Music Through the Ages

Even if I hadn’t been working this year, I’m not the kind of person to stand in line for Black Friday deals. That said, I did take advantage of one Black Friday special this year and I’m glad I did. It was the download of Abney Park’s New Nostalgics and in retrospect, I would have been pleased with this album if I’d paid full price for it. This album is comprised entirely of songs from the early 20th century covered in modern style by the band Abney Park. There are songs about airships, burlesque halls, and how people who built the modern world often aren’t the ones who see its benefits. What makes the download really special is a 20-minute “documentary” by the band’s lead singer and songwriter, Robert Brown, where he plays snippets of the old recordings of the songs and then follows that with how he updated them for a modern audience. You can pick up the album in the music downloads section at http://abneypark.com/market/

Music has always been an important part of my writing. Often, when I write, I like to have instrumental music on in the background that captures the mood of what I’m trying to create. In fact, one of the things I like about Abney Park is that they provide instrumental-only versions of many of their albums and I use those a lot when I’m writing steampunk or retrofuturistic fiction. I also like to collect soundtracks of favorite films or TV shows. Listening to those can be a great way for me to get into the proper mindset for a given scene, whether it be romance, action, or suspense.

While I prefer to listen to instrumental music while I’m in the process of writing, I love listening to songs from a period of time I’m going to write about as part of my research for historical fiction. It provides a valuable window into the things that brought joy and sadness to previous generations. You can often catch slang terms people might have used. If you catch an odd turn of phrase in an old song, it’s often worth looking it up to see if it had a broader meaning. Maybe it’s something you can use in your story. In setting a scene, I often like to describe the kinds of music people are listening to. Even if I don’t mention a particular song, I like to mention the kinds of instruments people heard.

That covers the past, but what about the future? While part of me loves it when a science fiction character espouses their love of David Bowie or Dolly Parton, part of me groans. While I hope these artists will still be known two or three centuries down the road, I’m pretty sure they won’t be mainstream. People in the future will be writing and singing their own songs. They’ll write about their own heroes, like Jayne in Firefly’s “The Hero of Canton” or the ballads sung about Edmund Swan in my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. There will be new musical forms and maybe even alien instruments. As a writer, you don’t necessarily have to write these songs, but you can add some color by mentioning them and talking about how they make the characters in your story feel.

With that, it’s time for me to go listen to some good music and find some inspiration. If you would like to see how I write about futuristic music, you can read The Pirates of Sufiro by subscribing to my Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

3 comments on “Music Through the Ages

  1. In regard to musicians being mainstream past their time, there is the case of Johan Sebastian Bach. He was largely forgotten as a composer as his music was considered “old-fashioned” even for his time, but he became one of the most famous composers in western music much later.

    As for writing, I believe many writers listen to music when they’re writing fiction. Working as a journalist in an office, that essentially didn’t happen, but I often do that at home when writing fiction.

    I remember writing a one-act play that I wanted to be disturbing (inspired by the work of Harlan Ellison). I tuned my radio to a spot in between two stations where I found an irritating, wavering tone, and wrote most of the play to that.

    I directed the play at a college, then on opening night sat anonymously in the audience. That was the only audience in my years in theatre where the audience left in virtual silence. They were very disturbed, which was my intent. I think listening to that sound on the radio helped.

    • Your point about Bach underscores a related point that I didn’t make explicitly. Simply that it’s hard to predict who from our time will survive and be popular in the future.

      I think music can be useful for non-fiction if you’re hoping to express an emotion through your work — for example, if you’re writing a non-fictional, but persuasive essay. As a journalist, I presume you were concerned primarily with conveying the facts without an emotional bias, so I can understand not using music in that case for sure.

  2. […] album is Abney Park’s Through Your Eyes on Christmas Eve. As I mentioned in my recent post Music Through the Ages, Abney Park’s songwriter and lead singer, Robert Brown, has a great understanding of older […]

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