If you know what sort of music a person likes and particularly, the way they hear it, you know an awful lot about them. I find it really useful to give distinct musical tastes to characters. Outside fiction, of course, you nearly never know how other people hear music, which is why it can be so reassuring that Barrack Obama cited Ready or Not as his favourite track, yet so devastating when David Cameron professed to love the Smiths. Yet, try to consider just how David Cameron actually might listen to the Smiths. The lyrics change their meaning. The colours of the music are completely altered. Can you imagine? He hears “It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate; it takes strength to be gentle and kind.” and is moved to demolish the welfare state while vilifying the poor.
The article I linked to documenting Cameron’s love for the Smiths quotes him as saying, "The lyrics – even the ones I disagree with – are great, and often amusing.”
That's interesting, because not everyone listens to pop music thinking, "Now, that's an ideological point of view I disagree with, but that cat sure be laying down some the phat rhymes." So that's another thing to consider, when using music to tune into fictional characters; Charles Manson thought that the Beatles' White Album was all about race war. People hear and interpret lyrics differently; sometimes they don't matter and sometimes they're everything.
Tragically, David Cameron is not a fictional character, but if he were, understanding how he enjoyed the Smiths would be very useful to his creator. Playing the Smiths while writing about him would be useful. No reader need know about any of this - the subject need never be raised. But it's co-ordinates in time and space.
That having said, there's no harm in musical references. A detective with an eccentric taste in music has become a cliche in British detective fiction, but that's only because it worked so well with Morse (classical, particularly Wagner) or Rebus (rock, particularly The Rolling Stones). I’m really excited in movies and TV shows when they pick distinct music which a character actively chooses to listen to - McNulty listening to The Tokens' version of The Lion Sleeps Tonight while tailing Stringer Bell or Walter White racing along the desert highway to A Horse With No Name.
Beyond the matter of character, I use music as an aid to concentration. I can only work for short spells and time, energy and peace arrive at fairly random intervals. I have to get in there as quick as I can.
This music is not music that I would particularly enjoy in other circumstances, because it has to meet the following criteria:
- A track has to be at least four minutes long. Longer is good.
- A track can't have a lot of variation - the classical music I love provides long movements, but often with too much going on.
- I must be very familiar with this track for some reason, even if that reason isn't love for the music.
There's a fair amount of classic music that's good for this, as is goth music; Bauhaus' Bela Legosi's Dead goes on forever. Red Lorry Yellow Lorry's Talk About The Weather is shorter but you can play it on repeat and not notice that it's ended and started again. Dance tracks from the 1990s which became numbingly familiar on the bus to and from high school are also very useful; Adamski & Seal's Killer or What is love? by Haddaway. That kind of nonsense.
I don't dislike this music, but if I were a fictional character, it would not be mine.
There are dangers listening to music when writing, apart from obvious things like singing, dancing and spending half an hour rearranging a playlist before you’ve even got started.
The first is feeling it too much. When I was younger, I treated fiction-writing much as I treated dramatic performance, as if, should I only feel everything a fictional character feels, the reader would too. Only actually, feeling it all makes it impossible to write. Your tears may short the keyboard but that doesn't make for articulate prose. As music is such a catalyst to strong emotion, it’s sometimes best to listen to a tune before writing in silence. You can take notes. No, don't just copy down the lyrics - what are you? Twelve?
The second is feeling hampered by the fact that nothing you can write in words can ever be as expressive and exciting as music, because music is the bomb. You’re thinking about the way a character feels, you listen to a track and know that you cannot express their feeling better than what you just heard. It’s true, you really can’t. But music cannot tell complex narratives with all the richness that entails. It's different. You can practice your guitar later on.
The third is the temptation to nerd out about music in writing, which is always unwise when one's purpose is to get on and tell a story. There are exceptions - here is one, from Howards End.