Thursday, May 20, 2010

Music as Inspiration

On a stormy night in 1995, a baby's crying can be heard. It floats through the halls and drifts under the crack of the door.

The father's eyes snap open. He stands, limbs groaning and creaking. Although he grumbles all the way, his expression softens at the sight of the baby. So small, so helpless. Such a miracle of life.

"A long, long time ago," he sings, his voice melodic and somnolent. "I can still remember how that music used to make me smile..."

He rocks the crib with gentle hands. The crying ceases. The baby falls into a deep slumber before the song is over.

"...And them good ol' boys were drinking whiskey and rye." He pauses to kiss the baby on the forehead and his voice becomes a mere whisper. "Singing, 'this'll be the day that I die...'"

I was that baby. My father and mother used to sing to me all the time, and I credit them for my love of music. Their songs left an impact on me that I'll never forget. I dip into the deepest recesses of my mind and draw these memories as inspiration for my writings. But in what ways do the melodies of my youth and today inspire?

It’s quite simply, really. Music is an art form, just like writing. And the similarities don’t end there. Both require planning and a poetic use of language and vocabulary. Like a good song, a good story has rhythm. Like the big finish of any symphony, a story has a climax. And like a true mellifluous masterpiece, a story leaves you with a satisfied feeling.

I remember Dad singing one song in particular: American Pie by Don McLean. I loved it when I was a baby and I love it still. Like a fine wine, the eight-minute, thirty-three-second aria has aged well. It still blows my mind, and I’ve heard it a collective thousand times over the years. It’s more than just a song. It’s an anthem to music lovers everywhere.

American Pie has some of the most abstract, imaginative lyrics ever written. In this respect, it’s similar to famous poetry. If you will, breathe in this excerpt:

" And in the streets, the children screamed.
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed.
But not a word was spoken.
The church bells all were broken.
And the three men I admire most:
The father, son and the holy ghost.
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died. "

It gives me chills. The greatest thing about this song is that it brings poetic words to an audience with no interest in poetry. By setting his epic to music, McLean made it more accessible. We can all learn from his masterful writing. Musicians, poets, novelists, journalists. Anyone with a love of writing and the craft.

Tune in next time for a list of my top five favorite songs. We'll get a peak at another McLean masterpiece and sample some Counting Crows, too. And an ode to Howard Hughes? You'll have to follow my blog to learn more.

Alex Gartner

If you've never heard American Pie, what're you waiting for?


  1. Hey Master,

    I think lyrics and stories are very much alike too. In my literature class this year, we each chose a song to analyze the lyrics to. I chose Unwritten by Natasha Bedingfield. My favorite line....

    Today is where your book begins
    The rest is still unwritten

    Your Student

  2. a very insightful post - I don't know how anyone writes without music in the background. Lyrics are almost transformative - they bring you to a place and time that otherwise you might never have recalled or imagined.
    My favorite lyrics by Snow Patrol in Set Down Your Glass:

    Just close your eyes
    And count to five,
    Let's craft the only thing
    We know into surprise.
    Set down your glass.
    I painted this to look
    like you and me forever as we're now.

    I'm shaken, then I'm still.
    When your eyes meet mine I lose simple skills.
    Like to tell you all I want is now.

    (If you haven't heard it, you should check it out. The music really makes the lyrics come to life. Perhaps that's the most wonderful thing about music. It's poetry set to beautiful sounds.)

  3. This post is freaking amazing. Thats all I really can say...

    My favorite lyrics are from the Norma Jean song, Memphis Will Be Laid To Waste:

    Christ is not a fashion, fleeting away.
    He laid emeralds in her eyes,
    but I'd already tried a braclet made of gold
    and a scarlet thread around her wrist.

    And everything was wrong so we sang sentimental songs.
    Oh, how seldom we belong, but how elegant our kiss. and we painted crooked lines but we danced in perfect time to a love so much refined, we know not what it is. so like the dullen wine we poor into a grief we'd known before, but never quite like this.

    All i know now is regret. she follows like a silhouette of a cobblestone behind me. she has nothing left to say except to innocently ask, her voice delicate as glass. do you see me when we pass?
    but i continue on my way.

    by the way, this is Abigaile... :D

  4. This is my favourite childhood song EVER. You don't know how right you are about this :)

    I can only write to music because it's so inspiring.

    Um, I hate to sound silly but I think I like too many songs to pick just one. BUT I especially love bitter sweet songs like this, you know? The ones you can't quite decided whether they are happy or sad but you know they're profound. And yes, Snow Patrol are pretty good at doing that ;)

  5. It is a great song and the lyrics are very much poetry. Nice analogy. I think music can also be an important part of a story. It can say a lot about a character.

  6. Great post! I popped over from Mia's blog to say hello and congratulate you on your award. :-)