But Can You Dance To It?


music : one by *fydbac on deviantART

Music: One © Jainai Jeffries (Used with permission)

If you’ve ever watched a movie with the sound off, you probably noticed that it just didn’t have as much oomph as the same movie would if played with the sound on. It’s not even really about the sound effects; in movies, the music tells us how to feel about what we see.

Music is an excellent scene-setter, but in fiction, of course nobody can hear the audio cues. But if you read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, you’ve seen writers struggle to describe futuristic or fantastic music. It’s such a challenge to describe music that sounds like nothing on contemporary Earth, one might wonder why authors even bother, except in stories where music is key to the plot. And in those stories, one sometimes has to endure reading the lyrics of songs with no musical accompaniment, written by an author with little or no songwriting experience.

So why do it? Why inject music into prose? It’s hard to use it to ‘set the scene’ because the reader can’t hear it, anyway. Yet the fact that music is present in (or absent from) a scene can tell the reader a lot. What is a backwoods tavern without folk music, after all? And what spaceport bar lacks a quirky ensemble? Musical preference or repertoire is also a handy way to describe people without bluntly listing their visible traits, plus it can add complexity to otherwise plain characters. The punk girl whose secret favorite song is Dvorak’s 7th Humoresque will probably be more interesting to read about than the pop music-adoring ‘perfect 10’, right?

Still, it’s not easy to render music in fiction. One can’t help wondering, ‘Where’s the beat?’ And one good question leads to another: What’s your favorite story with music in it? Which authors have handled it best? What fiction-songs turned into imaginary earworms for you? (In other words, now is the time to expand and jazz-up our reading list.)

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