1. Lothgar
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    Lothgar Contributing Member

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    Music in writing...

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Lothgar, Dec 5, 2010.

    In a pet project exercise, I've slammed head long into a brick wall.

    The challenge I'm presented with is to write the experience of listening to a piece of instrumental music. Exactly how does one go about describing instrumental music in text?

    The exercise was to pick a song and write a short story inspired/based on the song. My pick was "The Devil went down to Georgia", by the Charlie Daniels Band.

    Spinning a tale of the devil incarnate, materializing in Georgia, burning hoof prints into the soil as he treks out upon a quest to steal a soul, was easy enough. The exploits of the good ole southern boy, Johnny, fighting a fiddle duel by playing his folk tune, expounding upon the virtures of good, simple country life was easy enough.

    But, the devil, with his fiddle of gold...and a band of demons that join in to make it sound something like this?

    How does one describe the instrumental music with only text?

    Alas...it vexes me. :(
     
  2. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Describe the emotions that go along with listening to it, or what it reminds you of. Or do fantasy...as you listen, monsters come out of your computer screen and start wrecking havoc..:)
     
  3. jo spumoni
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    jo spumoni Active Member

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    Well, I'm a violinist, so I guess that challenge doesn't sound so difficult to me...but like Mallory says, what's important is how the tones make you feel when you listen to it. In that song, there are two distinct fiddle styles--the hiss that the devil's violin makes and the harmonious mountain fiddle that his challenger plays. What images do you get when you listen? Why do you think the songwriter chose to portray the devil with that particular style of playing? Making a violin "hiss" is not an easy thing to do--it requires extreme pressure and a lot of control.

    In any case, how virtuous is Johnny really? He must be pretty arrogant to challenge to devil just for a golden fiddle!
     
  4. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    google for music reviews and see how the pros do it...
     
  5. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't envy you; especially if the instrumental piece moves you. Words will feel inadequate and the effort to do it justice might give rise to pretentious twaddle - as it often does in the efforts of the pros mammamia bids you consult.

    Not so much nowadays, perhaps, but the NME and Pitchfork used to be the most brilliant emetics.

    Lotsa luck!
     
  6. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Having researched this discovered there is a reason it isn't done very often in story form. It is very difficult even if you are a musician to do. Without it becoming boring.
     
  7. Trilby
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    Trilby Contributing Member Contributor

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    Eyes closed, my head swayed slow and rhythmatically to the low harmonious sound of violins. In my minds eye I could picture the orchestra and suddenly I was transported back to another time, another place. I was nineteen and all was right in my world as I waltzed around the floor in the arms of my first love. Then came the accompanying sounds of...

    Not being familiar with musical instruments that's as far as I can go without doing research.
    Not quite what you asked for but, it's the best I can come up with for now.
    Best of luck.
     
  8. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah, examples I remember reading pretty much mentioned a few quick mechanics of what was happening, then moved quickly into emotional reactions for however long the description lasted. :p
     
  9. Lothgar
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    Lothgar Contributing Member

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    Thanks for the input. I really appreciate it.

    This assignment is a lot tougher than I'd thought it would be. Below is what I came up with in the attempt to describe the devil's instrumental music, without making it too long and boring. It still doesn't quite feel like what I wanted to say (well...it actually does say what I wanted to say, just not the way I wanted to say it...if that makes any sense).




    Tendrils of sulphurous smoke wafts up from the soil beneath the devil's cloven hooves, as he straightens his ornate colonial top coat and a sinister grin spreads across the face of his goat-like head. The Prince of Lies steps forward, placing one of his hooves on an old hickory stump and leans forward, resting his elbow atop his knee.

    "Boy let me tell you what. I bet you didn't know it, but I'm a fiddle player too and if you'd care to take a dare, I'll make a bet with you." the Devil offers with an infernal smile that is both charming and just a little alarming.

    "Now you play a pretty good fiddle, boy, but give the devil his due. I bet a fiddle of gold against your soul, because I think I'm better than you." challenges Satan, with a sharkish gleam in his eyes.

    "My name's Johnny and it might be a sin, but I'll take your bet. Your gonna regret it 'cos I'm the best that's ever been." answers the country boy with his straight forward manner.

