visual feast of the natural world’s splendour:

Novel number three? (Yes, this is also very much in progress) – expect blank spaces between the words to dance to the sounds of skiffle and Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and Jefferson Airplane. The soundtracks to all three novels couldn’t possibly more different because, of course, they inhabit different times and spaces and take on their own unique existences by the characters that walk through their pages.

I’ll leave you with the words of Plato. And I’d like to add my own postscript to what he writes, and say that it does all the below and more: music helps to breathe life, dimension and dreams into my characters and make them every bit as real as you reading this and me writing it.

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