Music and words

 In Newsletters, Tips for Writers

– Fred de Vries

‘Dear boy, what will you do with all those records?’, my late mother used to say. And that was when I was still in my early twenties and had only just started acquiring LPs in a serious manner. I have no idea what she’d say if she saw my current collection, which runs into the thousands (6.000? 7.000? I’m too scared to count).

But no matter what she’d say, I’d retort that it has given me a life as well as a bit of a living. I would tell her that I am using my musical stocks to earn money. I’d click on the link to my music column for the South African online magazine Vrye Weekblad, I would show her the music stories I regularly write for Dutch weekly Nieuwe Revu, and I’d tell her about my contributions to a Dutch publication for music freaks, called Platenblad.

And I would add that I also trade in records, which gives me some pocket money to… buy more records (of course, I wouldn’t tell her that last bit).

And I would try to explain to her that music is something much bigger than a magical combination of sounds, melodies and words. Music is the social, the political, the cultural, the economical. It can heal and it can disrupt. It can make you cry and make you jump into the air. Music is about fashion and friendship, it always gives you something to look at and talk about.

Above all, it is a reflection of society, just read the incredible book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross, which covers ‘classical’ music of the 20th century, and engages deeply and thoroughly with history, culture and politics. Music, I would stress, can be regal and sublime.

Using music for storytelling

Therefore we can use music for stories and books. It’s a perfect vehicle to navigate certain histories, characters or locations. Music makes places and people come alive. And what’s more: music is a universal language – everybody loves music and everybody has an opinion on what’s good and bad (or, as Duke Ellington wrote: ‘There are simply two kinds of music: good music and the other kind.’). I used music for my book about place and race, called Blues For The White Man, which was essentially an autobiographical exploration of America’s Deep South and South Africa’s social issues.

This past year, the dreadful 2023,  I wrote more about music than ever before. I thoroughly enjoyed diving into the reasons for staggering popularity of Taylor Swift, or the controversial lyrics of American country stars Oliver Anthony, Jason Aldean and Aaron Lewis, stories that dealt not so much with music as with media, personalities, feminism, authenticity and right-wing extremism. It also made me listen to music more intensely, and more attentively. Music became a means to understand this mad mad world, as well as myself.

Of course I am not the only one who works like that. The BBC, in covering the horrors of Gaza used the friendship between an Israeli and a Palestinian rapper to talk about bridges and solidarity. Writers do it too. I already mentioned Alex Ross.

And great American authors such as Greil Marcus have used the likes of The Doors and Bob Dylan to describe parts of the American psyche that otherwise would have been hidden from the wider public. And of course American novelists such as Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan and Jonathan Lethem (The Fortress Of Solitude) have used rock and jazz as main ingredients for their best-selling novels. Think Freedom, A Visit From The Goon Squad and The Fortress of Solitude.

When it comes to British novelists, names such as Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting), Jonathan Coe (The Rotter’s Club) and Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) immediately spring to mind.

Find your music

So my New Year’s message to you all – that is all of you who are looking for new subjects for a story or a book, or who are suffering from writer’s block – go and find ‘your music.’ Of course this doesn’t have to be in the form of notes, tones, rhythms and melodies.

Your music can be knitting, cooking, painting, horse riding, football, interior design, swimming, long distance running, stamp collecting, racing, gambling, investing, whatever you are passionate about – and use it as a means for your writing.

It works like a double edged sword: on the one hand it increases your knowledge of this thing that you dearly love, and it will be the perfect excuse to completely get lost in it. And on top of that it gives you a reason to write, and write with complete authority and blazing intensity.

Happy 2024!


If you haven’t already read them, here are all of team All About Writing’s 2023 wrap-ups:

Jo-Anne’s: 2023 in review: How a writing community became a lifeline

Richard’s: 2023 in review: Celebrating the words that emerge from a community of writers.

Michele’s: 2023 in review: The writer’s struggle

Joanne’s: 2023 in review: All in a year’s writing …


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