Getting the replay: Composing stories that stick

I’ve spent the last few days with the same song stuck in my head. You’ve experienced this before. We’ll both experience it again.musical staff

This week it is “You’re welcome” the upbeat Disney song from Moana, that has burrowed itself into my brain this week.  The imaginary replay button is triggered throughout my day: pouring coffee, waiting for the T, checking email, reading the news, writing blog posts like this one. I catch myself tapping and humming the joyful chorus and ask myself WHY? WHY right now? WHY this song? WHY is the recitation of this string of notes so satisfying that I can’t help but revisit it over and over?

Obviously, many of you are saying it’s a credit the genius of Lin-Manual Miranda. And of course that’s part of it. But he (like most composers following the Western European tradition of the last few centuries) has tapped into some basic music composition rules that build tension and then provide a release that feels inevitable, necessary and comforting to a listener. In a span of notes we go on an emotional journey of anxiety and anticipation to relief. Novels take their readers on similar emotional journeys but must sustain them for hundreds of pages.

Can these basic rules of music inform the way we build stories that stick? Here are three things I think music composition and novels have in common when it comes to hitting replay or deciding to reread.

Pick a key. In music the key you use determines not only the notes used but also sets a natural reference point, called the tonic. Our ears naturally hear this root as the central point of the set in a given melody. There are intervals and chords that sound more natural based on what that root or tonic is. Think of it as a range of steps one can take from note to the other. A great description of this is Sound of Music’s “Do-Re-Mi.” Maria is singing the children through an exercise in solfege (singing notes). It sounds in a way like they are climbing stairs (and I think they do at one point as part of the chorography in the Julie Andrews version) because they are passing systematically from one note to the other on a scale always returning to the tonic “Do.”

Similarly, a novel’s characters start with a base level of relationships, beliefs and characteristics. The journeys that they take from there follow a path that is set in part rooted in where they started. We as readers want to follow that movement, whether they go from shy to brave from friends to lovers or from Miami to Alcatraz the paths they take, and we can instinctively recognize the direction each step or choice point might take them in. It feels resonant and real when characters’ actions have recognizable relationships from one decision to the next. And of course some of the most beautiful melodies come of out of the counterpoint in how character’s choices and personalities play off of one another.

Build tension and release. Music creates anticipation in a listener’s mind for relaxation or release. Tension may be produced a variety of ways in music, repetition, changes to pacing, intensity of the dynamics between instruments, or syncopation (a rhythm that temporarily displaces which beat is emphasized). Following a sustained passage of tension, any resolution or return to a more predictable or natural sounding musical phrase creates a moment of relief.

A great example of using tension to communicate is the theme song to The Simpsons by Danny Elfman. It begins with a three-note that sounds almost idyllic and hopeful. That’s because those three notes are following an ascending chord progression that our ears recognize as familiar and natural. It then plunges us for the rest of the song into a baseline that actually uses a musical progression that evokes such discomfort in a listener it was banned in Renaissance church music. If you’re humming the theme song now, you will notice that the pace increases, new instruments are brought in and out which feels, there’s some unpredictable rhythms and it ends on the same three notes repeated. We’ve settled somewhere but you don’t feel as good or as hopeful as when we began. We spend the theme song unconsciously waiting for the notes to resolve into a familiar pattern, to release us from waiting from what our ears expect.

Oftentimes novels create these moments that readers desperately want to see. It’s the will they won’t they tension of a rom com? The subdued tension in a family drama where no one will confront the issue, the impending doom of a disaster clock slowly running out. Making your reader cry out for relief is an emotionally exhausting exercise for them that when done effectively pulls them in deeper to caring about what happens next to your characters. Many of the same techniques that work in music work here, character dynamics, pacing and the syncopation of events – something unexpected throwing your protagonist off his horse on the way to save the princess.

Return to the tonic. The parts of songs that get stuck in our heads offer that relief. These are the phrases that resolve back to the tonic. The place where we started. Happy Birthday does this. It repeats twice, jumps the octave to set you up for shouting the name of the honoree (That’s the third BIRTH-day for those of you singing along) The most exciting part of the song is also when we are furthest away from where we started. But the big finish and how we know the song is over is when we return to our tonic home.

Following this idea, I think choosing an ending to your novel is a lot of ways about what emotion you want to leave your reader on. Should they feel safe and satisfied in knowing exactly where the characters have ended up? Or is there an unsettling question or uneasiness you want to leave them with. In novels, like in music, there’s a variety of choices in how you compose your work.

We all begin with the some of the same basic tool kits – our human experience, a shared language. How you arrange the relationships and the steps between one choice to another is up to you. Also, if any of this talk of music has got certain tunes stuck in your head, I just want to say “You’re welcome.”