Making the Written Word Sing

A lot of writers consider music to be a vital part of their writing process. They have playlists they write to, playlists or theme songs for specific characters, and sound tracks for their novels.

I am not one of those writers.

I love music, and I’m quite musical myself, but I never seem to be able to make it gel with writing. I do like to listen to music while I write, because I find I can focus best with a mild controllable distraction, but it can be any old music. Normally I just pick a random Spotify playlist or the radio feature.

Music and movies I get, and I love a great soundtrack, but with books, I don’t find imagining music to be anywhere near as powerful as physically hearing it.

So when I do remember a book that links to music, you know it was a good one because it managed to make an impression on me. So how do writers make music accessible in their books?

The book that I think is the best example of music in writing is The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.

The Name of the Wind

My name is Kvothe.

I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.

You may have heard of me.

So begins a tale unequalled in fantasy literature—the story of a hero told in his own voice. It is a tale of sorrow, a tale of survival, a tale of one man’s search for meaning in his universe, and how that search, and the indomitable will that drove it, gave birth to a legend.

 

In The Name of the Wind, our hero, Kvothe, a poor university student, decides to try his musical talent at a tavern — The Eolian — known for its musical excellence. At this tavern, any musician can pay a fee for a live audition in front of the crowd to win a set of talent pipes. These pipes raise your status as a musician and give you the credibility to perform at taverns all over the city — so Kvothe is interested because this represents a potential source of income.

Firstly, Rothfuss creates an atmosphere by describing the scene inside the tavern. He raises the stakes by bringing an enemy of Kvothe’s into the audience, and describing the wannabe musicians who fail to achieve their pipes. He builds tension by drawing out the moment when the musicians are declined (in the style of X-factor) and draws out the moments between performers. This increases the tension in the reader, and also ups the stakes as Kvothe decides he must perform a difficult piece.

A bearded man of thirty years or so was brought onto the stage by Stanchion and introduced to the audience. He played flute. Played it well. He played two shorter songs that I knew and a third I didn’t. He played for perhaps twenty minutes in all, only making one small mistake that I could hear. After the applause, the flutist remained on stage while Stanchion circulated in the crowd, gathering opinions. A serving boy brought the flutist a glass of water. Eventually Stanchion came back onto the stage. The room was quiet as the owner drew close and solemnly shook the man’s hand. The musician’s expression fell, but he managed a sickly smile and a nod to the audience.

When Kvothe finally begins his performance, a song accompanied by lute, his inadequacies and poor background are established in the reader’s mind. We feel the pressure he’s put on himself to perform a difficult piece his parents used to sing, and the tension is sky-high. Consequently, the description of the music carries you along so you can hear it in your mind. This particular piece involves a female member of the audience joining in at a certain point to create harmony, and Kvothe is simply hoping someone in the audience will do so, and this adds another layer of tension.

The music came easily out of me, my lute like a second voice. I flicked my fingers and the lute made a third voice as well. I sang in the proud powerful tones of Savien Traliard, greatest of the Amyr. The audience moved under the music like grass against the wind. I sang as Sir Savien, and I felt the audience begin to love and fear me. I was so used to practicing the song alone that I almost forgot to double the third refrain. But I remembered at the last moment in a flash of cold sweat. This time as I sang it I looked out into the audience, hoping at the end I would hear a voice answering my own. I reached the end of the refrain before Aloine’s first stanza. I struck the first chord hard and waited as the sound of it began to fade without drawing a voice from the audience. I looked calmly out to them, waiting. Every second a greater relief vied with a greater disappointment inside me. Then a voice drifted onto stage, gentle as a brushing feather, singing. . . .

And finally, just when you think he’s home and dry, a string breaks on the instrument. You can almost hear the metallic ping. But of course, our brave hero used to practice on a lute lacking strings, and so he pulls himself together to triumphantly finish his piece.

It was not perfect. No song as complex as “Sir Savien” can be played perfectly on six strings instead of seven. But it was whole, and as I played the audience sighed, stirred, and slowly fell back under the spell that I had made for them. I hardly knew they were there, and after a minute I forgot them entirely. My hands danced, then ran, then blurred across the strings as I fought to keep the lute’s two voices singing with my own. Then, even as I watched them, I forgot them, I forgot everything except finishing the song. The refrain came, and Aloine sang again. To me she was not a person, or even a voice, she was just a part of the song that was burning out of me. And then it was done. Raising my head to look at the room was like breaking the surface of the water for air. I came back into myself, found my hand bleeding and my body covered in sweat. Then the ending of the song struck me like a fist in my chest, as it always does, no matter where or when I listen to it.

These few paragraphs probably don’t do the chapters justice, but at the time, the moment swallowed me whole and I felt as if I’d been a member of that tavern audience.

Writing music is tricky, but it can be done, and it can be done well. Reading music doesn’t always work for me inside my head, but on this occasion, it was spot on.

Did Kvothe win his pipes after that masterful performance? You’ll have to read the book and find out for yourself!

 

Elise Edmonds lives in a quiet South Gloucestershire village, where she spends her free time with her husband and two cats, and enjoys attending local fitness classes, watching movies, and playing the piano. Pursuing writing in her spare time as a creative outlet is a way to bring the magic back into her everyday life.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.