What Spider Robinson and Miracle of Sound Taught Me about Music in Books

Stop right there. Step away from the keyboard and keep your hands by your sides.

Thank you. Now, can I ask you to do me a favour, please? If you’ve read this article’s headline, you may well be about to Google “Spider Robinson” or “Miracle of Sound” or some such just to find out what I’m on about. Can you hold off doing so, please? (I’ve actually embedded the video clip in question there, so no need for Googling.)

Cheers. Right. On with it.

On Saturday morning, I listened to the latest song by the one-man band known as Miracle of Sound. Composer / performer Gavin Dunne pens and records tracks based on popular video games, and while the results are occasionally cheesy, they’re almost always fun.

His most recent number, “Normandy,” is inspired by the video game Mass Effect 2, and it’s the first song that actually brought a lump to my throat in ages. It’s not without it’s problems, though, and thinking about them led me to a subject that’s been bugging me for a while: The presentation of music lyrics in works of fiction.

Speaking personally, if there’s one element guaranteed to slap me out of the world that a work of fiction creates so hard that I’ll put the book down, it’s putting song lyrics in a book, even when said book is by one of my favourite authors, like Spider Robinson. The thing is, I want Slamdance to include music, both in terms of pop culture references and the schtick of one of my villains. How do I get around my own preferences?

Identifying my problems with music is a good start, and “Normandy” seems to have arrived at just the right time to help out.

Good Music can Carry Dodgy Lyrics

Taken on their own, “Normandy’s” lyrics seem odd. Here’s the last three lines from the chorus:

This trust will not be torn apart
Control the violence in your hearts
We gave our lives to Normandy

They remind me of the chorus of Muse’s “Undisclosed Desires,” which always makes me roll my eyes – I feel like they were trying a tad too hard to be clever. Still, like Muse, the lyrics work because they’ve got a great tune behind them.

Strip that tune out, though, and you’ve got a bunch of words that sort of make sense but seem silly on their own, especially that rather weak line, “Control the violence in your hearts.” And while they have a kind of a kind of rhythm to them, the rest of the lyrics aren’t so fortunate in isolation. Take the first four lines:

A faint shimmering
The blaze of a dying star
Rays glimmering
Flares flash and glare from afar

This is why I asked you to refrain from Googling earlier on. If you don’t know the song, how do you imagine those four lines sound? Can you come up with a working rhythm for them to follow? There’s certainly not a clear one from the text alone, at least not to my eye.

Now listen to this (after the commercial, anyway):

See how the lyrics suddenly work a heap better with music behind them, especially when the melody goes from quiet, pacey synth harmony in the intro and verses to full-on rock ballad in the chorus? I bet you that when Gavin Dunne plays that tune live next, he’ll have the audience yelling, “We gave our lives to Nor-man-deeeeeeeee, yeah!” at the end of the second and final choruses on the strength of its melodic ramp-up alone.

Even Good Lyrics are Awkward Without Rhythm and Melody

Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon anthology, by Spider Robinson

One of my favourite authors manages to get putting lyrics into prose both right and wrong in the one short story. Spider Robinson‘s “The Law of Conservation of Pain” features the complete lyrical content of no fewer than three songs by the author. “The Drunkard’s Song” is a bawdy piece that builds the tone of the story’s setting, Callahan’s Place. While it’s a story in song form, about a couple of guys who drink an inheritance away in one night, its rhythm is easy to divine and it’s chock-full of Robinson’s signature humour, especially puns. That’s what makes it a great mood-setter.

The problem? It’s lyrics without music. My inner imaginator doesn’t just work on visuals or speech, it wants to work on music too. The problem is, I’m not a muse-o (an Australian-ism for a talented musician), so most of the time my inner ear generates something crap, and I know it.

It’s one of the main reasons I like to read science fiction or fantasy; my imagination can fill in gaps in description without having to worry about accuracy – right until it comes to music.

Incidentally, Robinson recorded “The Drunkard’s Song” for a CD of his tunes and readings of his stories, and it’s a great number – but it turns out the verses are actually spoken.

Lyrics Need To Tell The Story Better Than Prose

Then there’s “The Suicide Song,” performed by a woman who personifies the pain and confusion of a whole civilisation. Again it’s a song-story about a woman who dies quietly in a snow-drift, but in addition to the lyrics, spoken-word pieces that set the story’s scene and detail the circumstances of the sung point-of-view of the dying woman book-end the song and appear between each verse.

So it’s a story within a story within the main story, all of which conspire to place you square in the horrid dilemma facing the time-traveller who just walked into the bar – and the bar’s patrons, who have to decide what they’re going to do abut the awful choice he’s prepared to make.

The problem was, as a non-muse-o I was already struggling with how the tune was meant to sound; it felt as though Robinson was trying to not just hammer home the mood of the song and the room (which he also does by describing the reactions of the bar’s patrons to the music) but also trying to show off his skill not just as a writer of fiction but as a lyricist.

Finally, there’s an unnamed song performed by the same woman which serves to resolve the story. It doesn’t have the spoken-word parts of “The Suicide Song” and its subject matter is actual emotion rather than narrating events – right up until the four line bridge between the third and fourth verses where Robinson shoehorns the plot’s resolution into the song’s lyrics. In addition to saddling me, the reader, with the workload of processing the song-without-melody in the first place, Robinson then turned a good mood-piece into a plot device and asked me to deal with an awkward and contrived resolution.

Doing Music Well by Getting It Out of the Way

Kitty and the Midnight Hour, by Carrie Vaughn

For a series whose protagonist is a graveyard shift DJ, the Kitty Norville books have a surprisingly small amount of music in them. Author Carrie Vaughn is certainly well versed in both literature and music, but she writes some cracking urban paranormal action (not romance; it’s the third book before the lead actually falls in love, and even then it’s the side story) plots and sells Kitty Norville as a DJ without writing a single lyric into her text.

What she does instead is put a play list of actual tunes as a preface to every book, allowing the reader to choose just how much he or she wants to get stuck into the Kitty Norville soundtrack.

How do You Decide the Amount of Music to Include?

You know all those writing advice articles that suggest you work up a profile of the audience member you’re going for? I reckon that, when considering the inclusion of music lyrics in any book I write, I need to decide whether that prospective reader is willing to take on the load of composer on top of their existing imaginative duties of set design, casting and direction. Is my imaginary reader musically savvy? Will they feel as uncomfortable with lyrics as myself?

And if I really love a particular song and think it would perfectly suit scene X, can I communicate the mood without actually making direct reference to it?

But Enough About Me, Gentle Readers: What About You?

What works have you read that incorporated lyrics form songs – or music in general – well? What made that incorporation work?