The Music Behind Your Story

My first record player.
My first record player.

We all have a soundtrack or playlist running in throughout the background in our lives. Playlists abound for running, relaxing, romancing, and writing. I have one created for swimming laps on a waterproof iPod. YA Novelist and one of Hamline University’s notable MFA professors, Swati Avasthi, uses a playlist to set the mood for writing. She advises her MFA students to create a playlist as part of their process.

Music defines us, and our times. Consider the music that influences the characters we write about? Does they prefer love songs or protest songs? Song that relate stories, or amuse? Perhaps they prefer music without lyrics, classical or instrumental? What music makes a character want to dance or consoles them? Do they listen to live music, an MP3 player, a gramophone, a Wurlitzer jukebox or record player where the needle skips? Is their grandmother singing them a song from her youth?

For my WWI novel, I researched music that came out of “Tin Pan Alley” or the trenches. I scanned old sheet music and books. The best online source for recorded music from this era from is the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox. Searchable by artist, genre, and ethnicity there are over 10,000 acoustical recording from 1901 to 1925. Some of the music from that era contains slur, slogans, and stereotypes we’d find abhorrent today. These songs reflect the racial attitudes of the day and illustrate the tremendous hurdle our fellow citizens had to overcome to gain respect and equality.

Sheet Music from WWI
Sheet Music from WWI

Music from that era echoes differing sentiments about the war from “I Didn’t Raise My Son to Be a Soldier” to “Over There.” There are songs about children missing their daddies like “Just a Baby’s Song at Twilight” and “Hello Central, Give Me No Man’s Land” and songs lamenting racial segregation in the army like “Diggin.” No one song defines the era.

Music adds a unique background to your novel. Even if you don’t write about your characters favorite songs explicitly or listen to them on your playlist, knowing the music of a particular era informs your character, and setting.

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