Mood Music

"The Birthday" (1915) Marc Chagall
“The Birthday” (1915)
Marc Chagall

I don’t always listen to music while I write. I’d say I do about twenty-five percent of the time. Usually it’s wordless and, to most ears, probably sounds pretty weird. It’s music I listen to elsewhere in life, too, while driving or running or cooking or cleaning. If I happen to wake up wanting to hear some music, I’ll turn it on and tap away at my keyboard.

I’ll often listen to the same music over and over again while working on a particular project, and, occasionally, I’ll find that a certain song, album, or band has quietly attached itself to – become a part of, in a way – a project. I couldn’t possibly force this attachment if I tried, but I am always delighted and excited when it happens.

Music, perhaps more than any other kind of art, has the power to immediately transport the listener. Diving into a book you’ve been reading, it can sometimes take a few pages to sink back down into the author’s story. Yet turn on a song you loved but haven’t listened to since you were thirteen years old and chances are you’ll get shunted back to your teenage world in an instant.

When a band or an album attaches itself to one of my works-in-progress, it’s like having a soundtrack for the thing – for thinking about and writing it. It’s like someone out there has captured in noises and notes the mood I am trying to infuse into my story, the particular energy I am trying to lace throughout each and every one of the novel’s sentences. Having something like this is enormously valuable.

I often post here about writers’ rituals and routines – about how essential they can be to a good day’s work. But I post, too, about how difficult and impractical (not to mention unproductive and even unhealthy) sticking to these ways can be. Some days, you’re only going to have a brief snatch of time here or there in which to sit down and write. And sometimes, being productive during that bit of time proves impossible. It’s like being plucked out of a tornado, dropped into stillness, and made to thread a needle.

In such moments, music can be a savior.

If a song or a series of them has attached itself to your work-in-progress in the manner of a soundtrack, if music has woven itself through your sentences and the lives of your characters, you can rely on its transporting abilities to quickly get you to a place/space where you can write – and write well.

Again – you cannot force this attachment (at least I can’t). But you can put in some effort, seek out the music that captures a mood similar to the one you are trying to evoke with your prose. (And you could, of course, flip the process – write a story or a book inspired by a certain song, album, or band’s music.)

I believe that bringing in these external sources, tethering your story to something (or several somethings) outside of your own head, can be hugely beneficial. Not always, I should say. Not as a rule. Because doing such a thing (or doing it too soon, or sticking to it too rigidly) could easily turn out to be inhibiting. But often enough, such a tethering can add a layer of depth or richness to your work. You and your readers will be able to sense it.

It reminds me of a story I once heard about the painter Marc Chagall. Apparently he’d carry canvases that he believed to be finished outside with him – or, alternatively, tote a bit of the outside world in. A rock. A palmful of dirt. A branch with a few leaves. He’d hold the one up next to the other, the painting and the piece of earth, and see whether they fit, meshed, made sense beside one another. And if they clashed too harshly, then the painting was not, as Chagall had supposed, complete. He’d get back to work and, later on, try the comparison again.

The message embedded in this anecdote holds true even if it’s not earthy, grounded realism you’re trying to write. Chagall certainly didn’t strive for any sort of objective realism in his work. Go take a look at some of his paintings. You’ll find angels, you’ll see people floating and flying off, strange creatures and colorful beasts and magnificent swirls of color that only imagination – and this imagination, Chagall’s – could produce.

By holding a rock, a leaf, or a lump of earth up to such phantasmagoric paintings, I don’t believe Chagall was hoping to find a similar naturalness or reality in his work. He was trying to see beauty. He was trying to see truth. The man had a deep, abiding love of the natural world, and he wanted his paintings to awaken in others the same sorts of feelings he experienced when gazing upon nature. Humbly, sweetly, even brilliantly, he chose to use a rock for this test as opposed to, say, a mountain.

There are times when a writer should, and even must, lock him or herself away. Some tasks, some situations, some projects require it. But when you can, be open. Let the world around you seep into your work. Before you declare something done, perhaps poke some holes in it, let it breathe, see how it sits beside a symphony, a stone, or someone else’s story. If done selectively, with caution and care – you don’t want to needlessly doubt yourself or, of course, foolishly appropriate – it can give your writing a greater gravity. And this even if your characters occasionally find themselves floating up into the sky. Even if your world is populated by fiddle-playing angels and strange, brilliantly green beasts.

. . .

Below I’ve posted a few more of my favorite Chagall paintings. The works of his included in this post cover a span of more than fifty years. The canvases are diverse, yes – but there is also a deep, abiding similarity among them, an impressive and unique unity of vision that is, to me at least, stunning.

"Spring" (1938)
“Spring” (1938)
"Fantastic Horse Cart" (1949)
“Fantastic Horse Cart” (1949)
"Blue Circus" (1950–2)
“Blue Circus” (1950–2)
"Life" (1964)
“Life” (1964)
"The Artist’s Wife" (1971)
“The Artist’s Wife” (1971)

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