    "I'll start this show" announces the devil, as his ancient, yet powerful hands, open his case, revealing an ornately decorated fiddle, forged of pure gold in the fiery depths of hell. Fire flies from his fingertips as he rosins up his bow and nestles the violin under his chin.

    He pulls the bow across the strings and it makes an evil hiss. With an infernal smile, the devil launches into whirlwind of motion, sawing on his fiddle with great vigor and precise machine-like skill. The Georgia air fills with devil's music and in an obvious attempt at cheating, a band of unseen demons joins in building the devil's music into a pleasant and charming melody.

    The devil's tune was good, damn good, as the rockin' music rose up and down the scales, building into complex crescendo...and yet, there was something awry about it. The devil's music was hollow...empty...like a reproduced echo of the efforts of great musicians of the past, with no depth of feeling...no spark...no joy.

    The devil's tune was mechanically correct art, without the flame of passion.
     
  10. AnathemicOne
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    AnathemicOne Member

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    I personally don't believe that writing can do justice in the great emotional waves that music does upon one. Tolkien tried to do it with small stanzas of poetry and concerning elves but it didn't capture my imagination of what the music was.

    However you can leave it ambiguous and give the most basic primal emotions that generate from it and leave the reader there to decide on what the music depicted is in his/her own imagination.
     
  11. jo spumoni
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    jo spumoni Active Member

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    To Lothgar:
    I think the problem you're running into is incorporating the dialog. Your tone is very serious, so it's hard to incorporate rhyming dialog. Try it with new dialog that doesn't rhyme and I think you'll feel better about it. Additionally, your added band of demons seems a little out of place, but maybe that's just me.

    To Anathemic One:
    Well, it's hard to translate exactly what you hear to writing, but if you do it right, it can be interesting. In any case, writing can't really explain the emotions or vividness evoked in the visual field either, or the field of taste, or smell. Yet imagery is a pretty important component of writing, isn't it?

    As for LOTR, are you sure that your perception isn't influenced by the fact that Tolkein says straight out that he can't capture the music in words? Anyway, you might not want to hear this, but perhaps Tolkein never had a tune in mind at all when he wrote the lyrics, and that's why he was unable to capture it.
     
  12. AnathemicOne
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    AnathemicOne Member

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    No my perception wasn't influence in any way according to what you said, in fact I've no knowledge that he couldn't so my bad.

    Imagery is a big component in writing, but music isn't imagery, you can picture themes that music is related to but the pure aspect of music really has no image to it.
     
  13. jo spumoni
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    jo spumoni Active Member

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    Music is part of imagery, because it's the aural sense; unless I'm misremembering my high school English classes, imagery is usually defined as language that appeals to the five senses, which would include hearing. But my point was that writing actually can't capture anything at all, strictly speaking. If you want to see something exactly as it looks, a photograph, painting, or even a film would be much more helpful; yet we choose to write down what something looks like. Writing is actually a imprecise, and the challenge of imagery is working with the ambiguity to produce the correct effect.

    So no, writing can't capture music exactly as it sounds, but I don't think we should just assume that you can't write about music effectively. It just takes practice, like writing about how something appears.

    I thought I remembered that Tolkein directly says in The Hobbit he is unable to capture the music, but I haven't read the book since I was about 11, so I might not be remembering it correctly. If he does say he couldn't capture the music, you might have taken the words to heart even if you don't remember him saying that; I find that happens to me a lot. Anyway, I thought Cold Mountain wrote about Appalachian fiddle music fairly successfully, so I think it can be done. It's a good challenge anyway, so I wouldn't just dismiss it immediately by saying it can't be done.
     
  14. AnathemicOne
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    AnathemicOne Member

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    Got me there on imagery need to stop being ignorant on my part, anyways I do not suggest to not to describe music, I'm just expressing my opinion that any word or combination of words in any language does not do justice in describing the effect of music, but hey does not mean that one can't try right?

    As for the Hobbit quote I don't remember Tolkien stating as such, was it in the actual story or in a reference in the book?
     
  15. R-e-n-n-a-t
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    R-e-n-n-a-t Contributing Member

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    Try describing music as you would describe emotions. describe the way the music makes the protagonist feel in very colorful language while including carefully placed lines of text from the piece of music throughout the description. Also, the atmosphere of the location where the music is being performed will set a tone on the entire piece of music. Keep that in mind. That would probably work. Probably. I hope I adressed the point.
     

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