How to use music as a writing tool

So a few days ago, I was driving home from picking my dog up from daycare… Yes, he goes to daycare. [Because apparently I am such a cool human being that no one can bear to be away from me so they have to be professionally distracted away from eating walls.]

But I digress…

I was driving which – like the shower – is where I get most of my inconvenient ideas, and Mike Ryan’s new song comes on the radio.

I’d been torturing myself over a backstory for Owen Wright, the love interest in my new novel, 700 Main. Then all of a sudden it hit me. I called my critique partner, and BAM! Everything about Owen fell into place, and his backstory was written in an instant, weaving perfectly into the journey of my protagonist – who happens to be “a blue-eyed girl that moved here from Tennessee.” Meant to be, right?

These moments don’t always strike you perfectly like it did in this moment. It’s easier said than done. And sometimes you have to manufacture it for yourself.

A few posts back, I wrote on the “how?” of creating a writing playlist. Now I am going to talk about the “why?” by providing examples where music adds such a level of scene setting/character development/plot tension, that you can’t imagine the scene without it.

Just because your work in progress isn’t a movie or television show YET doesn’t mean you can’t use this additional level of creativity to impact your story.

Your Hands are Cold – (Pride and Prejudice)

Last week’s blog detailed character development in excruciating detail, so it’s no surprise that it was top of my mind this week as well. Take a look at the video above. Elizabeth isn’t looking so hot. She’s just witnessed the engagement of her older sister, been accosted by a crazy old lady in the middle of the night, and thinks she’s lost the man she loves. So she ventures out for a walk at dawn, in search of peace.

You can almost hear her mind whirring, thinking back as birds chirp and soft music plays in the background.

But then… a gasp, a light piano intro, and Mr. Darcy appears out of the fog. We don’t even see Elizabeth’s reaction for a solid 45 seconds, but the music makes us feel the only thing we need: hope. And by letting this play in the background while you write, you may just find it flowing out from your fingers as well.


Belle (Reprise) – Paige O’Hara (Beauty and the Beast)

I mean if you don’t swoon when the orchestra swells, I don’t know if we can be friends anymore. It perfectly embodies Belle’s emotional need: a longing for freedom, adventure, and belonging. Translate the music into thoughts, dialogue and body language, and you can create a similarly strong sense of emotion.

ADDED BONUS: In Disney movies, the ordinary world stage of The Hero’s Journey – where we get a glimpse of their environment, strengths and specific emotional pain – is always set with a song. Think “Part of Your World” in The Little Mermaid, “Out There” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” in The Lion King. Imagine this scene in your novel as a song. What does it sound like? Now weave it back into your written words.


How Not To – Dan + Shay

So this isn’t a movie or show, but the band’s new music video does a damn good job of telling a story – and a powerful one at that. When I first heard it on the radio, I thought “meh, here’s another song about how hard it is to stay away from an ex.” But when I watched the video, I was awestruck and found it was the perfect example of the whole package you need to implement in your writing.

Build your scene like a music video in your mind. By adding strong visceral reactions, intense imagery and an emotional journey, your story can become more compelling than just words on the page.


Kiss Me – Ed Sheeran (The Vampire Diaries)

I swear to you that I never seen/heard a more talented song-pairer (is that the right profession?) than the person in charge of music for The Vampire Diaries. I think I own ALL the songs and use a TVD playlist quite frequently in my own writing. It’s nice and angst-y.

Here, Sheeran’s sexy voice and bluesy guitar is perfect for Elena and Damon’s first dance/kiss, but the song is also full of tension – sexual or otherwise – and provides a great backdrop for Caroline and Stefan’s troubling revelation.

And as the music rises, so does the strain between the two story lines, leaving the audience conflicted. Are we swept up by the new romance or worried about the motivation behind Elena’s true feelings? THAT is what you want in a scene, leaving your audience desperate to know more. And if you can find a piece of music that brings about that feeling in the writer, the reader will feel it too.

So there’s the “why?” you should use music as a tool to enhance your writing, and luckily the “how?” is just as simple:

Step One: Identify the feeling you want to incorporate into your scene.

Step Two: Pick a song or create a playlist that matches that emotion.

Step Three: Let it fuel you!

How do you use music while writing? Or is complete silence more your cup of tea? Let me know in the comments below!

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