How Music Can Improve Your Writing—A Three Part Series

By Nichole Roundy Jarnagin

Part I – Learning From Songwriters and Lyricists.

Have you ever got into your car, turned on the radio, and ended up at your destination but don’t remember how you got there? Sometimes I find myself so caught up in the “story” of a song, it takes me to another place entirely. So how does this pertain to us, as writers?

Songs are amazing if you think about it. The average song is only 2-3 minutes long. Each detail revealed—or NOT revealed—is critical. Not a single word can afford to be wasted. A songwriter does in five stanzas what a novelist does in three hundred pages. When this hit me, I realized I could learn a thing or two about writing by studying song lyrics. Granted, not all songs tell a story, but the ones that do are worth your time and attention.

Here’s a great example. Prince has a song called Raspberry Beret (1985) . . . moment of awkward silence while you laugh and make fun of me. Okay, moving on. Prince has a song called Raspberry Beret that is basically brilliant from a storytelling standpoint. Let me quote the first two stanzas.

“Seems that I was busy doing something close to nothing
But different than the day before
That’s when I saw her, ooh, I saw her
She walked in through the out door, out door

She wore a
Raspberry beret
The kind you find in a second hand store
Raspberry beret
And if it was warm she wouldn’t wear much more”

This short segment of lyrics reveals a plethora of information about these two characters. We’re going to focus on the female, dissecting it line by line. Here’s what we learn:

“She walks in through the out door.” This is the kind of girl who defies rules and social expectations. Does she do it for attention or because she’s a rebel? Or maybe she’s lazy and the “out” door was closer. Regardless of her exact motivation, the simple act of her entering through the “out” door is revealing.

“She wore a raspberry beret.” Why would she choose a beret? You wear a baseball cap to keep the sun out of your eyes or to support your favorite sports team. You wear a beanie to stay warm. So why did she choose a beret and a raspberry one at that? What does this say about her? Is she eccentric? Is she attention-seeking? Maybe both. I get the feeling she’s her own person. She knows who she is right down to her toenails and she isn’t afraid to show it.

“The kind you find in a secondhand store.” If I remember correctly — and I do — it wasn’t super cool to thrift shop in the 80s. Maybe the beret was a little shabby looking. Or maybe it was just barely out of style, enough to make it a fashion faux pas. This detail shows us she doesn’t care what anyone thinks. She’s fearless. Rock that D.I. beret, Prince girl!

“And if it was warm she wouldn’t wear much more.” This line adds impact to what has already been established. She’s a free-spirited, slightly rebellious but self assured girl who isn’t afraid. She’s exposed, open, yet vulnerable. It leaves us wondering what’s in store for these two.

Listen to the song in its entirety to get to know these two characters better. They are a book in and of themselves.

When dissecting lyrics I try to pay attention to what’s IMPLIED as well as what’s stated. Sometimes you can convey meaning in fewer words by using this method. Here’s an example from a Diamond Rio song called, Two Pump Texaco.

“He was wipin’ motor oil off her dipstick
She was pullin’ on the hair that got caught in her lipstick
And with the smell of her perfume he forgot the smell of gasoline
As he was toppin’ off her tank she said, “How far to Abilene?”

He sees ’em come
He sees ’em go
From the island of his
Two pump Texaco”

Here are some details I see, even though these things are never directly stated:

• It’s a small town in the middle of nowhere (two-pumps as opposed to six)
• The gas attendant is thoughtful—pondering the comings and goings of the people he services (It’s from his POV)
• He’s a dreamer (he lets her perfume distract him as an escape)
• She’s driving a convertible, or at least her window is down (hair caught in lipstick).
• It’s a nice day outside (again, convertible or window down)
• She’s beautiful (wearing lipstick and perfume)
• She’s wealthy (convertible and she’s using full service gas station)
• They’re in Texas (otherwise she would have said “How far to Abilene, Texas” and not just “How far to Abilene?”)
• She has blond hair. Okay, I totally made that one up but you get the idea.

Using only select words, the songwriter has painted a picture in your head, and yet you filled in most of the details yourself. Notice how the songwriter never mentioned one word about the weather and yet we can see as plain as day it’s not raining or snowing or gusting wind. Therefore, we can picture blue, sunny, skies.

As writers we need to pick and choose what to say and what to withhold. I firmly believe what you withhold is as critical as what you reveal. Just know you’re reasons for doing so.

What are some of your favorite lyrics or songwriters? (Sting is my absolute favorite — he’s a great writer.) What songs or songwriters have inspired your writing? How do you personally translate their techniques into your writing?

The next two segments will focus on creating a playlist to inspire mood/tone in your novel and using music to stimulate your own alpha brain waves to be more creative.

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6 responses to “How Music Can Improve Your Writing—A Three Part Series

  • Chas Hathaway

    This is so true. Even writing music myself, it’s a bit of a mystery, and I’m mostly an instrumentalist. It takes me many chapters–sometimes a whole book, to elicit the emotional response that I can create in a 3 minute musical composition. That can be a little frustrating as a writer, since writing a book usually takes considerably longer than writing and performing a piece of music.

    Music, for me, seems to work a lot like a recipe. Put all the elements together, mixing consonance and dissonance, play them at the right pace, with a careful ebb and flow of dynamics and tempo, allow for both sound and silence in proper quantities, and the result is a powerful and delicious emotional response.

    I think writing is much the same. There has to be a great story, told right, with the right words, mixed together with the right pacing, conflict, resolution, with a careful flow of voice, drama, and humor, and the result is a powerful and delicious emotional response.

    I once heard it said that architecture is frozen music. I think writing is, too, in a slightly different way.

    Great post.

  • Lillian

    great comment Chas! Nichole, Love this piece, and I can’t wait to read more.

  • The writer’s playlist: 15 songs to inspire better creative writing – Tyler Lehmann

    […] “How Music Can Improve Your Writing—A Three Part Series” on Writing Snippets […]

  • anonymous

    Excellent post. Gives me a lot to think about while I’m revising. I need to be more subtle about my descriptions and figure out what to leave out.

  • Nichole

    Chas– good insight. I love the quote you shared: architecture is frozen music. Lots to think about.

  • M.L. Forman

    Songs are one of the oldest methods of story telling known to man. Chanting the old tales around the fire or the bards telling stories of heros while playing the lute. The story told in a song may be simple and short but it reveals much more than the words say, or don’t say as the case may be. Writers can learn a lot by listening to the unspoken words in songs, and in learning that not everything needs to be said plainly their writing becomes more enchanting to the reader.

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