Using music to enhance your writing

Music has always held an important place in my life. I grew up in the 60s listening to the sounds of my mom’s melodic 33 1/3 vinyl records fill our modest midwestern home. From the Beatles and Herb Alpert to Johnny Rivers and Elvis, their lyrics and tunes were a foundation of my childhood and influenced the formation of my identity. American Bandstand and Soul Train were staples of my existence, and every Saturday night, my family and I would wander down to the Legion Hall in our small town to square dance and country jitterbug to the moveable sounds of The Coon Brothers, a band from another nearby small town.

Some of the first money I ever spent was on a small, battery-operated, portable record player when I was seven or eight, I think. It was about 6”x12” with a sliding handle and removable cover that exposed the tiny turntable, capable of accommodating any record size. When I saw this beauty sitting on the shelf at our local electronics store, I made an arrangement with the owner that I would pay my $2/week allowance toward the record player, which cost $32. For 16 weeks, I faithfully took my $2 to Ellison’s, made my payment, and received a receipt that showed me how close I was to walking home with my coveted music maker.

After I got the record player, I bought a carrying case and started stocking it with 45s, which meant that I became the DJ for parties, lunchtime, and recess at school. While not as compact as an iPod or iPhone, I was able to cart my tunes with me wherever I went. “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Wild Thing,” “The Twist,” and “Sugar, Sugar,” to name a minuscule few, were the soundtrack of my childhood, and whenever I call up those songs now, the memory of them brings a nostalgic joy and takes me back to happy moments with my friends and family.

That feeling we get when we’re transported by a song from the past is called music-evoked nostalgia. It’s no surprise that scientists have studied the effects of music on our brains, and a significant discovery is that while music sparks emotional responses in us all, the same songs don’t affect us all the same. That is, based on our individual likes and dislikes and our past experiences with particular types of music and particular songs, different people will respond differently – at the brain level – to the same song.

Despite the ear scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, I still love “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Steeler’s Wheel. It was always a favorite of mine, with its catchy, upbeat melody, having been popular when I was 14 and pop music was a focal point in my life. The new association didn’t make me dislike the song – not in the least. It just made me stop and think about the lyrics more, how the song and the scene belonged together, and how there’s a discontinuity between the sound of the song and the story it tells.

Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” still strikes a chord of dread in me. Just the thought of it takes me back to the night I faked my way into the movie theater to see The Exorcist at 15, only to be scared out of my wits by Linda Blair’s demonic performance and the fact that my bed-side radio quit working – for just that night – when I tried to play it to drown out the sound of the song looping in my head.

Movies heavily rely on music to set the tone and help tell the story. Many directors and filmmakers lay music over the top of their films, and then some, like Jim Jarmusch, weave the music into his films. Some movies with music as a focal point of the story were novels first, like Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, and Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood.

In the case of these three, the novelists chose to make music a primary character in the story, and if we’re writing a story from a different era, a great way to set the tone is to reference popular music of the time.

Some writers use music to put them in the mood. To write, that is. And some need to have it playing in the background while they write, which would drive me crazy, but to each their individual own.

Music evokes emotion in the moment, cements an era in our hearts, and transports us back to the past, feelings and all. Music is part of the fabric of our lives and our histories, and we can use it to enhance our writing in a variety of ways.

How do you use music to enhance your writing, and what songs take you back to a place and time from the past?