There is No Music

There is no music. My main character, journalist Leo Desroches, doesn’t listen to the radio, doesn’t talk about his favorite songs, nor does he try to impress anyone by referencing a musical artist.

For someone like me, having no music in my novel can be seen as an unusual decision. You see, before I got this novel published, I worked for many years as a freelance music writer. I reviewed CDs, went to lots of shows, and interviewed tons of artists, some famous, some just local folks. I’m also a musician. During most of the 90s, I played in a punk rock band that released two discs, toured the US, and opened for bands like the Suicide Machines, SNFU, Mad Caddies, Groovie Ghoulies, Chixdiggit and others. (Means more if you know punk rock bands.)

So why did I not include any music in my novel, especially in a dark one that could have been ripe for some punk or hardcore?

The first reason is that having too many musical references in a novel, for whatever reason, doesn’t sit right with me. Sure it works in books by Nick Hornby, Tim Thornton, Bill Fitzhugh,  and Mathew Jarpe, stories in which music plays a major role in the plot. But for the most part, in other novels, it just doesn’t feel right.

I understand that using music can add to the atmosphere of a book or provide more insight into a character. But music is such a powerful force in my life, so integral to my being, that whenever I read a musical reference in a book, I’m immediately taken out of the story (the same for film and literary references). If it’s a song I know and like, I think about how it affects me, and I get the urge to listen to it.

Usually, I put down the book and try to find the song.

If it’s a song or artist I don’t know, then I feel the need to listen to the song, so I can understand why the writer made reference to it.

Usually, I put down the book and try to find the song.

In both cases, I’m not only taken out of the story, I’ve actually put down the book.

The problem I also have with musical references in novels is that many times it’s an easy way to flesh out a character. Instead of letting the character’s actions, dialogue, responses, and thoughts show us who we’re reading about, a writer will use a style of music to add another layer. A few times it works, but mostly I see it as a lazy means (yes, I did say that) of character development.

And the final thing that really bugs me about musical references in novels: the music is always cool. So a main character in a novel will always drop the needle on John Coltrane rare recordings (“always on vinyl,” the character will say to enhance his hip quotient, “because CDs miss the warmth of Coltrane’s soul”). Or he’ll pop in a bootleg cassette of the Vaselines first live show in Glasgow Writers or something like that.

But they will never hear a Britney Spears song and exclaim “I love this music!” or express a love of Nickelback, unless it’s used ironically, to be campy, or as a means to diminish the character in some way.  The music they love is never crap, because writers always want our characters to be cool and hip, even when they are troubled antiheros.

So I leave it out and Rock on.

Images via Ben Husmann and runzwthscissors28.

Wayne Arthurson is the author of Fall From Grace, the first in the Leo Desroches series.  Wayne has also been a drummer since Junior High, currently drums for two indie rock bands, and is on Facebook.


  1. Terrie Farley Moran

    This is a fascinating post. and I do understand why you left music out of your novel. Unlike you, I am not a music industry professional but we share a lot of the same traits. Even if I like the character, I smirk when he listens to “cool ” music on vinyl. More importantly, any song that is mentioned immediately sets me humming (as I mention in my Criminal Element [url= )]post about Benjamin Black’s [/url][url= )]Elegy for April [/url]) and often sends me looking for the song in my own collection and on Youtube. Somehow I never considered this a distraction from the story; it is just how I read: story–music break–story. And since I’m such a music fan, I frequently refer to it in my writing, assuming everyone will enjoy the mini song break as I do. You have given me an entirely different view and for that I thank you.

  2. Chuk Goodin

    I’d love to see a book where the protagonist listens to music the author does not think is cool.
    (And an SNFU show was where I first realized I was too old for the mosh pit now.)

  3. Charlotte Abel

    I gotta laugh … my protagonist’s ringtone for her boyfriend is “Gotta Be Somebody” by Nickelback 😉

    I don’t ever want to tempt a reader to put down my book to go search for a song. Something to think about.

    Thanks for the post.

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