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On music

Music as wallpaper is something my children take for granted. In the car or the train, on a walk or writing an essay, they have earphones firmly in place and a discernible bass line emanating from them.

Part of me is a little bit horrified by the idea of wrap-around music. It’s not that I don’t like music: quite the opposite. Nor is it that I’m past embracing the technology (we had the Walkman, didn’t we?), nor that I think homework requires undivided attention. In my time I was a dab hand at juggling the Chartists with Crackerjack on the telly.

It’s more that I find it difficult to relegate music to the background. I’d love to write to music (Bach or Chopin, I confess, not Calvin Harris), but it won’t stay in the background: it asserts its presence, demands my full attention, stops my characters in their tracks. Many of their lives are infused with music too – and when it finds its way into my books, it often has almost the same status as a character or a place, almost the same dramatic importance as a storm or a fight or a declaration of love.

Whether we listen to music 24 hours a day or much more rarely, few of us would deny its significance. Holidays are characterised by their playlists, relationships charted by the songs we fell in love to, argued to, consoled ourselves with. But how do you write about music – about what it sounds like, what it means, what effect it has? How much easier it is to describe a house or a landscape or a face; to touch in the significant details of street life or sunshine. How many traps there are in cliché when you want to describe a flowing melody or a thumping beat.

Of course it’s perfectly possible for your faithful reader to find a piece of music on YouTube or Spotify within seconds, if they don’t already know the band or the string quartet you’re referring to. But although that’s a great way to complement the experience of reading, it seems to me a bit of a cop-out to rely on it. You could just as well say that there’s no need to describe what it’s like being in the rainforest or the desert, riding a rollercoaster or sailing a rickety dinghy, because Google and Wikipedia can supply photos and videos to fill in the gaps.

Of course there’s a danger in going too far the other way – letting the plot get bogged down in intricate detail as our protagonist wakes up, gets dressed, eats breakfast. Fascinating as those things might be, we might choose to gloss over them in order to get her out into the world a little quicker. And maybe the music in her MP3 player is unimportant too – but maybe it’s not.

It’s all a question of choosing what matters to us, to our characters, to the reader we’re expecting to take an interest in them. If the coat someone is wearing is significant, we need to capture the way they walk in it. If the bar they pass means something, we need to evoke it. If the music they hear affects them, it needs to affect us too.

So if I listen to music when I’m writing, it’s by way of research – like visiting a French chateau or tasting some delicious Moroccan pastry (yes, that’s research…). I’m trying to recall its contours and flavours, to tease out its mood, to identify the emotions it arouses and how it does it. I'm trying to capture the current of my characters' lives, to see and hear the world as they do, so that other people can share their lives too.

What do writers do all day?
On location

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