Music means everything to teenagers, so don’t neglect the tunes in your YA novel. After all, some people say that music is what feelings sound like. J. K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and Suzanne Collins use music as a symbol to get all sorts of feelings across. Here are the top 10 ways to write about music in your story.
1. Music symbolizes beauty
Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games show characters who are overwhelmed with the power and beauty of music.
- In Harry Potter, Dumbledore is the most passionate about music. “‘Ah, music,’ he said, wiping his eyes. ‘A magic beyond all we do here!’” (HP Ch.7).
- In Twilight, Edward amazes Bella when he plays the piano. “And then his fingers flowed swiftly across the ivory, and the room was filled with a composition so complex, so luxuriant, it was impossible to believe only one set of hands played.” (TW Ch.15).
- In The Hunger Games, Katniss listens to the mockingjays sing. “The music swells and I recognize the brilliance of it. As the notes overlap, they complement one another, forming a lovely, unearthly harmony. . . . For a while, I just close my eyes and listen, mesmerized by the beauty of the song.” (HG Ch.24).
2. Music symbolizes authority
Music can represent an established institution and make it feel more legitimate.
- Hogwarts has an official song: “’And now, before we go to bed, let us sing the school song!’ cried Dumbledore.” (HP Ch.7)
- The Capitol’s anthem plays every evening to announce the day’s deaths. “The Capitol seal is back with a final musical flourish. Then darkness and the sounds of the forest resume.” (HG Ch.11).
3. Music symbolizes magic
Let music demonstrate how magical, fantastic, or futuristic your story really is– hooray for “show, not tell.”
- In Harry Potter, song lyrics magically appear in the air. “Dumbledore gave his wand a little flick, as if he was trying to get a fly off the end, and a long golden ribbon flew out of it, which rose high above the tables and twisted itself, snakelike, into words.” (HP Ch.7).
- In Twilight, Edward’s knowledge of music hints that he is immortal. “‘Music in the fifties was good. Much better than the sixties, or the seventies, ugh!’ He shuddered. ‘The eighties were bearable.’ ‘Are you ever going to tell me how old you are?'” (TW Ch.14).
- In The Hunger Games, the futuristic birds tweet complicated tunes. “And they could re-create songs. Not just a few notes, but whole songs with multiple verses, if you had the patience to sing them and if they liked your voice.” (HG Ch.3).
4. Music symbolizes humor
The bestselling authors use music as a chance to crack a quick joke.
- In Harry Potter, the Weasley twins are always good for a laugh: “Everybody finished the song at different times. At last, only the Weasley twins were left singing along to a very slow funeral march.” (HP Ch.7).
- In Twilight, Bella and Edward share a funny moment when they realize they have the same eclectic taste: “’What music is in your CD player right now?’ he asked . . . .When I said the name of the band, he smiled crookedly, a peculiar expression in his eyes. . . . ‘Debussy to this?’ He raised an eyebrow. It was the same CD.” (TW Ch.11).
5. Music symbolizes celebration
When your scene includes a party, ceremony, or celebration of any kind, add some background music to make the picture complete!
- Harry listens to the Sorting Hat sing during the Sorting ceremony. “— and the hat began to sing . . . The whole hall burst into applause as the hat finished its song. It bowed to each of the four tables and then became quite still again.” (HP Ch.7).
- Bella dances to the music at prom. “Eventually he towed me out to where his family was twirling elegantly — if in a style totally unsuitable to the present time and music.” (TW Epilogue).
- Katniss gets excited at the opening ceremonies. “The pounding music, the cheers, the admiration work their way into my blood, and I can’t suppress my excitement.” (HG Ch.5)
6. Music symbolizes connection
Remember in high school when you thought you were soulmates with anyone who liked the Velvet Underground and Tom Waits? Use that.
- In Twilight, Bella and Edward connect over knowing the same classical music. “’Clair de Lune?’ I asked, surprised. ‘You know Debussy?’ He sounded surprised, too. ‘Not well,’ I admitted. ‘My mother plays a lot of classical music around the house — I only know my favorites.’ ‘It’s one of my favorites, too.'” (TW Ch.5).
- In The Hunger Games, Peeta explains how he fell for Katniss when she sang on the first day of school. “’And right when your song ended, I knew . . . I was a goner,’ Peeta says. . . . For a moment, I’m almost foolishly happy and then confusion sweeps over me.” (HG Ch.22).
