FAIL! Avoid Three Common Mistakes in Writing Musician Characters

Musicians are a sensual, moody and brilliant bunch.  Often eccentric or intense types, they make great characters in fiction.  Music as a topic provides a rich sensory palette.  I get excited about musician characters.  Sometimes.

At my day job I’m a violinist–master’s degree, eighteen years experience teaching and “gigging”–so I usually notice when musician characters in a novel screw up.  You don’t have to be a musician to write about one, I just don’t think it’s easy to fake.

Image: Rafael Poveda via flickr commons:

Image: Rafael Poveda via flickr commons:

Avoid these three common mistakes:

1. FAIL: “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? I love that song!”

It’s only a “song” if voices are the medium.  A symphony is a “work,” or you could use the broader term “piece,” meaning a piece of music.  Symphony, concerto, suite, and quartet are a few among hundreds of terms indicating instrumentation and style.  Classical musicians one-up each other by displaying their superior knowledge, so if your character mentions a particular piece, find the correct term.  We want him to be a “hip” nerd.

Rockers could say “song,” and a program of songs is a “set.”  Jazz musicians would say “chart” if they’re sober (inebriated versions can be colorful).  “Ballad” is a slow piece in rock, jazz, or folk music.  Musicians in these fields are likely to use culture-centric lingo; I would watch video interviews of musicians whose profile fits my character to pick up on the latest buzz words.

Better: (Hero:) “Yo-Yo Ma is playing the Dvorak at Carnegie Hall tonight. I have tickets.”

(Heroine:) “My favorite concerto! You’re such a cultured man, I simply must kiss you now.”

2. FAIL: “Nate [the world-famous cellist] dialed up Pachelbel’s Canon on his iPod and relaxed on the sofa.”

Musicians are typically not impressed with mainstream music.  Ask a guitarist to play “Stairway to Heaven,” and he’ll roll his eyes.  Nate the cellist probably gets a nervous tic at the mere mention of Canon in D.  (It’s a repetitive, boring cello part, and Nate has played it at every wedding gig the past fifteen years.)

Not that there’s anything wrong with Pachelbel’s Canon, the first three hundred times you hear it… Avoid these worn-out, clichéd pieces if your character is a musician:

Canon in D by Pachelbel

Moonlight Sonata, Symphony No. 5, and Für Elise by Beethoven

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Mozart

Jesu, Joy Man’s Desiring by Bach

“Spring” from Four Seasons by Vivaldi

“O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana by Orff

Blue Danube Waltz by Strauss

The Entertainer by Joplin

You’re probably thinking, “Hey! I love Für Elise. You jerk.”  I hear you, but understand that a musician has overexposure to these pieces and isn’t likely to choose them for recreational listening.  Browse track listings in “best of” or “favorites” albums, and steer clear of that music.  If you recognize the piece from “Looney Tunes,” that’s not a good sign either.

Don’t believe me?  Check out Rob Paravonian’s humorous but too-true rant about Pachelbel’s Canon.

Better: “Martha hummed the melody to Elgar’s Sospiri as she packed her cello in its case.”

3. FAIL: “His hands moved with all the finesse of one of Mr. Bach’s symphonies.”

I actually read something like this in a novel by a well-known author–I won’t say who.  I almost swallowed the straw in my drink, amazed the author had managed to include an anachronism and error in form of address on top of the purple language in one sentence.

First, we don’t call composers by “Mr.” They’re like Cher or Madonna, we just say “Mozart,” and everyone gets it. (If it’s a more obscure composer, use first and last names.)

By the way, rethink using “maestro.”  It’s a formal and somewhat antiquated term. Musicians often use it in sarcasm.  I’m not likely to greet the conductor as “maestro” when I pass him in the Green Room.  I’ll probably say “Hi, Dave,” or “Hello there, Dr. Genius.”

And for the anachronism: J. S. Bach (1685-1750) is a Baroque-era composer, so he predates the advent of the symphony.  Make sure your historical character doesn’t refer to music that hasn’t been written yet.  Also remember that composers we revere today weren’t necessarily popular in their day–the truly great ones tended to die as ulcer-ridden, penniless failures.

Try Wikipedia for free information about a work’s debut and the reaction society had to it.  Grove Music Online from Oxford University Press is considered the premier authoritative source, but a subscription is expensive, so check your library first.

Can we revise FAIL Number 3?  Hmm.  If you want to compare your hero’s wooing skills to a great composer, go for it.  Just Google it first.

Music is an esoteric field.  I’ve worked in it all my life and still manage to make a fool of myself.  I check and cross-check everything, hoping I get it right, because accuracy matters.  Readers are sharp–someone will know.

Have you ever written about musicians as characters?  What kind of research did you do?

Have a question I can answer to help with your research?


  1. Helpful and fun, thanks!

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    keep up writing.

  3. Hello Dear, are you really visiting this site regularly, if so
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  1. […] FAIL! Avoid Three Common Mistakes in Writing Musician Characters, I complained about “war horse” pieces that are overrated overused, such as […]

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