Friday, May 13, 2011

Idle Musings about Music in Writing

So, I'm sitting here watching Top Chef: Masters. I'm not much for most reality shows, but I adore cooking and fashion-related reality shows (so obviously they need to make a combined fashion/cooking show for me--Project Top Fashion Chef Show).

A fashion-based reality show is a pretty simple affair for television. Fashion is primarily a visual artistic medium. It translates easily and well to television.

Cooking is, in some ways, a bit of an odd choice for your typical reality show. Sure, we've had cooking shows for decades, but watching something like Top Chef: Masters (or any of its other iterations) is a different thing, entirely. They aren't explicitly didactic in nature.

Food, unlike, is primarily a multi-sensory experience. Taste and smell are arguably the most important elements, but visuals play a key role. Depending on the type of cuisine, feel, via texture may be a very important component as well. When you're watching food on television, though, all you really get is the visual. 

A cooking show relies partially on familiarity with the flavors on the part of the viewer and also on explanation to communicate the experience. While a viewer will never truly taste the food, an evocative description can do a lot of making the viewer's mouth water.

A novel (well, a non-graphic novel, at least), must rely purely on words to engage the senses. Unfortunately,  there are certain sensory experiences that can be harder to communicate. Music plays a major role in several key scenes in my YA urban fantasy WIP, Osland. While I feel I decent job of using evocative language to at least communicate the feeling of the music in question, I still find myself dissatisfied. Readers will never really hear a lot of the music (with the exception of a couple of classical pieces I reference).

Despite my limited talent in the area, I love music so much that I often find it sneaking into my writing. It plays a key role even in my inspiration process. I spend a lot of time listening to music that fits in thematically with my WIPs. When I'm writing certain scenes, I can hear the music, whether it is or not it is diegetic. 

In the end, music is such a different experience than the written word that it can never truly be translated from the one medium to another. The closest thing we have (other than the music itself) to directly communicating what music sounds like is musical notation. I doubt the average reader (or even the average musician) wants a bunch of sheet music in the middle of their novel.  One strategy sometimes employed is to use music that people are likely familiar with. All of these challenges, don't mean that one shouldn't try to include musical elements, but just that they present a particular challenge. 

Is the lack of specificity even that important? Is it just the feeling of music that is important? If a writer is describing the appearance of something or the taste of something, although they may use metaphor and what not to enhance it, often there is a tendency to specificity (albeit evocative specificity).

Any of my readers out there have any thoughts on this issue? Just idle musings after watching some reality TV. 


Lindsay said...

I'm not a reality show watcher by any means. Figure if I want reality I'll watch CNN or some news channel. That being said, I use to watch Iron Chef America. Yes, it was reality but at the same time educational. There you could see how presentation of the dishes was important, for we first eat with our eyes then our mouth.
Inserting music into a story can be trickey. In one short I wrote that is still waiting to be published, after 3 years with the publisher, I needed a song to and emotion to a scene. Add to the complication the story was set in 1969 in Vietnam. Instead of adding lines from the song I used the title to get the meaning across. This way the reader if they are interested can go find the song and listen to it.
Several times I've run across song lyrics in a story. I get distracted by the insertion. I have to stop reading the story and try to put the words into a song to understand them. This is particularly hard if I don't know the tune. Poetry on the other hand is different. It is spoken not sung so I can easily accept that.

J.A. Beard said...

Yeah, in one case I've used lyrics. I think it works (it's actually from an English-language opera), but in general, I think it's something to avoid for the reasons you mentioned.