Music, much like smell, is a powerful memory trigger. Just as a whiff of a lover’s old cologne or perfume can ignite an encyclopedia of emotions, music carries with it the ability to draw a person back to a particular time, place or emotional state.
Personally, I think everyone has a time during their life when they’re especially susceptible to an imprint tied to music. And because an important key in being an effective writer is being able to tap into real emotions, music can be a tool for that.
For me, one of the first moments I recall music directly tied to emotion was as a pre-teen in the late 1970s. Disco was at its height and somewhere out of my field of vision punk was percolating in New York City and London.
But because I was living in a small town near the coast of South Carolina, my exposure to anything other than what was on the local Top 40 AM station was pretty limited. Consider that the first time I heard the Beatles was around that time period when a friend hoped to cure me of my ABBA fandom with a copy of Revolver. Thankfully it worked.
Still, a few bits of excellence filtered through on the airwaves. And while I, at that age, could have already told you that Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” was an abomination, I was able to pick out some gems that really stuck with me. Part of that is directly related to the fact that I was feeling the first pangs of late-grade school infatuation with members of the opposite sex.
So it should come as no surprise that a couple of standout songs from that period were “Is She Really Going Out With Him” by Joe Jackson and “Cruel to be Kind” by Nick Lowe. Both spoke volumes to what I felt was a cargo ship full of unrequited love I was going through at the time. Now, when I need to tap youthful heartbreak, it helps to cast my mind back to how those particular songs seemed to capture everything my much less cynical younger self felt.
Much like a Method actor, who uses real-life experience to tap into what emotions a character in a film or on stage might be feeling, as writers we are called to do the same things with our stories. Think about the songs during your life that have coincided with highly emotional events or have somehow captured the way you’ve felt about a person or situation and don’t be afraid to use them (and the feelings they recall) in creating genuine, rich and layered emotions for your characters.