Music in Fiction – Part One – Guest Post by Christine Campbell…

We are all readers.

I can say that with a pretty good degree of certainty because I know I am – and I know you are because you are reading this article right now. Perhaps you are a lover of non-fiction and that’s why you are reading it, or perhaps the title has drawn you in because it is something to do with fiction.

Some of you may also be writers, as I am.

There are many devices we can use to help us bring our writing to life. In this short series of articles, I take a fairly light-hearted look at just one of them. Music.

7256543 - musical notes on blue and white swirls
Licence to use obtained – Copyright: soleilc1 / 123RF Stock Photo

I don’t intend to become too scholarly about it, so, if you’re looking for in-depth analysis of the part music plays in fiction, I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere. However, I do aim to share some interesting thoughts and examples with you, and hopefully get you thinking about how music is used in classical and popular literature, how I use it in my writing, and how you might use it in your own writing.

No matter whether you are readers or writers, or both, I wonder if you have noticed how much music features in fiction. Have a few titles sprung to mind straight away?

Titles like High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, The Piano by Jane Campion & Kate Pullinger, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, or An Equal Music by Vikram Seth.

Maybe you remember The Mozart Season by the American children’s author, Virginia Euwer Wolff – not to be confused with the British modernist author, Virginia Woolf.

If any of these titles were the ones you thought of without hesitation, it may be because these are all books in which the main theme is music and/or musicians.

As a reader, you may assume it would only be if you had a strong interest in music that you would enjoy such books. As a writer, that you don’t know enough about the subject to build a novel round it.

What if you are mistaken on both counts? And what about the novels where music has a place, but is not the central theme?

These are some of the questions I thought we could explore together – because I’m hoping you will help me out over this short series of articles by sharing in your comments the titles that came to your mind when I brought up the subject. I’d love if you could share your thoughts on some of the novels you’ve read that use music as the central theme, mention it in passing, or use it skilfully to help move the story along or expand the characters.

Let’s start with novels that are mainly about the music or the musicians.

I read a great quote by Rolling Stone writer Anthony DeCurtis where he talks about “the edgy relationship” between music and the written word. “Words are long-standing symbols of permanence. Music ultimately is ephemeral, evaporating into your unreliable memory once you’ve heard it. In taking music as their inspiration, writers seek to capture some of that immediacy, that spirit of the moment, and hold it still for their reader’s pleasure.”

Isn’t that what every reader wants? For a story ‘to capture some of that immediacy, that spirit of the moment, and hold it still for their pleasure’? No matter the genre, is that not what writers strive to do?

One of the books in which that ‘spirit of the moment was held still’ for my pleasure was An Equal Music by Vikram Seth.

I am not a musician and I do not have a musical background. Nor am I knowledgeable about music in any way at all. But this book grabbed my attention and held it throughout.

Vikram Seth did not just write this novel – he composed it.

It is a simple story, a basic plot, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again, yet it is a beautiful novel, a powerful and deeply romantic tale of two gifted musicians whose love story is orchestrated to take the reader to places as different one from another as Rochdale, Vienna, Venice and London, all beautifully accompanied by music.

You could almost say that music is one of the main characters in the story because this novel is full of descriptions of various pieces of classical music by composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. In fact, you might even say the true love affair is with music.

Vikram Seth says in the “Author’s note” to this book, ”Music is dearer to me even than speech.” I believe him.

And that’s what makes the writing work for me, the music. Vikram Seth writes in such a way that I can almost hear the music as I read.

Ann Patchett’s novel, Bel Canto, sings of the ability of music to unite and remind men and women of their common humanity.

Coming from more than half a dozen different countries, and holding no language in common except music, a large group of international hostages and their terrorist captors forge unexpected bonds during the months of a stand off with the authorities. The music that works this magic is that of a world-renown soprano and her accompanist who are caught up in the incident and also held captive.

With writing that is suitably lyrical, and melodic, this bittersweet novel would have it that operatic arias prove more effective than a S.W.A.T. team and diplomats combined at resolving an international incident. So, once again, music plays a central role in the story, and, once again, the writing makes it live.

I want to write like that. I want to be able ‘to capture some of that immediacy, that spirit of the moment, and hold it still’ for my readers’ pleasure. Knowing nothing about music, I’ll be unable to do it by using music as my central theme, but I wonder if I have managed to come some way towards my goal by using some of the pieces I like in my writing. I’d love to think so.

