Soundtrack your novel – a 2 part guide to using music in writing

Try to imagine the beginning of Trainspotting (the film) without ‘Lust for Life’ banging out of the speakers. Try to imagine the first half of Wall-E without any music. Try to imagine any Harry Potter movie without that really annoying ‘dee dee, deedeedee, dee dee’, and so on, you get the idea.

In movies, good ones at least, the music is integral to the emotion. With film scores, the music will often tell you exactly what’s going on, adding to and emphasizing what the director is trying to get across. With soundtracks, the songs will do a similar job. With truly brilliant sound-tracking, the music will add another layer above what the characters and dialogue and setting are already doing.

This post will be in two parts. The first is for when you are writing your WIP, the second for after, when you are collecting original music to transform it into a fabulous multi-media release.

So, Part 1: Before we write.

We’re going to start with your characters. Imagine each one making his or her entrance. Trawl your record collection until you find the song that creates just the right impact. When exploring your collection, it may be that you find a song that changes how you see the character, which can be for the good, or you may hear something that makes you grin every time you picture your hero. Keep searching until you find a piece that really helps you develop that character.

In short, give your characters a theme. You may find that what fits them when they are being classy and cool, is entirely wrong when they are sobbing and coughing up snot, so more than one piece might be appropriate. What it will do is add another layer to your vision of them, making them that bit richer on the page and hopefully enhance your writing experience.

Now to the scenes. I often only have a couple of scenes in my head before I begin writing, so I’ll do this at various points throughout the process. A classic technique used by some movie directors is storyboarding, blocking out each part of the scene in varying degrees of detail before they begin. You can do this with music.

Ask yourself, how does your scene begin? Is it mysterious, or action filled, is it a slow build, a gradual reveal, or is the reader going to be thrown in the deep end? The right music can give you the momentum or rhythm to get those opening beats bang on. Sometimes, it can be useful to use a cue from a movie you know well. You might have pictured your scene and want a particular feel reminiscent of something you’ve seen. If so, find that music and put it on, get into the atmosphere.

You can also decide whether you will have just one piece of music, or whether you want to have many, moving the scene forward through changes in mood and tempo.

The aim of this is to add that extra something to your writing experience, which will hopefully translate to the page. You may of course think that the soundtrack has so much impact that you want to share it with your readers. As ebooks get better and better, it will become easier to include music with a book, which opens up a whole new realm of possibilities.


This brings us to part 2: After we’ve written.

Let’s look at choosing music for a multi-media book release. I’m going to focus on the specifics of music, picking apart the basics to give you the tools to trawl music libraries and find what you need without too much frustration and heartbreak.

There are a few fundamental musical elements that can help you to choose, or at least search in the right area, for the right kind of music. I’ve included examples for each tempo band. These are taken from films, which feels like the best point of reference at the moment. Hopefully, if I re-write this in 10 years time, I can use examples from books!

Tempo: The speed of the music. Almost all music libraries will have their tracks listed by tempo. Here are the basic tempo markings with genre and outlines:

60 – 90 bpm: This is pretty slow, a good setting for ballads and some rock. Also, a lot of hip hop works at this speed

Examples: Gangsters Paradise by Coolio (80bpm), from Dangerous Minds.

Uninvited by Alanis Morissette (63bpm) from City of Angels.

90 – 120 bpm: This is a little more upbeat. Most rock and Americana fit in here, along with classic pop.

Examples: Kiss me by Sixpence None the Richer (100bpm) from She’s all That (sorry about the movie)!

Axel F by Harold Faltermeyer (115bpm) the theme from Beverly Hills Cop

120 – 150 bpm: This is now dance, upbeat rock and modern pop stuff, excellent for action scenes.

