Ode to Euterpe



I always listen to music when I write. Though art and literature both inspire me on so many levels, neither does so as though it were eating into me the way music does. Art and literature make me think; music makes me feel. I suppose that’d be the simplest way of putting things.

Most of the time, my CDs serve as background music when I write. However, there are times when a specific piece raises itself up above the rest for odd – but very welcome! – reasons. That special composition ends up shaping my plots, scenes, or characters in that elusive way that only music can. I’ve tried to identify these unique characteristics and how they’ve helped me in writing.

1. The Soundtrack – This is the piece of music that, to me, somehow “tells” the story in five minutes or so. When I wrote Icarus in Flight, I listened to Chopin’s waltzes over and over again. Light, poetic, and romantic, they helped me stick to the novel’s mood, and they also “reminded” me to keep the romance understated and quiet. The Grand Valse Brillante, out of the entire CD, turned into that special piece of music that I felt captured James and Daniel’s coming-of-age and blooming romance quite nicely. Call me a sentimental old sap, but I tend to picture them both walking quietly down footpaths in the more isolated parts of Wiltshire or enjoying tea together now that I listen to this song well after the novel’s been released.

Chopin – Grand Valse Brillante
in E flat Major, Op. 18

2. The Scene-Maker – One of my favorite scenes to write in Banshee was the ballroom scene in Chapter 6. It’s Natty’s first time outside his cozy little village, and it’s also his first time in fashionable company, in the middle of a ball. Smetana’s polka from The Bartered Bride is one of those ballroom pieces that’s brilliant, breathless, and, I suppose if I were actually in a 19th century ballroom watching a polka (in the case of Banshee, it’s a waltz), magical. As I’d never written a ballroom scene before, I turned to my “dance” classical CDs for help in conjuring up the marvelous alien quality of the scene, when viewed by a wide-eyed 17-year-old rustic.

Smetana – The Bartered Bride: Polka

3. The Character Designer – One of the qualities that I want my young main characters to have is spunk, which reveals itself in one way or another, depending on the story. Norris Woodhead is my most spirited historical character so far. Though at first somewhat passive (he’s learned to be nothing else), he eventually finds that little spark in himself that helps him make a life-changing decision in the end of the book. Because so many forces acted against him through his journey of self-discovery, I did find it a little difficult to keep myself on track in his development. I turned to some Baroque pieces for inspiration, and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 proved to be an exceptional ally. The music is exuberant and energetic. It lifts my spirits all the time, evoking hope, which I ensured that Norris would represent, as a boy who’s pretty much on his own during a very difficult part of his young life.

Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No. 3

4. The Story-Weaver – Then there’s the song that started it all. Once in a rare while, I’ll listen to a piece of music and then get hit pretty hard with images of characters or scenes or a vague sense of a story’s emotions. It’s happened with Offenbach’s “Barcarolle,” which gave birth to a still-in-stasis novel, Baroque, as one example. The most significant inspiration along these lines for me is a traditional Christmas carol: “In Dulci Jubilo.” When I listened to Chanticleer’s 1996 recording of the song, I felt one of those deeply emotional stirrings that came with random images of snow, a solitary old man in his workshop, and oddly, a glass ornament. What pervaded the moment, though, was the strong, strong feeling of melancholy due to loss. I’ve no idea why that association was made, but it happened, and I never questioned it. From there, I wrote a short story that was a Christmas folktale called “The Glass Minstrel,” which I eventually developed into a novel. And I’m pleased to say that all the images and all the feelings of sadness were retained, though everything coalesces into hope at the end. Just like a Christmas carol.

In Dulci Jubilo – The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Hayden Thorne

Advent Calendar Giveaway!

Do you have a song that moved you deeply for any reason? It can be something that’s inspired you artistically or one that simply touched you in a way that no other song has. Share the song and its effect on you in the comments, and a winner will be chosen from the responses.

The winner will receive an e-book of one of the following: Icarus in Flight (Victorian romance), Banshee (Victorian ghost story), or The Twilight Gods (Victorian fantasy, also a retelling of a folktale).

Or, in the case of The Twilight Gods, the winner can also choose a print copy instead of an e-book.

19 Responses

  1. I constantly write with music. One song that got me through a block and that still gives me shivers is Sting’s “Desert Rose” – I had three version of it, and listened to it for days.

  2. I don’t know why, but I could never listen to music while writing narrative prose…but for plays I always write with the record player (OK, CD player) going. In fact earlier this year I did a monologue for George Sand to deliver whaile Chopin plays (and choughs) in the next room, and that peice began with his Grande Valse Brillante.

    Do you remember all of those lovely romantic movies of the forties when actors (particularly English ones) so brilliantly rode their dialogue over classical music?

    • You got me! I haven’t seen many movies from the 40s, but now I’ll have to. Are they mostly noir?

      And your description of George San and Chopin makes me think of Impromptu. It’s one of my favorite historical films, largely because of the humor (and despite some plot problems). I can imagine Sand’s monologue against Chopin’s music. Very romantic.

  3. I don’t know why, but I could never listen to music while writing narrative prose…but for plays I always write with the record player (OK, CD player) going. In fact earlier this year I did a monologue for George Sand to deliver whaile Chopin plays (and choughs) in the next room, and that piece began with his Grande Valse Brilliante.

    Do you remember all of those lovely romantic movies of the forties when actors (particularly English ones) so brilliantly rode their dialogue over classical music?

