This was a really fun, wide-ranging discussion. I was joined by Paul Shapera, Pat McEwen, Che Gilson, and Dale Emery. We had a bit of technical difficulty at the start and had to re-start the hangout (that was a first, and hopefully a last!) but we still had a great time.
I started off by mentioning Tolkien and how many songs he used in his stories. Paul took a different angle, talking about the role of music in SF/F as being a "signifier." All of us have seen how music can establish the mood in a visual presentation, or even by implication in a text. Pat mentioned an interesting example (Fred Hoyle's Black Cloud) where humanity saved itself from a consuming black cloud in space by transmitting music to it - which was apparently sufficient to give the cloud the sense that there was something intelligent on our planet that needed to be left unconsumed.
Paul expanded on his idea, saying that music can indicate the nature of a world and give it a steampunk or medieval feel, etc.
You can use music as part of the plot, as in the Black Cloud story (or as in Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsong) or you can just include it as incidental, to give mood and atmosphere or to convey a sense of time passing. It can also enhance your themes. Pat felt that the songs of Tolkien's work helped to give the whole story a bardic atmosphere. Paul emphasized that music creates a sense of immersion in the world, and I mentioned the opening poem/chant of "Mind Locker," which I deliberately use to create a mood and an expectation of the kinds of characters we will encounter.
Some ebooks include actual music tracks!
Pat remarked that not all humans respond well to music. Che said that music doesn't do a lot for her, and therefore she doesn't use it in her fiction much. Some authors love music, however, and use it to get them in the right "head space" for writing. Pat suggested it would be interesting to see a story about what might happen if humans encountered a highly musical alien species, and whether it would help us to send a musical ambassador, a non-musical one, or both.
Music is often associated with magic.
In text, music can be implied using the rhythm of words, using vowel quality (assonance) as melody and using consonants (alliteration) as percussion. I gave an example from The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber, which is just full of this sort of thing!
We also spoke about how music can convey a world and a story in itself - such as Peter and the Wolf, or Pink Floyd's The Wall. Music on its own to tell a story is not very concrete, so lyrics help it to be concrete. Opera is another example of musical storytelling.
Pat suggested that humming a tune could be used as a secret code to imply lyrics if two people wanted to communicate secretly in front of aliens. She was full of ideas that could make good stories! The humming idea reminded me of the hum language that two characters used in Frank Herbert's Dune, and we also thought of the whistle language of the Pyrenees.
Dale mentioned that Inspector Morse would give clues in morse code on the BBC television show.
One of the challenges of using actual song lyrics in a story is that if you go beyond a short phrase or the title, you have to get permission from the owner of the song.
Music is an art form that has often expressed transgression. I have used it like this in my Varin world, where the decay of the caste system has led to some unexpected interactions between people, and those interactions have created unusual changes in music and in the visual arts. Pat mentioned that chalga music was illegal in Bulgaria during the years before the fall of the iron curtain, and so playing it came to be seen as a rebellion. Andrea Stewart has a novel where music is outlawed, but the main character is a musician. Paul mentioned how swing music was frowned upon at a certain point, so inserting even a single phrase of it was very daring. Pat spoke about the strong influence of African and African-American music on the entire progress of music in the US.
Music can also be used to bring people back into the fold, to evoke teen nostalgia or patriotism. We talked about the recent recording that had been done of the American national anthem sung in minor key. Dale mentioned that some Beatles recordings have gotten the same treatment. Paul mentioned how the same theme in a film (for example) can be changed from major to minor when tragedy strikes.
Music is very powerful. Not only is it associated with particular contexts and emotional states, it is also directly neurologically stimulating, and can cause anxiety or comfort etc. It can echo with your heart's rhythm. Drums can beat through you, and music can even be designed to work with the resonance of the human chest so it can be felt more physically. Deaf people are often able to feel the vibrations of music even if they can't hear them. Ann Leckie use musical phrases in her new novel Ancillary Justice.
We joked about harmonizing with the vacuum cleaner, or finding the resonant frequency of the laundry room or bathroom. No doubt in small spaces like space ships one could also play around this way.
Che asked if octopi would use a visual version of music, and thus raised an interesting question: if one's primary mode of communication were visual - even if one did not possess ears in our sense - would that necessarily mean that one would lose an appreciation for vibration-based music?
Thank you to everyone who attended! Today's hangout will feature author Alma Alexander who will be talking to us about The Were Chronicles. I hope to see you there!