Beautiful Music

“Music is love in search of a word.”
—Sidney Lanier

Nothing compares to the cool slide of faux-ivory keys beneath the pads of my fingertips. My hands settle into position of their own accord—my favorite is E major, which goes white-black-white, one-three-five. I love the stretch of the octave, E4 to E5, while my left hand drifts ever lower. Brushing, stroking: It knows exactly where it’s going, but hell if it won’t take the most leisurely, teasing route into that strident bass-clef chord, the one that knows my soul so very well. There’s a slow, minute pattern of vibration that radiates from temple to temple, but it’s happy. Warm. It curves around my skull until the rhythm finds the little divot above my nape, and then it circles there until endorphins streak through my limbs to tingle in my nerve endings, like sinking quickly into a hot bath.

And this is just in the first five seconds I’m at my piano. I feel thusly every. Single. Time.

Is it any wonder that musicians often come across as slightly crazy? There must be something essentially unbalanced within their psyche in order for music to balance them back out again. I imagine visual artists are the same way, and I know writers who experience withdrawal in between novels (which is why some are so prolific).

Musicians need the outlet of music the way— Well, actually, I can’t make a truly educated comparison, because I am a musician first and foremost. My fingers itch if I go a week without sitting at the piano. My lungs constrict if I don’t sing. My head throbs and my heart squeezes and my stomach clenches if I can’t hum along with what’s on the radio, or the background tune in a car commercial, or, heck, whatever’s floating through my head at the moment. I’d miss music as much as I’d miss a lover, were I denied it.

I can’t escape the music as an author, either: I wrote my first full-length novel in which the protagonists were both musicians, one a singer, one a flautist. My erotic short story featured in the Agony/Ecstasy anthology was set in an opera house. And one of the best compliments I’ve ever received from a reader was this:

“I loved the fact that the author obviously knew music—as a classical musician myself, there is nothing that irritates me quite as much as non-musicians trying to write about music[.]”

I am exactly the same way, and when an author can pull off sounding knowledgeable on the subject of music, I want to stand up and cheer. And while I didn’t torture my hero and heroine with the need to produce music, many authors use music as a means of adding angst to character conflict. While the books featuring musician protagonists are not necessarily wonky, those specific characters, inherently, are.

The point is, when I read a small detail about a musical hero or heroine that strikes me as both extremely correct and extremely subtle, I remember it. Like Cara McKenna’s short erotica, Brazen, in which Sean is a violinist:

Below his stubbly chin, just to one side of his neck, there’s a mark—a reddish bruise like a hickey. I catch his eyes and I shuffle to the headboard and reach for his hands. I don’t release them, but I feel his rough fingertips, the calluses on his left hand. I sit back down on the covers and study his face.

“You’re a violinist.”

“Would you like me to play for you?” he asks, and his voice is as deep and haunting and melancholy as his chosen instrument.

Those physical markers—the neck bruise, the calluses—are often overlooked in literary description, especially the “fiddler’s hickey” that results from rubbing against the chinrest. I read this over a year ago, and I still have this passage practically memorized.

Another example is from Carrie Lofty’s historical, Song of Seduction, featuring a composer hero struggling to regain his proverbial muse and a prodigy heroine, who can hear any melody and play it instantaneously on nearly any instrument. While the prose is a bit purple—and I’ll admit, music practically writes itself into romance clichés (see: the first paragraph of this post)—this moment struck me as very true, because I’ve seen violinist friends do so:

She turned from the gallery railing, pressed by a restlessness she could neither explain nor deny. At her waist, as if roaming the tight confines of a violin’s fingerboard, her left hand danced. She squeezed the agitated limb into a fist. When the impulse refused to abate, she pulled the Fraiskette from her bodice and stroked its warm amber cabochon in a panicky rhythm.

A musician heroine I’m greatly looking forward to reading about is pianist Kate, of Tessa Dare’s upcoming August release, A Lady by Midnight—specifically because, a while back, she asked a music theory-related question on Twitter that I was able to answer for her; and it was concerning something for which most readers wouldn’t have cared whether she used the technical term or not. But I have absolutely the greatest respect for Ms. Dare because she bothered to ask that small question, because the small, specific, musical details mattered to her. And as many of us already know, her Spindle Cove series is full of wonky women who don’t quite fit in Regency society…so a musician heroine will be doubly wonky!

There’s a lovely, weirdly apropos quote that I often think of, in reference to both my life and work as a musician and voice instructor and when reading novels containing musical protagonists. Victorian-era critic John Ruskin was credited as saying, “Music when healthy, is the teacher of perfect order, and when depraved, the teacher of perfect disorder.” Depraved or no, those of us who find completion and balance in music, be we real or fictional, accept that there is something about us that is…not quite right.

And in doing so, we embrace what we are: absolutely, totally wonked.

What are some of your favorite musical heroes and heroines of romance? Share in the comments!  

