Why Music and Storytelling Go Hand-in-Hand
Music can play a major role in any story, including the story of our own lives. Think about how many times you’ve started a sentence with, “This song reminds me of...” or “This song makes me think of...”
Even a fifteen-second long chorus can be the link to an entire archive of memories, people, and defining moments in our lives (regardless of whether the memories are good or bad).
Bernard Hermann is a film composer who worked on music for iconic movies such as Psycho and Citizen Kane. He has a great take on the connection between music and story: “[Music] can propel narrative swiftly forward, or slow it down. It often lifts mere dialogue into the realm of poetry. It is the communicating link between the screen and the audience, reaching out and enveloping all into one single experience.”
There are two films that stick out in my mind when it comes to utilizing great music throughout the story: Guardians of the Galaxy and Baby Driver.
On the surface, it seems like a gimmick. Like the directors of these movies wanted to implement some of their favorite songs simply because they could. But in each of these stories, the soundtrack has deeper meaning for the protagonists. Peter Quill (Guardians) and Baby (Baby Driver) both tragically lost their mother. Their musical choices comfort them through their trauma and allow them to keep the memories of their mothers alive.
There are songs in Baby Driver that allow Baby to connect with other characters too. This is very relatable, because whether it’s a family member, a friend, a co-worker,
or an ex, we’ve all associated a song with someone we know. In one scene early on, Baby and Buddy (Jon Hamm’s character) bond over Brighton Rock by Queen. This song seems to become the theme for these two characters, and it returns with a vengeance during the movie’s final showdown (I won’t give too much away, because you absolutely need to see this movie for yourself).
But what about short stories or novels? Unlike watching a movie, reading is a silent activity. It’s easy to dismiss the impact music can have on written stories, but let’s look deeper.
The job of an author is to place their readers into the environment of the story. To vividly describe the essence of the characters and settings in a way that allows the reader to fill in the details with their own mind.
Visual description is common in written stories, but describing sound and music is just as important. A slow, melancholy tune on a piano or the upbeat strumming of a ukulele can help create the mood for a scene. Allowing the reader to “hear” these musical descriptions makes for a more immersive story.
Anyone who has read Tolkien knows that music can provide foreshadowing and even drive the narrative forward. Misty Mountains Cold is a song from The Hobbit that gives the safe and routine-bound Bilbo a sense of adventure:
“Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.”
The song serves to inspire the protagonist while also giving the reader an idea of the grand adventure to come.
As far as referencing song titles in written stories, that can become distracting if there’s no real purpose for it. But it also can be done effectively if it serves the characters or the story.
Perhaps a specific musical genre or artist represents a significant part of a character’s identity. Maybe there’s a song that defines the relationship between two characters. Or a piece of music inspires a character and gives them hope during hardship. Stuff like this happens all the time in real life, so why not in a novel?
Let me know what you think in the comments. What are some of your favorite examples of music in movies, shows, or books?