Martin Mull (or so it is believed) once said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” I first read that attrbuted to Elvis Costello, but in any case, was he/were they right?

I think what Martin Mull (and Elvis Costello, and Laurie Anderson, and…) were trying to say is that music critics are awful. I can understand that. So are book critics—there’s no reason to get me started. This isn’t a blog about writing reviews, it’s a blog about writing fiction, but does this same warning (or is it a dismissal?) about the futility of capturing music in prose hold true for us?

In my online worldbuilding course I offer up this passage from George Orwell’s essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius”:

But in all societies the common people must live to some extent against the existing order. The genuinely popular culture of England is something that goes on beneath the surface, unofficially and more or less frowned on by the authorities. One thing one notices if one looks directly at the common people, especially in the big towns, is that they are not puritanical. They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world. They have to satisfy these tastes in the face of astonishing, hypocritical laws (licensing laws, lottery acts, etc., etc.) which are designed to interfere with everybody but in practice allow everything to happen. Also, the common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries. […] One can learn a good deal about the spirit of England from the comic coloured postcards that you see in the windows of cheap stationers’ shops. These things are a sort of diary upon which the English people have unconsciously recorded themselves. Their old-fashioned outlook, their graded snobberies, their mixture of bawdiness and hypocrisy, their extreme gentleness, their deeply moral attitude to life, are all mirrored there.

I point out that this gets into how people live, their behavior and interactions:

And this is how you bring a sense of personal involvement into your characters’ lives. It’s not all about the high-minded ideals of duty, honor, country… Sometimes, and I’ll side with George Orwell in asserting that this is true most of the time, what really defines us are cultural expressions like slang, fashion, music, courting, sports and games, and so on.

I would think that if you really spoke to most people who live in the developed world you’d get to know what sort of music they liked before you got into their opinions of the hot button political subject of the day. Likewise with their favorite food, their favorite movie, and so on.

So, yes, okay, maybe from the standpoint of an artist any critic of that art form is attempting the impossible, but authors of fiction—and certainly including science fiction, fantasy, and horror—set out to do just that with every word we write. Consider these passages from In the Court of the Dragon by Robert W. Chambers:

To-day, however, from the first choir I had felt a change for the worse, a sinister change. During vespers it had been chiefly the chancel organ which supported the beautiful choir, but now and again, quite wantonly as it seemed, from the west gallery where the great organ stands, a heavy hand had struck across the church, at the serene peace of those clear voices. It was something more than harsh and dissonant, and it betrayed no lack of skill. As it recurred again and again, it set me thinking of what my architect’s books say about the custom in early times to consecrate the choir as soon as it was built, and that the nave, being finished sometimes half a century later, often did not get any blessing at all: I wondered idly if that had been the case at St. Barnabé, and whether something not usually supposed to be at home in a Christian church, might have entered undetected, and taken possession of the west gallery. I had read of such thing happening too, but not in works on architecture.

Here, we see Chambers actually writing about singing about architecture… or something like that. And more…

I belong to those children of an older and simpler generation, who do not love to seek for psychological subtleties in art; and I have ever refused to find in music anything more than melody and harmony, but I felt that in the labyrinth of sounds now issuing from that instrument there was something being hunted. Up and down the pedals chased him, while the manuals blared approval. Poor devil! whoever he was, there seemed small hope of escape!

Sometimes, there are stories about music, and those stories can’t be dismissed out of hand, like “James Dean Garage Band” by Rick Moody:

Rocket threw down his guitar in front of the amp—already cranked to capacity—and stormed out of the shed. Into the rain, if I remember correctly. A sudden and vehement desert rain. And the feedback from the pickups in the amplifier, in conjunction with the primitive electronics of the amp, commenced to gloriously wail. As if the guitar, the circuitry, the tubes, the pickups, as if all of this equipment were falling into lamentation, as if they were doing call and response with the lightning, over the plains, over the hills. It was a lovely, fuzzy overtone, almost aboriginal in its way. Rocket walked around in circles out in the rain, trying to get straight in his head whether or not to punch out Dean, and then I suppose he heard us laughing, heard Wallace and Dean and me laughing at the racket the amp was making. So he came back. Drenched. And he heard it too. Listen to that, he said, grinning wildly. Damn. That is sweet.

The characters’ lives turn on their reaction to a sound:

Feedback changed everything. For our sound, for the band, for the members of the band. It was ritualistic somehow. Feedback foreshortened the great distances between things, and cleared up the mirages in the desert. It made all of the American West seem like a goddamned global village. It was the legend that wired up our thatched huts out in Lost Hills.

Consider the importance of music in both your worldbuilding and the story itself. What do these people listen to and sing? What instruments do they play? Do they dance? Is singing a part of their religious or even political lives? Back to Orwell, from 1984:

The new tune which was to be the theme song of Hate Week (the “Hate Song,” it was called) had already beeen composed and was being endlessly plugged on the telescreens. It had a savage, barking rhythym which could not exactly be called music, but resembled the beating of a drum. Roared out by the hundreds of voices to the tramp of marching feet, it was terrifying. The proles had taken a fancy to it, and in the midnight streets it competed with the still-popular “It Was Only a Hopeless Fancy.” The Parsons children played it at all hours of the night and day, unbearably, on a comb and a piece of toilet paper.

And previously, Orwell shows us a proletarian woman absent-mindedly singing while doing her chores:

She took two more pegs out of her mouth and sang with deep feeling:

“They sye that time ’eals all things,

They sye you can always forget;

But the smiles an’ the tears acrorss the years

They twist my ’eartstrings yet!

She knew the whole drivelling song by heart, it seemed. Her voice floated upward with the sweet summer air, very tuneful, charged with a sort of happy melancholy.


What more can I say?

Maybe next week I’ll make a sculpture about cinema.


—Philip Athans

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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.




About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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