Soundtracking a Scene: How Music Impacts my Writing

I love music. It’s such a simple but profound statement. Music has always been a staple in my life. I remember getting my first Sony Walkman with Michael Jackson’s Dangerous cassette for Christmas in elementary school. I remember my boom box, and listening to the radio, waiting for my favorite songs to come on so I could record on my mix tape. I never did get the first five seconds of any song. I always had something playing at night to help me fall asleep. Music has helped me study, write papers, exercise, work, and so much more. Even now as I write this, a Chvrches album plays in the background.

Music also factors into my judgment of entertainment. Whether it’s a movie, TV series, or video game, my favorites always have great music. Music has such a strong emotional connection to it. Every time I hear “To Zanarkand,” it stirs emotions deep inside about playing through Final Fantasy X. Or the sweet acoustic guitar and flute combo from Rurouni Kenshin. The “Imperial March” from Star Wars. The main theme from Braveheart. The anthem that plays at the beginning of Top Gun right before the F-14 takes off and Kenny Loggins starts blaring. If you’re familiar with any of those songs from any of those story, chances are you just had an emotional moment thinking about one of them.

A solid storyline with compelling characters and a killer soundtrack. That’s my kind of story.

I’ve been through a lot of music eras, from walkman to discman to minidisc player to iPod to smartphone streaming. Music has always been a constant in my life. And when I started writing, nothing changed. I wanted to incorporate my love for music into my writing, but how do you do that in a strictly text-based media? The answer was soundtracking. Not necessarily a soundtrack while reading a book, though.

In the same way that good soundtracks enhance the story of a TV show or movie, I use “soundtracks” to help me write scenes. I soundtrack every scene I write. Over the past few years, I have developed several playlists, each tailored to specific types of scenes. I take music from soundtracks to movies, TV, video games, anime, and even everyday music and put them into playlists to help me feel out a scene.

I’ve heard several authors discuss the emotional connection that should be present in scenes. The common saying goes something like, “If you don’t feel it when you write it, then your readers will not feel it when they read it.” If I can write a scene that makes me tear up or pumps me up or simply strikes that right chord deep inside, then I’ve done my job. The emotion I feel writing gets transferred into the scene and eventually to the reader. Soundtracking is how I get there.

My playlists help me find that emotional state. My fight scene playlist, for example, contains songs from various action or martial arts soundtracks and rock or metal bands. The fast-paced, energetic music gets my adrenaline pumping and puts me into one-on-one fight mode. My tear jerker playlist, on the other hand, contains slow, melodic, string-heavy songs that pull at the heart. Epic battles, tense moments, powerful speeches, I have a playlist for just about every type of scene.

It doesn’t stop there, though. Other playlists are more specific to a story or characters, like by dystopia playlist. I have a character in my Legends of the Houkou trilogy who plays a bit of a comic relief role, but he’s also inspired by some Celtic tradition, so I created a playlist for him with music from movies like Braveheart, but also some goofy songs that set up that comic relief.

Because the music puts me in that emotional state, I can better write scenes with that emotion in mind. Then it becomes a matter of transferring the emotional state of the music into words on the page. It’s been extremely helpful in writing those poignant scenes where I want to elicit a specific emotion from a reader. When I go back and read the scene without the music, the emotion spills from the page.

Soundtracking a scene has brought me a long way in writing the emotional content of my stories. My hope is that someday I may be able to utilize that in an actual story much like soundtracks for visual media. Maybe with the rise of e-readers I can one day write a story that has a soundtrack connected to different scenes that will play audibly from the e-reader while readers reads that scene.