In one of my earlier novels, Flying Free, classical music has a role to play in the central character’s life. For instance, when she attends an orchestral concert the different pieces of music affect her deeply and reach her in ways she would not have thought possible. In her mind, one of the pieces becomes inextricably associated with Tom, another of the main characters: Bellini’s Oboe Concerto. It is such a beautiful piece – but perhaps I’ll let Jayne tell you about it:

~~~ Tom’s Music ~~~

Bellini’s Oboe Concerto.

At first it was gliding… slowly, luxuriously… floating on the warm current of air that was the melody. It was all around her, lifting her gently, tumbling her softly in its caress. When she closed her eyes, she could look down from her lazy cloud and see Tom as she had seen him only a few short hours ago, sitting on a park bench, his long legs stretched out, his face turned to the sun, totally relaxed, contentedly waiting. The gentle warmth of the sun, it was soothing, so soothing. She was there beside him, relaxed, waiting. Like the music. She held her breath as it seemed to hover, watching, watching Tom open his eyes, the radiance of his welcoming smile.

He was off the bench and the music started to soar, taking her with it, making her laugh with sheer delight, catching her breath with its joyousness, its love of life. It made her want to dance, to spin round the room the way Tom had spun her as a teenager when he was teaching her and Rosie how to dance, the way he had spun her round in the park at lunchtime. Like this glorious music, Tom had spun her off-balance. She was intoxicated, drunk with its wine.

This was Tom’s music. It echoed his energy, his impulsive, spontaneous passion for life. She would never hear it again without thinking of him, without remembering their crazy, heady “flight” through Princes Street Gardens and all the way to London.


What are your favourite books about music or musicians? Was music the central theme, or did it play a minor role? Was it used to move the plot along, or to deepen your understanding of the characters?

As a reader, did the musical theme enhance the story for you? As a writer, did it inspire you to use music in your writing?


Christine Campbell

3D CC Promo Visual




25 thoughts on “Music in Fiction – Part One – Guest Post by Christine Campbell…

  1. Reblogged this on cicampbellblog and commented:
    it is always such a pleasure to be invited to write for the StoryReadingApe blog, and writing this series of articles about Music in Fiction has been fun and enlightening for me. I particularly love when my post incites comment and discussion, as this one has, because I always learn so much more about the subject through the insights of others. Love it!
    Thank you, Chris, for the opportunity to provoke discussion on one of my favourite topics.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved this post. I am infusing songs into my WIP so it was very timely. I loved NICK HORBY’s High Fidelity and Juliette Naked by the same author uses music as a very clever backdrop. Thank you for such a FAB post.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Great post, Christine. I adored Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music. In fact, I think it’s high time I indulged myself and re-read it.
    For a light-hearted read that has music as its focus, I recommend Jenny Worstall’s Make a Joyful Noise. In its depiction of a choir preparing for a performance of Belshazzar’s Feast, the story is playful and witty, and has some wonderfully eccentric characters.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. A brilliant post, Christine. As I read this, I was reminded of Fania Fénelon’s memoir, The Musicians of Auschwitz. The book was adapted for television in the U.S. and titled Playing for Time. Fénelon, a noted Jewish singer-pianist is arrested and sent to Auschwitz, where she becomes a member of the prison’s female orchestra, Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz. This enables her to avoid hard manual labor and survive longer. Throughout this compelling and heartbreaking story, music plays a vital role. It both moves the plot along and deepens one’s understanding of the characters. And yes, it enhanced the story for me. In my latest novel, I mention Delibes’ Flower Duet from the opera Lakmé, in order to deepen the protagonist’s character as well as create a vehicle to sharpen her vigilance.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. One book that comes to mind is The Lantern Bearers by Ronald Frame. I believe it was inspired by some aspects of the life of Benjamin Britten. The main theme is collaboration in the act of creating a piece of music, and how that can create an intense relationship with unintended consequences. Definitely worth a read. I suppose I should also mention Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, which won Canada’s Giller Prize and was nominated for the Booker. I haven’t read it, but I gather it includes intense discussions of music. Finally, all four of my published novels were influenced to some extent by music I listened to while writing; in some cases, references to specific pieces made their way into the plots. I have also written a novel (as yet unpublished) featuring Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise as a vehicle for Romanticism in the life of a woman of the 20th century. The topic of music in fiction is a multi-faceted one and worth exploring.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Outstanding post, Christine. I won’t detail the many pieces I’ve read about musicians that inspired me, but, as a violinist and a writer and a lover of poetry, I find the books that attract me most have a very defined rhythm to them.
    They also have the colour and texture one finds in musical compositions.
    In other words, I’m not only drawn to books with musical themes, ie The Magic of Mozart, The Life of LV Beethoven, etc, but books written with a certain amount of musicality.
    I enjoyed your post and will look for you in the future.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Aw, thank you. You’re very kind. It makes me happy that my post is well received, and that it provokes comment and discussion. Music is such an important feature of life, and therefore of literature, I think.
      Though I am not a musician, I love music, and love to explore it through the characters I create in my novels, and like yourself, I love the rhythm of words. Sometimes, when editing, I find it quite difficult to cut certain words of phrases that I know need to go, because it interrupts the flow, the rhythm of the passage. I end up having to rewrite whole passages to retain the rhythm of the words while making the meaning clearer.

      Liked by 1 person


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