Say it With Song: Writing Music & Emotion

author photo violin

Photo courtesy of Pavement Ends Photography

Hi, my name is Moriah Densley, and I can’t write a story without music. Specifically, musician characters. I like to think the crucial moments of a story work better through the filter of music. It’s more comfortable than facing the possibility that my characters [me] hide behind the music.

I’m still getting used to the intimate, candid, vein-opening experience of writing. I’ve been using music to say what I mean for twenty years, so I suppose it makes sense that I also use it to express the more emotional themes in my books.

For example, Wilhelm Montegue from SONG FOR SOPHIA is a gentleman who would never take advantage of a damsel in distress, so instead of saying he cares for Sophia Duncombe, he plays it:

He cursed under his breath and extricated himself from the sofa with irate movements. Sophia closed her eyes, her thoughts in a tangle. The piano bench creaked and Wilhelm’s glorious Schumann followed.

A melancholy serenade, which he tinkered with. A chord change here, a variation on the melody there. Four phrases later nothing of Schumann remained as Wilhelm spun his own musical creation, something darker. Complex.

He’d fallen into a trance, staring past the piano, his gaze far away while heartbreaking music flowed from his fingers. She should leave; when he composed it felt very private and she didn’t want to intrude. In a way she couldn’t bear hearing it.

Wilhelm created the musical embodiment of desire, and it struck her as utterly effective. She was moments away from an illogical outburst of tears when he finished. The bench creaked again, and the silence meant he waited for her to acknowledge him.

“Tell me you feel it, too.”

“Always, Wilhelm.”

 

This friendly neighborhood music teacher could tell you all about mixing music and frustration. Really, I’m convinced beginning violin teachers earn their place on an especially quiet, fluffy cloud in heaven. (No harps.) On a good day, music is a cathartic outlet for venting emotions you can’t act out on. Violinist heroine Lyssa Logan in MIND TAMER has just lost everything, yet she has to go on stage and do her job:

Lyssa tried not to break her violin during the stormy Brahms sonata. She kept a lid on her emotions despite the eruption threatening to blow, until the last movement of the Messiaen, The End of Time.

Its reflective, luxurious passages on diaphanous seventh-octave notes rejoiced, soaring upward, and never came down. The joy in those unfettered tones angered her, and Lyssa was powerless to control the silent tears marching down her cheeks.

No excuse for her ugly treatment of the music: She exaggerated the dissonant tones, and instead of making them a musical hum of satisfaction in the phrase, she made them disconcerting points of irony. Her tone was too intense, too complex to give the audience the rest she knew their ears were seeking.

 

Perhaps the most powerful function of music is how it focuses and heightens emotion, especially when reliving a memory. Hearing the right music can take you back, summoning visuals, smells, and feelings you thought you’d forgotten. Sometimes Cassiopeia Noyon from THE VALKYRIE’S GUARDIAN forgets why she puts up with stubborn, overprotective Jack MacGunn, but all it takes is hearing his music, and she recalls her earliest memory of him:

A sound wafted from another room. Music — strange tones, rising and falling in patterns foreign to her ears.

Cassie followed the silvery vibrations as though beckoned. The source proved to be a woodsy, reedy voice that filled the air with tangible resonance. How could an instrument make a sound like a human voice, a mythical place, and a painful memory all at once?

Jack wore torn and dirty camo fatigue pants, and she still recalled the pungent smoke smell from the burned spots in the fabric and his singed hair.

The largest arms she’d ever seen cradled a bizarre instrument. She watched his right elbow lift and press against his side in a ponderous rhythm, and she recognized the apparatus as a sort of bellows. Long filigreed tubes lay across his lap.

His fingers slid and shook over a sort of flute held diagonally across his chest. She watched, mesmerized as the contraption produced delicious music. The same hands which had wrought violence in combat also worked with gentle skill over the delicate instrument.

She blinked, confused by the tears swimming in her eyes. The mournful ghostly music filling the room called to her. She felt utterly safe. Cassie remembered it clearly, because it had irrevocably changed her.

 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the power of persuasion in music. All our favorite rockstars would seem like washed-up losers without their artistic appeal. Something about playing music automatically makes you 50% sexier. It works for science-geek Kyros Vassalos, who’s intimidated by his world-class violinist girlfriend, Lyssa Logan in MIND TAMER:

“I like all kinds of music. And this isn’t an audition, okay? Just play something you like,” Lyssa said, gesturing to the dusty piano in the corner.

Finally she heard a flourishing arpeggio that melded into an old-school blues improvisation, then the dark, sultry opening notes of a jazz melody she knew well, Harlem Nocturne.

Lyssa grinned as she listened. She didn’t mind his technique, which was passable, but his style was dead on.

She imagined watching him in black and white from across a smoky, brick-walled club on 18th and Vine. His music was… all soul. It made her heart tick in rhythm with the syncopation, made her want to roll her shoulders and lean her head back.

He let the final haunting chord wash away, and when he turned around, he seemed surprised to find her lying across the top of his desk with her arms draped over her head. One knee propped up and the other crossed over it at, she’d made herself comfortable, listening with her eyes half-closed.

She was probably smiling like a lazy fool. His sublime, laid-back jazz left her feeling loose-jointed and mildly drunk, and a little sexy. What had gotten into her?

“Kyros. You’re an artist and a hypnotist.”

He rolled his eyes and shrugged. His hands went in his pockets again, making him seem flattered and a little sheepish.

“Not bad for a white boy,” she joked, and he finally smiled.

 

Thanks for hanging around to discuss mixing music and fiction. No, I’m not going to post a funny cat picture now, but I’d love to hear about your favorite memory tied to music. I know you have one!

Comments

  1. Ah, so THAT’S your secret. ^__^ Lovely.

    I do wish I had a knack for music. It does run in my family, but when it came down to the assembling of my particular genetic bent, it mostly ran -away- from me. >.> I like to think I can at least carry a tune, but there may or may not be a bucket involved. >.<

    • Hi, Angela! Thanks so much for taking the time to stop by! Well, I’m guessing you’re being humble about the question of the bucket and your singing talent, but we do know genetics certainly landed in your favor in the looks department. I pretty much have a crush on you, and I’m probably one of hundreds. Thousands, no doubt!

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