How Narrative Fiction can Enhance Music, and Vice Versa.

When I was younger, my parents tried their best to help me develop a musical life. I remember my first piano lesson with my father–around five or six years old, I would guess–and both the excitement preceding it, the first few enthusiastic practice sessions, and the eventual frustration with my parent’s well-meaning encouragement to practice every day, and for longer than five minutes. I was in music lessons–first piano, then violin, then acoustic guitar–until middle school, at which point I took up the bass guitar of my own volition in order to secure a coveted position in the middle school youth group band. In college, I was part of a short-lived “tiny guitar band” with a hall mate, him on the ukulele and me on the mandolin. But after freshman year I had more or less given up on music as a form of expression, shifting my attention instead to writing.

This antenna galaxy looks kind of like a backwards bass clef. Otherwise, picture unrelated.
This antenna galaxy looks kind of like a backwards bass clef. Otherwise, picture unrelated.

But music is still a big part of my life. I listen to it when I write, when I’m on the subway, or when I’m feeling like doing nothing more than lying on the couch with headphones in. I listen mostly to either low-key folksy rock music — Fleet Foxes, Sigur Ros, and Lorde, with Daft Punk thrown in as an outlier–or aggressive, up-beat anti-establishment music–Rage Against the Machine, Tool, Modest Mouse, System of a Down. Oh, and also Kanye West, who for some reason helps me write about cavemen and dragons. But that’s another blog post.

Two of my favorite songs are “Cosmic Love” by Florence & The Machine and “Cowboy Dan” by Modest Mouse. Both songs have become more meaningful to me because of interactions between narrative fiction and musical storytelling, though in quite different ways.

“Cowboy Dan” has been with me longer. In middle school, my older brother and I would ride the bus for half an hour to attend poorly-taught Latin classes with some other homeschooled kids, and I would frequently listen to Modest Mouse’s album “Lonesome Crowded West” on those bus rides. I developed a strange and personal attachment to “Cowboy Dan.” I would frequently wonder about what had driven the song’s eponymous protagonist to his desperate state, and during high school I thrice tried my hand at writing a short story derived from the emotions and imagery of the song. None of those stories were any good, but each caused me to examine the song in a different way. One story was a straight-up western, and though the story itself was fine I hated it because it was so tonally dissonant with the song I was inspired by. A month ago I finally managed to write a story–also titled “Cowboy Dan,” and currently in the process of being submitted to short story markets–which captured the tone of the song and the emotions it made me feel, though it strayed far from the actual meaning of the song. In this way the process of arriving at my “Cowboy Dan” story helped me to understand what was important to me about the song, and I have a better appreciation of what my love for the song says about me as a person now that I have come to that understanding.

I don’t remember when I first heard “Cosmic Love” by Florence and the Machine, but it couldn’t have been before senior year of high school. At any rate, I have enjoyed the song for as long as I’ve been aware of it, but it was not one of my favorites until a year ago when I stumbled upon a reddit thread by user Ganeos-Stabro_Paran on the Malazan Book of the Fallen fan subreddit in which he listed a number of songs which reminded him of characters from the series (spoiler warning if you click that link). I can’t explain why due to spoilers, but he selected “Cosmic Love” as representative of the relationship between two characters. I listened to the song again with those characters in mind, and I almost wept. It was a perfect connection, at least in my mind. And now “Cosmic Love” has taken on a whole new meaning for me, and whenever I listen to it I get the same hollow, sad feeling I first experienced when reading that part of the Malazan series. This, despite the fact that as far as I can tell “Cosmic Love” itself has nothing to do with those particular characters, nor any particular connection to the details of their relationship. Again, the connection seems to be purely tonal and emotional, but the connection is incredibly strong.

So what to take away from this? First, music and narrative fiction are both powerful, and a lot of that power comes from tone and the way that it evokes emotions in the reader/listener. Second exploring a song through narrative fiction–whether by writing a story inspired by it, by imagining a narrative behind the music, or by connecting the music to a preexisting narrative–can make the music itself tremendously more meaningful. I’m not sure why that is, or even if it’s a universally accessible phenomenon. But, for me at least, I will be on the lookout for music to inspire stories, or stories to lend an additional weight to music.

What do you think? If you have any similar experiences, feel free to share them in the comments. Or, if you think I’m a pretentious fool, go ahead and let me know. I’ve been thickening my skin on rejection letters lately.


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