About Edie Harris

Edie Harris writes erotic and historical romances. Read more >
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17 Responses to Beautiful Music

  1. Ooh, this makes me wish I’d been more clever when writing my short, Intermezzo. I wanted to include a thing about the composer/conductor hero seeing/sensing the chords in a particular passage as a cascade of triangular forms, but him being unable to articulate that…but then I felt I was insufficiently able to articulate it, so it wound up on the cutting room floor. I’m often struck by how non-verbal my understanding of music is, though. Contra everything else in my life (except possibly math) music is almost entirely conceptual, non-linguistically framed, for me. So it’s often difficult to work into books in a way that satisfies me. Words not speak good stuff about note things.

    • Edie Harris says:

      I think most writers describe music in terms of the emotion it evokes, and that might be because a lot of authors probably don’t take four semesters of collegiate music theory [dies all over again]. So, sometimes it’s done well, and sometimes you end up with overwrought prose. I think the music nerd in me just really gets a kick out of the small technical details of music or the little tics of “lifer” musicians that show up in a book featuring musical main characters.

      As a contrary example, take Grace Burrowes’ THE VIRTUOSO: I won’t slam the novel, because I really enjoyed it…as soon as I deduced there wasn’t a whole lot of technical, piano-centric knowledge in the author’s conceptualization of the angsty “virtuoso” hero, and could then set aside my nitpicky music-nerd self and just read. However, books like that, where the music is supposed to be such an integral element of the character’s soul and motivation? I really wish there had been more music-savvy in the author’s prose, especially since it says in her website bio that she grew up playing the piano—which shocked me when I visited her site after-the-fact, as I didn’t expect to see any mention of a musical past in relation to that author. But, again, I enjoyed the book…aside from the music parts.

      …Aaaaand now I’ll stop being one of those annoying perfectionists and just say I really like the imagery you presented there, Del, in only a sentence. Oftentimes conductors do see/sense musical phrases in such a way, and that’s what makes them such powerful motivational leaders: because they don’t need the technical in the same manner in which a composer would. To be obnoxious and use yet another quote, this one attributed to awesomesauce composer Gustav Mahler: “If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music.” See? It’s a two-way street, m’dear. :)

  2. Pingback: Musicians Be Crazy, Man… | Edie's Blog

  3. Serena Bell says:

    Love this post. I played violin for ten years and had the crazy-worst violin hickey. (The only thing that could touch it was Eucerin lotion. So random.) Also, it reminds me of a paper I wrote in college for my Bach class, about one of the solo violin sonatas. Actually, I’m not sure WHO wrote the paper, which is the point–when I read the paper afterward it was full of all this amazing analysis and beautiful imagery that I had literally no memory of actually coming up with. That happens to me when I write fiction too–such total flow that I don’t remember it afterwards–but I think it was particularly intense in that situation because of the crossover between music-brain and writer-brain. And finally, I’m definitely a writing addict. I get grumpy and depressed between projects. And it’s only the real flow writing that works to snap me out of it–puttering and planning are loads of fun, but if I can’t get into that total state of absorption, I can’t really get my “fix.” I’m pretty sure the same was true when I played violin, though I don’t remember clearly.

    • Edie Harris says:

      You were a violinist, Serena? I learn something new about my wonk compatriots every day! : )

      My snooty little theory is that if you have played an instrument for a long while and know exactly how to make it elicit the sounds you want from it, and then you listen to a piece played by that instrument, it becomes so much easier to describe it in words because you already know all the physical markers of what it takes to produce a certain warmth or vibrato, or at what angle one holds one’s wrist when drawing the bow, et cetera. Music isn’t just an aural experience; it’s incredibly physical, too—and I think that often gives someone writing about music a better connectivity to both the piece and the prose.

      • Edie Harris says:

        Also, it should be stated that I never played a stringed instrument: just piano, flute, piccolo, oboe, and guitar. One of my dearest friends is a professional violinist, though (not a teacher), and I’ve already decided that someday, when I have the means and the time, I’m going to learn cello. Man, I love that instrument. : )

  4. Ruthie Knox says:

    Beautiful post, Edie. I have never been able to be intellectual about music, and my tastes have always been solidly lowbrow — but I do have a strong emotional need to SING, especially when I’m feeling like complete crap. It’s a crucial outlet for me. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about motherhood is that I sing every day, at naptime and bedtime, for Kidlet. Some day, I’m sure, he’ll tell me to stop. In the meantime, it’s lovely.

    I love the physical markers of music in this post. I love physical markers of all forms of obsession, actually, and am delighted when authors locate and describe them. When I was in middle school, I was an obsessive tap dancer. I would sit in school, bored to tears, and tap dance quietly under my desk. Art and emotion both manifest physically; it’s delightful to “see” those physical manifestations in a written piece used as a form of characterization.

    • Edie Harris says:

      If I were ever to be lucky enough to become a mother, I would sing to my kids all the time. My mom sang to me, and goodness knows she can’t carry a tune, but memories of her softly singing Apple Blossom Time and Edelweiss to me and then my brother still choke me up.

