That prams and art are not mutually exclusive.

How to use music in storytelling

By Gillian Harrison

Strange as it seems, one of my favorite things about returning to work has been the drive. Once upon a time, sitting on the freeway used to get me frustrated and impatient but now I see the drive as twenty-five beautiful minutes to listen to the radio, to sing and to hear new songs from new-to-me bands. And sometimes, old songs from old bands.

Last week Triple J kicked off the Hottest 100 of the last 20 years, and suddenly my morning car ride became a journey in more ways than one. Like a flashback sequence in a movie, over and over, I re-lived times I thought I had forgotten. Green Day whisked me off to a friend’s party, held the minute her parents drove away on a two-week holiday. Mazzy Star’s Fade into You left me crying on my bedroom floor after a bout of unrequited teenage love. The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army transported me to a bus chugging through the South Korean countryside and Alex Lloyd’s Amazing gave me goosebumps, taking me back to a  rainy day funeral.

Enter Spiderbait’s Sunshine on my window and it’s 1996 again and I’m driving down the Mitchell Freeway, in my 1972 canary yellow Datsun, smoking a cigarette and running late for a lecture. How strange that after all this time my brain has retained these frozen moments, these stored snippets?

Or is it?

Silver Linings Playbook novel and film

In David Russell’s film adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel Silver Linings Playbook (SLP), Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a mentally ill ex teacher. For Pat, Stevie Wonder’s My Cherie Amour, the song played at his wedding – and, cruelly,  the song playing when Pat discovers his wife in the shower with another man – has become his musical monster. When heard, the song triggers a disoriented rage and takes him over. And although I’ve never experienced such an extreme sensory memory, I could certainly relate.

Taking Hollywood exaggeration into account, some songs, like My Cherie Amour do take the moment for ransom, an idea great filmmakers (Scorsese and Tarantino, for example) use regularly. In SLP , Pat’s trigger song isn’t just about the soundtrack, it holds the plot up, it tells a story.

“Music is at the emotional heart of film-making”, says SLP Director, David Russell, who in the same interview goes on to speak of music’s power to steer the narrative.

Using music in another narrative (writing) doesn’t work in the same way as in film making but it can trigger emotions and memories. Because of this, exploring a song can add colour and detail to a character or storyline.  I’m not talking about simply listening to music while you write, but instead using music as a way to tap into the past, using forgotten moments as a writerly resource, or a subconscious ‘ideas’ file.

Because music, like a metaphorical magic carpet, can carry us away, to light and dark places, and do it with great efficiency. For writers this is gold.

And blogging even, when used as a tool  to convey personal stories is all the more powerful when combined with music. Deb, blogger and writer at Bright and Precious uses songs beautifully (and oh-so-powerfully) to steer the narrative. Many of my favorite ‘Deb’ posts have music and lyrics woven into the story.

Like Pat discovers in SLP, the trick is to not make the music a monster. But then again, if the monster insists on being, then use it. Focus on it because it’s a doorway not only to creative potential but to listening to your own narrative.

“Sentimental music has this great way of taking you back somewhere at the same time that it takes you forward, so you feel nostalgic and hopeful all at the same time.” Nick Hornby, High Fidelity.

Do you have a musical monster? Does music help you in your writing?

10 Responses to “How to use music in storytelling”

  1. rhythm & method

    Gill I haven’t seen this yet (we missed it at the cinema), but even reading about this music, you’ve delivered me to that time at the end of the ’90s. I’m in a flesh-toned Datsun with my girlfriend Jane on the east coast while you were on the west coast, but it’s remarkable how evocative the mere mention of music is in creating a sense of time and place.
    Music helps me to concentrate. Somehow having to pay attention from beat to beat keeps me more focused than if it’s quiet. Great post. x

    Reply
    • Gill

      I watched SLP on the plane….I really enjoyed it, although I am a sucker for Bradley Cooper, any guy who plays a writer in more than two movies is going to capture my attention!

      Music is certainly meditative. I’ve been running at night and certain songs help me last longer. Embarrassing to admit it but I swear “Sweet Child Of Mine” makes my legs move faster…

      Reply
  2. debbrightandprecious

    Gill, I love this observation you’ve made with music/film/art/writing. The power of song is so synced to the power of the heart. And I’m so interested in harnessing that power into creativity. Thank you for linking to my blog – I’m honoured that you identified my love for linking music and words. PS I’m a huge fan of Hi-Fidelity and Silver Linings Playbook.

    Reply
    • Gill

      Deb – I immediately thought of you when I started writing a post on music and storytelling. You do it so well. Music is definitely a power worth harnessing.

      Reply
  3. Cam @ notunimportant

    I really love this post. A whole lot of furious agreement. I prefer cycling places because it combines music and alone exercise. Music is a gorgeous time-machine. My preschooler opposed listening to my music for a depressingly long-period. Now he just skips specific songs.

    Reply
    • Gill

      Thanks for the furious agreement, Cam. My pre-schooler is currently loving my 90s music. Although this has its downside – unfortunately he is loving hitting repeat” too. I never thought I’d get sick of The Pixies but even when a great song like “Monkey Gone to Heaven” is played fifty times a day, it quickly gets annoying…

      Reply
      • rhythm & method

        Could you move him onto Gigantic, another favourite Pixies tune? This was used to great effect in Fight Club, another novel turned film. Can’t listen to this without picturing Edward Norton losing his mind.

  4. Gemma Hawdon

    I loved this post. Music is so powerful in triggering memories. There is one song, and I don’t even know the name of it, that was huge throughout my first pregnancy when I spent days staggering about trying to find my next spot to spew! Today when that song slips onto the radio, those feelings of nausea resurface, creeping back into my being…

    Reply

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