Worldbuilding: putting a soundtrack to your words

Whenever I think of worldbuilding for writers, I keep coming back to the same thing. Worldbuilding is really about creating stuff that evokes an emotion in the reader.

It becomes literally world-building when we write fantasy – often, I suspect, helped along by doses of some suitable soundtrack. Music usually goes together with writing – either being played while the stuff’s being written, or listened to while the book is being read. It’s a way of enhancing the emotion,  almost impossible to imagine high fantasy without some soundtrack to it. And, of course, there are composers who’ve thoroughly exploited the point.

I’m thinking Richard Wagner – nineteenth century composer who envisaged fantasy worlds of colossal scale – vast worldscapes that he painted with sound, story, visual spectacle and the finances of mad King Ludwig. Musically it was very genre-specific – if he were alive today, he’d be a heavy metaller.

Wagner knew how to put arguments through music. He was a ‘metaller’ not just through his vast soundscapes – the bombast, the soaring vocals, the colossal orchestration, the overblown sets – but conceptually. He wrote high fantasy that spoke to the mythic beliefs of his mid-nineteenth century society. That particular aspect found an unfortunate audience of evil in post-First World War Germany, who managed to twist his ideas to their dark ends. (They did this to everything they touched, of course). There’s a great documentary by Stephen Fry going through those issues.

But setting that aside, high fantasy remains a staple of heavy metal today. and I think the guy who pioneered the idea was Wagner.

Attaching music to the high fantasy we read or write also makes it speak to us today. “Real” music in any fantasy setting would have to be made by instruments of the setting – voices, certainly; and if you read The Lord Of The Rings, you’ll find Tolkien inevitably describing some – including the single uplifted voice above the noise which then became a motif for at least one Led Zeppelin song. But I suspect a lot of readers more usually associate Middle Earth with Howard Shore’s movie soundtrack. Or maybe Bo Hansson’s slightly weird album from 1969. (Hansson’s often credited with inventing prog rock with that release.)

It was that relationship between music and concept, I suspect, that prompted Sophia Coppola to use early 1980s gothic-pop – Siouxie and the Banshees and The Cure mainly – as the soundtrack for Marie Antoinette. In the conceptual sense, she was arguing, French royals and nobility were to 1780s French society what the ‘goths’ were to the 1980s; disconnected, odd, weird. It was a pretty compelling idea, in fact. And what a wonderful way of putting an argument – through music.

What it boils down to is that music can help us get a different angle on the world we’re building; it can colour the way we imagine and see it; and it can colour the reading experience. It becomes an important part of the whole, I suspect. And the ‘ideal’ music for any story will differ from person to person.

Do you listen to music while writing – or associate particular music with particular books or stories?

*** Reminder: if you want to win a copy of Convicts – signed by me – check out this contest. Final week. Runs until 28 July 2012.***

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

7 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: putting a soundtrack to your words

  1. Can’t say I’ve ever really associated music with books, although I did go out and buy the music mentioned in Vikram Seth’s ‘An Equal Music’.

    It’s the music that contributes to putting me off many films (sadly including Lord of the Rings after seeing the 1st one), the manipulation of the emotions through music can be hell for those with a sensitivity to it, makes watching certain films far too physically exhausting to be enjoyable.


  2. I don’t mind music with movies, but don’t often listen when reading. And I balk at the latest idea – there’s a New Zealand company who’ve invented a system for playing music on your e-reader, apparently timed to get more dramatic at certain points on the page, based on average reading speed. Just too cheesy for words…


  3. Funny, I was thinking of that Bo Hansson album just the other day, reminiscing about driving through the South Island mountain scenery in the late 70s and thinking that Jean Michel Jarre’s music fitted LOTR much better. Music has a huge impact in movies – sometimes too much as Claire says. (As for those harrowing news footage compilations set to heartwrenching music – don’t get me started! You know news has taken second place to ratings as soon as the music gets added.)

    I’d prefer my ebook without a soundtrack, personally, but there are books that would benefit from embedded sound files. A client recently asked me how to publish a children’s picture book with sound files, as it’s about a child learning to sing. And it can be done! It’s not quite world-building, but it’s extending the reach of the book into other senses and I think there’s a place for that.


    1. Hansson’s album was definitely weird. I had it on vinyl (still do, in fact, I just lack a working turntable…). I think he captured that late ’60’s sound quite well & showed what you could do by playing games with the drawbars on Hammond’s C3 – but whether his rather haunting sounds worked with Tolkien is another matter.

      I still can’t get over the fact that a lot of Kiwis seem to have looked at their scenery, way back when, and thought ‘that would make a great Middle Earth’ – and guess what…it did! I remember doing it myself in parts of Hawke’s Bay with the Ruahines behind – very much, I think, what Tolkien seems to have been describing for the edge of wilderland.


    1. Let me know how you get on. I find if I’m writing, the music can affect my thoughts and inspirations. I can’t write to vocal music – the words interfere with the words I’m thinking about – but instrumental is OK.


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