Examples: Spybreak by Propellerheads (127bpm) from the lobby scene in The Matrix

Power of Love by Huey Lewis (120bpm) from Back to the Future

Canned Heat by Jamiroquai (130bpm) from Napolean Dynamite

150 bpm and up: This is fast stuff, drum and bass, punk and some 80s pop. Although it can be very fast, it is often used in movies as it works well with quick edits, something you may want to duplicate on paper.

Examples: Lust for Life by Iggy Pop (200bpm) from Trainspotting.

Footloose by Kenny Loggins (173bpm) from, well duh.


Timbre: The choice of instrument determines the timbre and it is the individual qualities of each instrument that create the timbre of the whole piece. Some may describe it as the colour and feel of the sound. Some storytellers use them to great effect and it’s worth thinking about as it’s another way to refine your searches.

Cello: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was smothered in the wonderful cello styling of YoYo Ma, and created an atmosphere perfectly in keeping with sense of duty and tradition and doomed romance that permeate the movie.

Drums: The Lion King, amongst many others, uses the sound of drums to great effect, creating an aural backdrop to accompany the stunning scenes of the African savannah. Avatar also uses tribal-style drumming at key points to support certain environments.

Synthesiser: Blade Runner is the classic example of how to use synths well. The sounds are deliberately alien and were very unusual at the time. Although far more common these days, there are still so many synthesized timbres that haven’t been explored and could be incredibly evocative.

Strings: From the haunting Adagio for Strings from Platoon to the entire soundtrack from Lord of the Rings, a strong string section can do pretty much anything.

Voice: Used to great effect in everything from ‘Oh brother where are thou?’ To ‘Sister Act’, both solo voice and choirs are in many ways the most powerful of all instruments when used right. The accent, the style, everything about how someone sings will give your reader a more complete experience.

Orchestra, acoustic guitar, trumpet, there are so many choices and each one will impact on the experience your reader has.


Tonality: this is the key of the piece, which means very little if you haven’t studied music, so to put it better, if a little simply, the tonality will inform the listener whether a piece is happy or sad, joyous or melancholy.

Major: this pretty much means happy, positive and everything’s ok. That isn’t to say that a major piece won’t have moments of sadness within it, but that’s the general gist.  Major songs from above: Kiss Me, Axel F (the latter being a great example of a song in a major key that doesn’t sound all that happy! It’s to do with starting on the sixth note of the scale, but that’s a whole different post)

Minor: Rather predictably, this means sad, or lonely, or haunting.

Modal: This is where it gets a bit tricky, but this can be for those in-between moments, where the listener has to make up his or her own mind. Modal music can be what’s called ‘tonally ambiguous’, not giving too much away.

Atonal: This is for the crazy moments, where you just want to scare people.


Time Signature: this is, again quite simply, the number of beats you feel in a piece, when you tap your foot to it.

4/4: by far the most common, every song in the tempo section is in this time signature. Tap your foot to each one and count 1, 2, 3, 4 and all should become clear.

3/4 and 6/8: For use when people are waltzing, or being generally romantic.

2/4: Marches, military goings-on and the like. Also good for a hoedown.

5/8, 7/8 and 15/16: For those crazy times again.

These are a bit simple, so apologies if you are a musician, please don’t shoot me, it’s about making it useful.


That’s the basics covered. Now you have your book written and you’ve used some classic songs to help you. The next step, go to the library and for that scene you wrote whilst listening to Moonlight Sonata on repeat, type in ‘60 bpm/Piano/minor/4/4/classical’ and you should be on the right track. Not that you’ll find anything quite as good as that, so maybe just use the original. Ho hum.


To finish, my personal favourite of all soundtracks is the scene in Goodfellas where the bodies are begin discovered, in garbage trucks, abattoirs and so on. Playing in the background is the unlikely choice of the wonderful outro from Layla by Eric Clapton. I’m not a huge fan of the rest of the song and you might not even recognize the two parts as being from the same piece of music, but the piano-led end section is beautiful and entirely at odds with the horror on the screen. And you know what, it really works.

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