The Challenge of Putting Music into Words

One of my current works in progress is a young adult book about a group of teenagers in a band who need to use their musical prowess to stave off Armageddon. It’s sort of a Percy-Jackson-meets-King-Crimson story, where the plucky heroes must overcome all sorts of weirdness while learning about progressive rock music (yeah, progressive rock plays a key role), figuring out what it means to be in a band, and struggling with their burgeoning adulthood.

I’m learning that one of the biggest challenges I’m facing is capturing the sound and majesty of music with words. Many years ago, I read an interview with George R. R. Martin about his book The Armageddon Rag, in which he made the comment that writing stories in which music plays a central role was incredibly difficult because of the challenge of translating a powerful aural experience into written words. At the time, I remember appreciating his observation, but I didn’t think much of it. I had intended to dive into The Armageddon Rag, but life got in the way, and some fifteen years later, the book is still on my shelf, waiting for me to read it.

I really should read it, if for no other reason than it might help me with my YA book, but also because Martin’s pre-Game of Thrones books are exceptional (I recommend his debut novel, Dying of the Light.)

Having now written several scenes where my intrepid band of heroes plays music, I now appreciate the challenge that Martin described. Capturing music with words alone is tough, especially when trying to capture the beauty or the power or the emotional depth of a particular song while still given the reader of sense of what it actually sounds like. For my story, it’s not enough to just talk about the “effect” of the music on the characters. That would be relatively easy. In this story, the actual songs are important, and one of the goals my co-author and I have for this book is to introduce readers to music we love. That means it’s important for us to give enough description of the music to potentially entice our readers to seek out and listen to the songs. (All this is further complicated by the fact that music publishers are notoriously aggressive when it comes to policing their rights, so mentioning lyrics is also a sticky proposition and one I’ve decided to avoid entirely.)

Are my drafts of scenes where the music plays a key role in the events successful? I’m not sure just yet, but it is first draft material for me, so I know it’s not overly compelling stuff. My writing usually improves significantly after a round of editing, so at this stage, what I’m looking to achieve is a solid framework onto which I can build.

I’d like to find more examples of fiction where the authors have successfully described music. If you have any suggestions for novels or short stories where music plays a central role and you think the author did a great job is describing the music, please drop your recommendations in the comments. I’d love to check them out, and maybe learn a few things in the process.

About D. Thomas Minton

Writer of speculative fiction
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