Music’s important to a lot of people. I know I have excellent taste in music:
Because music is so important to people, I’ve seen it discussed in literature quite a bit. Sometimes, it’s done well – and other times, it’s not.
Here’s what I’ve gleaned over my brief years in life.
5. Keep Poetry in Prose Short
Songs written out in a book appear as poetry, unless you’ve figured out a way to use magic and include actual noise in your pages. Though songs are usually longer than a few lines, you probably don’t want to include the whole thing in your book.
I would say that about 95% of the time, I skip poetry of any sort – including songs – when I’m reading a prose novel. The last 5% is either the REALLY impressive stuff (like the songs in The Lord of the Rings) or something on the order of 3-10 lines long. And I’m someone who reads poetry on my own!
People who don’t study poetry often don’t even like poetry. Poetry in English is strange because the forms are all sorts of weird. In East Asian poetry, the number of syllables and shape of the poem is important and gives it life. In the Romance languages, the words flow and rhyme easily. In English? Our bastard tongue makes either of those types of poetry difficult difficult lemon difficult.*
That means the quicker you get your poem out, the less likely you are to throw off a prose-liking audience. If you want my suggestion for how to include poetry (and thus song fragments) in a book, I would suggest reading Where the Crawdads Sing.
4. Keep the Lyrics Relevant
Poems and songs carry a lot of weight in real life, and it should be even moreso in a novel. When you take the time to include a piece of a song in your mostly prose story, that break in the narrative needs to pack as much punch as possible.
Luckily, poetry can shove a lot into a small space (which I still don’t understand how). While poetry rarely forwards the plot, you have an array of important things you can include to enmesh it more fully with your story. Here’s a brief, brief list of things you can include in your poetry to help glue it into your story more fully.
- Foreshadowing (SO common with poetry and songs in books – just read the Tolkien songs in LotR)
- Background information (but be careful! it can bog down easily)
Once you get that done, it’s still important to carry through what you wrote. Make the foreshadowing come true, perhaps call back to the song without being explicit. People will carry the words of a poem on their hearts – let the words fall in when you crack their shells rather than shoving the poem in. Soft, yet forceful.
Like I’ve said before, do at least two things at once when you write. Don’t just put in a bit of poetry as a puzzle and expect it to be important. Make it be a part of your story and carry it.
3. Music Doesn’t Define a Character (and yet it does)
Does your character only listen to the darkest things like “Homicidal Retribution” by Dying Fetus**?
Sure, that defines the character… but it could easily define them in the wrong way. Hear me out.
When a character is very into a certain type of music, it doesn’t just define them: it puts them in part of a group. Music is rarely enjoyed by a single person, and the group of people then becomes important. Characters who are loners? Music still puts them in a group. It’ll give them a label.
For good or ill, yes, music and the groups that listen to them are usually defined in middle and high school (or whatever you foreigners call school for people between 12 and 18). The group you associated with in high school will forever have a certain place in your heart, and you’ll see the music you listened to differently from someone who hung out with a different group. Same thing for age – you’ll have different feelings about music from your time period in high school than other people will.
So when your character listens to “Second Death” by Abysmal Torment**, you may see them as a hero of edge, sass, and darkness. Other people will see them as losers. Other people will see them as scary. Clowns like me will be like “lol”.
Your character’s music may define them, but it doesn’t define them in the same way for every reader. It’s such a double edge sword that it must be considered very, very carefully.
2. Music Doesn’t Define Your Setting (and yet it does)
This is going to have a lot of similarities to the above, but it really has more to do with talk about technical things.
A relatively common trope I’ve seen is the use of songs to give a sense of place and, more importantly, time. Just name-drop the Beatles and put in a “Yellow Submarine,” and you’ve set your book in the 1960’s (or you’re trying to say your character listens to old music, but you can see #3 for that). The time period in which certain musical styles, songs, and artists were popular can easily be defined.
At the same time, it’s all just references. References are good for people who get them, but no one else.
Ready Player One is the grand poo-bah of all reference books. Including elements of music as well as everything else, the book makes extensive use of anything 80’s pop culture in attempt to build its world. From what I can gather, it works.
But only for people who already knew the information.
People who weren’t around during the 80’s (such as yours truly) and who haven’t studied up on it will get only a smattering of references. While dropping names of people and songs can help your intended audience feel in the moment, it can cause readers unfamiliar with it some stress. Any time something needs to be researched, it dampens the narrative.
My suggestion is to not reference music unless the information is almost universally known. The Beatles, for instance, are a household name and common knowledge. Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley also maintain a similarly important cultural niche (for now at least). Lyrics are almost impossible for people to catch, as well, so I wouldn’t rely on them as references at all.
In the end, know your audience and make your passage easy to read.
1. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON’T RELY ON A SONG’S WORDS
I said earlier to avoid lyrics for the purpose of setting. Now I’m going to tell you why you should just avoid putting in lyrics at all:
Yes, that’s right. You can usually get away with referencing things or including small bits of a song, but here’s the thing: every time I’ve seen this done, whether in an indie book or a traditionally published book, it’s usually not… good.
Like with the danger for characters and for settings, music evokes different feelings for different people. Your feel-good music could scream “PSYCHO KILLER” to someone else. Trying to find depth in lyrics is hard (with the exception of American Pie, I guess).
Most people reach their peak “into music” phase as a teen. Many teens define themselves by what music they listen to, and defining a book by a song reminds me of that. It makes me, at least, feel like a book is a teenager. Regardless of the defining song, it seems…
By a long shot, this article has been the one relying least on research and most on my opinion so far. Do you agree with what I’ve said? Have a bone with me to pick? Let me know in the comments!
*difficult difficult lemon difficult is supposed to be making fun of easy peasy lemon squeezy.
**I enjoy listening to the local college station at 5-7pm on Friday night. The DJ is this Aubrey Plaza sounding woman who explains why the maggots on such and such album cover thrills her, and it makes me laugh endlessly. I just have to put up with vomit sounds, oinking, and people singing about putting pig blood on their penises in order to listen to this fantastic, anonymous person.