  4. When I aspired to write “literary” fiction — years ago, before the realities of publishing and the wisdom that comes with age slapped my ego back down to size — I regularly turned to music for inspiration.

    Three pieces moved me deeply when I was writing a particular book — the farewell trio, “Soave il vento,” from Cosi fan Tutte and the duet “Oui, c’est elle” from The Pearl Fishers. Odd, because I’m not a particular fan of opera . . . and because a song by the Temptations was the third one I kept listening to.

    Now, though, I find music too distracting. I prefer writing to the sounds of silence. 😉

    • We all aspired to be “literary” writers in our artistic infancy, I think. XD Yeah, I feel your pain. I happen to be in the same boat as you back then.

      Music’s so abstract that I’ve long given up trying to understand why some songs affect me the way they do. 😀

      Yeah, the only time I write in silence is when I’m working on contemporary stuff since my musical inspiration for that is post-punk songs that I can only listen to before I begin writing. Hehehe.

  5. Hi Hayden,

    I’ve got a score rather than a song, if that’s okay. It was written by Danny Elfman, from the 1994 version of the movie Black Beauty. I do not own the soundtrack on CD because it’s over $100 to buy used and in good shape, but I have a few tracks someone sent me which I listen to when I write. Each of the tracks has a play count of about 400 now. It’s incredibly beautiful music, and very sad, which is also my favorite kind of story, so it’s the perfect writing background.

    Happy holidays!

    • Scores are good! And I didn’t even know that Danny Elfman did the soundtrack for Black Beauty. That’s pretty interesting! I’m so used to associating him with Tim Burton films that it’s a real surprise to know that he tackled a classic.

      Thanks for the heads up on that! I’ll have to look it up and sample it.

      And a Happy Holidays to you, too. 🙂

      • Yeah, it’s really wonderful. Wish it was on iTunes. My other favorite score if his actually isn’t a Burton film either, but Milk. Another amazing score. Not sure it’s as good at Black Beauty though. 🙂

  6. The only time I can listen to music while I write is during a love scene, and then it has to be something without lyrics. I go between very fast-tempo trance music and classical music, which sounds weird but it works. My current favourite classical piece is Ralph Vaughn Williams’ ‘Five Variations on Dives and Lazarus’, mainly because I used to date a cellist who played that piece so beautifully.

    • Music’s effects can be pretty weird. That’s actually a pretty cool mix you have of classical and trance. I don’t write sex scenes, but I used to, when I was (very briefly) in the M/M market. It’s definitely odd, but I can see how those two different genres of music can work together for sexy scenes.

      And thanks for the heads up on Williams’ piece! I want to check it out now (the swoony image of a cellist aside).

  7. I ALWAYS listen to music whether writing or just reading. The music adds depth to the experience. I’m very much and audiophile and a “scorewhore” meaning that I am a connoisseur of film scores. I find that scores in particular always has an inspiring effect. It gives mood, tune, and atmosphere to the story I read or am writing. When people ask me what my favourite song is or the song that inspired me the most- I can never just pick one. I always say that “I could no sooner choose a favourite star in the heavens.” I will say this, however, that composer Alexandre Desplat is typically the first I turn to in my reading/writing endeavors. His scores for “Coco Avant Chanel” — “Lust, Caution” – “The Girl With the Pearl Earring” — “The Painted Veil” and “Chéri” are the ones I turn to most. Then again, I also find Michael Nyman’s score for “The Piano” is also equally inspirational and moving… better stop here before I keep naming composers. 😀

    • Whoa, I didn’t even realize that Nyman did the score for The Piano. I’m only superficially knowledgeable of his work, so this’ll be even more incentive for me to look more into it.

      BTW, your film list is great. It’s a much-needed kick up the backside for me as I’ve had half of those titles on my “Must See” list for DVD rentals, and now I really have to get going on it.

      • You should also check out Nyman’s “Where the Bee Dances and the Piano Concerto” cd. The concerto pieces for The Piano are longer, and blend into one another, and he includes full orchestra with brass playing a larger role in the music.

        If you ever want names of scores/composers and films- I’m there. I am not only an audiophile as you can see, but also a cinemaphile as well.

  8. Music has inspired all of my writing, so I loved your post. Although I don’t play music while writing — too distracting — music impacts each story. I sing just about everything and my music training and education has given me a varied repetoire to draw from.
    Several works come to mind:
    A Gaelic song, whose title translates as “Monday, Tuesday”, inspired “A Song of the Sidhe” and a slew of Country Western songs inspired “No One Else on Earth”.
    Yiddish and Hebrew folk songs and psalms served as the musical backdrop for “Bend in the Road”.
    Anything by Mozart from his operas to his instrumental works. The Requiem always sends shivers down my spin.
    In my day job I’m a music therapist and I see each day how much music affects the senior citizens with whom I work.

    • I’m totally with you on Mozart’s Requiem. The “Rex Tremendae” never fails in making me all teary-eyed (not because of sadness or anything, but because it’s just plain sublime).

      Folk songs are great sources of inspiration, too. I’d love to dig up stuff from Slavic regions and get swept up with possible story ideas. 🙂

  9. Almost impossible to choose one. Vaughn Williams’ piece on a theme by Thomas Tallis makes me shiver, as does ‘Surf’s Up’. All music inspires me – all good music, anyway.

    Lovely choices from you!


  10. Thanks for sharing these selections. I don’t know if it’s age or stress, but nowdays I can’t listen to anything with words. Not even language I don’t understand. I’ve discovered a lot of classical composers in the last year.

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