7. Music symbolizes memories
Use a strain of music to send your character on a quick flashback.
- Music triggers memories of Bella’s mother. “My eyes wandered again to the beautiful instrument on the platform by the door. I suddenly remembered my childhood fantasy that, should I ever win a lottery, I would buy a grand piano for my mother. . . . I loved to watch her play.” (TW Ch.15).
- Katniss avoids music because it reminds her of her father. “It strikes me that my own reluctance to sing, my own dismissal of music might not really be that I think it’s a waste of time. It might be because it reminds me too much of my father.” (HG Ch.22).
8. Music symbolizes a solution
YA characters look to music as a problem-solver to their everyday struggles.
- Harry uses music to make the three-headed watchdog fall asleep. “. . . and then his eyes fell on the flute Hagrid had given him for Christmas. He pocketed it to use on Fluffy — he didn’t feel much like singing.” (HP Ch.16).
- Bella puts on her headphones when she wants to calm down. “I concentrated very carefully on the music . . . And it worked. The shattering beats made it impossible for me to think — which was the whole purpose of the exercise.” (TW Ch.7).
- Katniss learns that Rue uses music to signal the end of the work day. “’There’s a special little song I do,” says Rue. She opens her mouth and sings a little four-note run in a sweet, clear voice. ‘And the mockingjays spread it around the orchard.'” (HG Ch.16).
9. Music symbolizes care
Singing a lullaby is the ultimate showing of care, and it’s likely a common childhood memory of your YA audience.
- Hagrid’s pet dragon is dangerous, but we know through the lullaby that he loves it anyway. “When it bit me he told me off for frightening it. And when I left, he was singing it a lullaby.” (HP Ch.14).
- Edward wrote a song inspired by his love for Bella. “The music slowed, transforming into something softer, and to my surprise I detected the melody of his lullaby weaving through the profusion of notes.” (TW Ch.15).
- Rue’s last request is for Katniss to sing to her. “The song that comes to me is a simple lullaby, one we sing fretful, hungry babies to sleep with.” (HG Ch.18).
10. BONUS: Music as metaphor and simile, by guest author Diego Ramos
Note from Christine: After I published this post, author Diego Ramos told me how he used music throughout his writing as metaphor and simile. I liked his idea so much, I asked him to share it here. Diego has an upcoming novel, Rebel Hearts– a sweeping New Age fantasy/steampunk adventure about a thief, an ancient soldier, and a rebellion to topple an empire. You can connect with him at his blog, WritingFiction.co.
Hello Better Novel Project readers! Using music to describe physical things, and what would be otherwise “non-musical” sounds, is a very selectively-used tool in writing, and for good reason. It’s very powerful. It has the ability to create memorable, book-lasting moments. It can make the ordinary, extraordinary.
Music, like Christine has laid out, is a powerful vehicle for emotion. We’ve all experienced it; the torrents of twanging guitar strings, the rising pulse of a chorus crashing into cymbals, the delicate breaths of a mourning violin. Music can add texture, movement, and artistry to a moment or thing. A growl becomes a rumble of drums. A sunset becomes an adagio of bleeding oranges and purples. Music in writing, like in movies, can be an amplifier.
In my own novel, I used it to heighten a romantic moment. Here is the excerpt:
He settled on the other half of the bed. She let out an airy sigh that sunk her deeper into the mattress. She was back to sleep. Raleon inched closer. His human color faded. He radiated the moon — a ghost — an echo of a man. But he was nothing. She was everything. Her face was so peaceful. He could feel her summer breath breeze his cheeks, smell the lilac aroma of her skin. Her lashes dipped and leaped, her lips bloomed. It was an invisible symphony, drenching his senses in the elegance of each pure chord and arresting measure — a beauty of the highest order. A song in the temple of his new religion. He fell to meditation among its majesty, and prayed, letting her holy music take him away.
Or as in Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, a simple way to add instantly recognizable movement/emotion to otherwise ordinary reactions.
- Harry Potter: “Shan’t say nothing if you don’t say please,” said Peeves in his annoying singsong voice.” (HP Ch.9).
- Twilight: “Somewhere nearby, I could hear the bubbling music of a stream.” (TW Ch.12).
- “Let’s give a big round of applause to our newest tribute!” trills Effie Trinket. (HG p.23)
I hope you give these 10 ways to incorporate music into your story a try. Let’s stick this index card in Chapter 7 and Chapter 15 of the master outline as a reminder to pump up the jams!