The Music in My Characters’ Heads

June 25, 2017

The internet is filled with all kinds of surveys bent on sussing out the real you.

Your favorite color or favorite flower or favorite whatever is supposed to provide clues to your unfiltered self.

But I think I have a more reliable method for putting my finger on someone’s pulse and gleaning what makes them tick. I want to know what kind of music they like.

I’m not talking about sweeping generalizations, such as NASCAR fans’ supposed affinity for country music or teenage goths’ association with emo. I love lots of music in both genres, for instance, and I’m not exactly a poster child for either Sturgill Simpson’s or Elliott Smith’s target demographics.

I’m talking about a deeper dive. I’m intrigued by specific melodies or lyrics that resonate with someone’s soul. Of course, our musical tastes can change with time and circumstances. But the songs that you’ve tucked into your psyche for all time into for one reason or another — reasons you’re probably not even clear on yourself . . . are the ones I consider the most telling.

This doesn’t mean the songs themselves are particularly profound. For instance, the lyric “mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divie” is etched into my psyche, thanks to my mom’s beautiful voice, just as indelibly as “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” (Mairzy Doats just blew my spellcheck’s mind, by the way.) No, the songs or the lyrics or the melodies aren’t necessarily profound, but the implications usually are.

I read once that someone’s earliest memory speaks to how they view the world. This is because our lives are filled with experiences, but only some are committed to our memory banks, and the one that springs to your mind as the “first” has imprinted on your brain for a reason. Likewise, we may “like” a million different songs but the ones that make us spontaneously cry or smile have laid the groundwork, or served as the soundtrack, for the person we’ve become. As Daniel J. Levin notes in his amazing book, This Is Your Brain on Music, “Music may be the activity that prepared our pre-human ancestors for speech communication and for the very cognitive, representational flexibility necessary to become humans.”

Yeah. I think music speaks to the essence of what it means to be human — to feel, to connect, to dream, to love.

That’s why when I’m beginning a novel and trying to slip into my character’s skin, what I’m most interested in isn’t her name or height or hair color, but the playlist blaring from her car as she tools down the interstate with her hair blowing in the wind. As a young-adult author, I’m often asked how I stay current on youthful lingo, or trends, or fashion, or whatever. And yeah, that can be a challenge. But what I really want to stay current on is their music. It’s usually the Chainsmokers or Khalid or Maren Morris trilling through my speakers as I write, not because I’m a poser but because I need to access a particular mindset as I lose myself in someone else’s story, and nothing transports me there more reliably than music. And lo and behold, even as I grow to love my characters, I usually grow to love their music too.

Of course, none of my novels have immersed me more totally in music than my upcoming title, All the Wrong Chords. The novel is about a band, the Beastings, and I wrote the lyrics for an album that will accompany the book. What an amazing experience it’s been to hear my words set to music by some of the most talented musicians on the planet. The album will drop in December, but if you’d like to hear the first single, visit https://soundcloud.com/user-710816222/sailing-on

Granted, music is usually more of a bit player in my novels. Typically, if it shows up at all in my narrative, it’s a quick in-and-out, rather than the starring role it plays in “All the Wrong Chords.”

But rest assured that no matter what my novel’s subject matter is, I’m always attuned to the music in my characters’ heads.

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© 2020 Christine Hurley Deriso