Morse has his opera. Banks has a wider repertoire of taste: everything from Miles Davis to classical, to the Grateful Dead. Is music important in a novel? As a musician myself (I’m a drummer – hey, no drummer jokes, OK? 🙂 ), I was a little surprised recently when I realised that music isn’t strongly represented in the DCI Brendan Moran novels. I thought about this for a while and came to the conclusion that music and musicians, especially contemporary music/musicians, are rarely portrayed with any degree of accuracy in modern crime fiction, be it TV drama or literature. And I think that’s why – at least so far – I’ve been cautious about introducing musical elements into the storyline. OK, so I know what makes musicians tick, but it just seems to me that when, as an author or scriptwriter, you try to capture some kind of musical zeitgeist, it all goes horribly wrong.
Case in point. I remember watching an episode of a TV crime series (which I shall charitably keep anon.) in which a group of old sixties musicians were getting back together (or ‘trying to get it together, man’) for a reunion tour. It was horrendous, ghastly and stereotypical. Every cliche in the book (‘scuse the pun) was trotted out. The musicians all spoke in quasi-stoned pseudo-hippy language that, frankly, made me shake my head in disbelief. The writer clearly didn’t know much about contemporary music, especially the minutiae of how a band functions in everyday life. The episode quickly degenerated into a wildly exaggerated and unbelievable pastiche. The wigs were hilarious, though.
I’m thinking about this as I write. Music is a soundscape for our current situation in life, isn’t it? Time and place is recalled, often with great intensity, by the opening bars of a favourite song, or a faintly-discerned chorus left behind in the slipstream of a passing car. I can’t listen to certain pieces of music because they’re just too evocative, too nostalgic. And that might have a bearing on my reluctance to apply a little musical colour to my novels. One person’s happy memory may recall another’s lowest point. And whichever way the reader reacts, the musical intrusion could end up being just that – an intrusion. As authors we want the reader to be glued to both character and plot, with no distractions.
Hm. So, perhaps I could invent a favourite musician for my main character? But why stop there? I could invent a whole string of violin concertos, or a completely fictitious top 20 chart. Without Kanye West. But then that wouldn’t ring true with the reader, either.
I think the answer is to aim down the middle. Maybe keep your characters’ tastes fairly general. I have a friend for whom the sixties seemed to have passed by without a note of music being played or heard. He’s simply not into music at all. You can mention Woodstock or the Beatles and he’ll be with you, but deviate from the big names and he’s immediately lost. Gentle Giant? New Riders of the Purple Sage? Atomic Rooster? Forget it.
Yep, aim down the middle, I reckon. Keep the novel’s musical backdrop unobtrusive but gently atmospheric. That’s the way forward.
In other words, no sharps or flats – just a good stereo balance.
Today’s little known musical fact: There’s no chorus in REM’s Losing My Religion.
So you do want a drummer joke:
Q. How can you tell when a drummer’s at the door?
A. He doesn’t know when to come in.
(I don’t get it)