      To set aside my tetchy Prissy McFussypants purist persona here, one of the best things—and I do mean the absolute best—I’ve learned since I began teaching voice four years ago is that everyone needs to sing. Everyone. It doesn’t matter if they can or not. It doesn’t matter if they hum or if they belt it out, or maybe even just tap out the rhythm with their fingers on the kitchen table. It is such a terribly and awesomely personal expression of emotion, happiness or loneliness or boredom or anger, and that’s why you hear people in the shower, or walking down the hall of your dorm, or in the car next to you at the stoplight with the windows rolled down. Singing is essential and so incredibly universal, and it’s that universality, transcending talent and age and gender and disposition, that has made me realize how much I love teaching music. And believe me, I don’t have the “teaching gene”; hell, I don’t even like children most days. But the fact that my students all want—need—to sing? That makes it a joy.

      And then I get to do fun things like figure out how to explain sound production to them physically, because most of them don’t have even a working knowledge of theory. So when a student is slightly flat, I say, “Lift your eyebrows. It’ll raise your soft palate,” and he does, and his eyes go wide when he suddenly feels himself slide into tune with the piano accompaniment? That’s a pretty cool moment.

      /end mushy teaching squee

  5. Amber says:

    Okay, well, I’m not very good with music, so, unfortunately, it’s not as much going to make it into my writing. I did recently write one scene that had a nice rhythm theme… a sex scene, of course ;-)

    But let’s see. The heroine in Lisa Marie Rice’s Midnight Angel is a singer and… a harpist? I think? Or maybe it was a violin. Ah, see, this is why I suck :)

    • Edie Harris says:

      You don’t suck, Amber!

      I was thinking, actually, when I wrote the paragraph on Tessa Dare’s upcoming novel that heroes/heroines whose number-one defining trait is that they’re musical is kind of rare in romance. (Not lentil-farmer rare, of course, but not overwhelmingly common.) But in terms of “wonky” traits, especially in historicals where everyone and their mother is a Sir Lord Viscount de DukeyDuke, you do see a lot of scholarly or sekrit novelist H/hs, or hidden fabulous watercolorist talents, or feminist bluestockings who run abortion clinics out of cottages on their York estates (okay, not that, but how often do we see the battered women’s shelter trope in historicals?). I just thought it was interesting that musician H/hs don’t get more screen time.

      • Ruthie Knox says:

        I’ve been told that in contemporary romance, musician heroes and heroines are a tough sell. I’ve got a pop star in an upcoming book, but he’s a subplot character, not the hero. It’s difficult to write about music in a way that makes it sound sexy — like writing about people dancing in a club is difficult. You know it looks/sounds sexy, but when you try to put it into words . . . *thud* It falls flat.

        • Amber says:

          Ah, pop stars.

          The Olivia Cunning series Backstage Pass seems to be crazy popular. It did not float my boat, but I wonder if part of that was that they talked about the music so much and that has never been my scene. She didn’t just talk about playing/composing but also the whole fan culture. As opposed to Bella Andre’s From This Moment On that had a Britney Spears-esque popstar, but the focus was way more on press/popularity than music.

          I think some of the trickiness in writing them would be the press and public opinion aspect. Seems like usually when I see famous people, they are on a retreat/sabbatical/in hiding/in danger, etc, because the media is such a crazy beast.

          • Edie Harris says:

            Writing people dancing is icky. Like, club dancing. Save the “sexy” bump-n-grind for the bedroom. Or not.

            It probably is really hard to write musicians in contemps because most music today is considered in terms of pop and rock, and, as Amber says, there’s the crazy media beast to contend with. I’ve read some really atrocious contemps with country singer heroines or rock star heroes.

  6. Ellen says:

    What a fun post to read! I will come out of the closet as the person who complimented Edie’s writing about music, and I’m also loving this conversation.

    Since it’s just between us, I’ll also share one of my examples of BAD writing about music. It’s from STARBURST by Robin Pilcher. Set aside the fact that the musicians are all pretentious and say “oui?” at the ends of sentences even of they are not French, Pilcher clearly struggles to write about something he doesn’t understand, Example: “she put out a search for a violin with the same resonance and playing style as (the old one).”. But even a non-musician should know that no instrument has “the same resonance” as another instrument, shouldn’t they, even if they use a clunky term like “playing style”? And how can you “put out a search” for an instrument which must be played to hear its resonance?

    Edie, I have also been a voice teacher and I think you have something when you say that a voice teacher has special sensitivities to these things because of the need to explain singing so abstractly. I once heard singing described as learning to play the guitar with no feeling in your left hand. We can’t see or touch our instrument, so a metaphor resulting in a student lifting the soft palate is indeed a cause for squee. Even though a novel expressing those things would be enjoyed by a very small group of people.

    Keep making beautiful misc!

    Edie, I have also

    • Edie Harris says:

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Ellen! I feel exceedingly lucky that not only do I get to “do” music as my day-job, I sometimes also get to write about it in romance novels. And if even one person (in this case, you, m’dear) thinks I wrote about music correctly or with any kind of working knowledge, I consider that a huge success. I don’t know if I’ll teach forever, but I do know music will always be a huge part of every aspect of my life. :)

      P.S. If you ever find a good example or two of music done well in romance, please shoot me an email or tweet! Always on the lookout. ;)