Upping Your Chances to Become Einstein


Last month, I was a Panel Master at the International Thriller Writers’ Thrillerfest VIII. The topic: “Is There a Soundtrack to Your Book?”

At first, I was concerned that the question assigned was too… ahem… one-note. Either you had a soundtrack or you didn’t. But as I delved into researching the topic, I was delighted by the many facets of how music permeates our creative process, the resulting artistic work, and the audience which receives it.

Albert Einstein told Shinichi Suzuki (creator of the Suzuki method), “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception.” (1969)

I grew up in a musical household. My sister is a professional flutist, my brother was encouraged to become a professional cellist, but ultimately chose a career in IT at which he excelled. I played clarinet, classical guitar and sang in choir and musicals for years. I had dearly wanted to learn the piano as a child, but we didn’t have one. Many years later, after my youngest began studying piano (using the Suzuki method, as I wanted her to develop the ability to play music by ear in addition to sight-reading), I began taking piano lessons. I could read the treble clef, but had to learn the bass clef, while trying to remember 88 piano keys, coordinate two hands with different rhythms and dynamic levels, and add my foot to the pedal. After an hour of practice, my brain felt as if I had steam coming out of my ears. Even with two graduate degrees, I don’t believe my brain had ever been fully exercised in this manner.

And it occurred to me that playing the piano is similar to juggling the five points of view and myriad plot threads in my novels.

But the affinity between music and books goes beyond the mechanics of writing. The Music Intelligence Lab at Georgia Tech observed that, “no culture ever studied has not had language… or music.”

Enjoying music is a communal experience. It draws people together. Listening to musical performance has been a form of entertainment for centuries, if not millennia. Cultural traditions are built around music played during ceremonial rites of passage, such as weddings, matriculations and funerals. Music was used to announce the entry of royalty, the commencement of a battle attack, and to rouse citizenry to nationalistic fervor.

Quite simply, music transcends language. As Tolstoy so aptly said, “Music is the shorthand of emotion.”

As a writer, I use music in my books to set tone and create character.  All three of my books – DAMAGED, INDEFENSIBLE, and TATTOOED – have theme songs. For the first two books, they came by happenstance. I heard the song and realized it clicked. For example, in INDEFENSIBLE, I heard Jeff Buckley’s version of  Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelulujah”, and the lyrics resonated with the character arc of the man who has everything – and loses it all – when he is accused of murdering his ex-wife. I listened to that song and wrote the very first scene of the manuscript, where managing partner Randall Barrett has been arrested. He is contending with the realization that his own son believes he is a murderer, that his law partners have thrown him under the bus, and that everything by which he defined himself no longer held true.

For TATTOOED, I took on the challenge of writing not one, but two, killers. One of them is a felon, a man who is pathologically obsessed, insecure, and unable to control his emotions. A man who will do anything to have the woman who abandoned him years before – Kenzie Sloane, celebrity tattoo artist. The song that resonated for this character was Adam Lambert’s acoustic version of Tears For Fears’, “Mad World”. In particular, the lyrics: “the dreams I had of dying were the best I ever had.” Every time I wrote in McNally’s POV, I listened to that song.

Song choice is also important for setting scenes. In TATTOOED, Kate returns to the house where her teenage sister had been partying the night she died.

When she enters the living room, she remembers the song that played when she discovered that her fifteen-year-old sister was doing cocaine at the party. The song choice was dictated by the time period, as the flashback takes place years before, as well as the musical tastes of one of the antagonists, Kenzie Sloane, who played fiddle in a Celtic rock punk band. She is also the girl hosting the party where Kate, and her younger, impressionable sister, Imogen, attended. In this excerpt, Kate is now returning to Kenzie Sloane’s house to act as an advocate of assisted suicide  for Kenzie’s mother, who is dying of ALS.

The living room was exactly as Kate remembered, and yet entirely unfamiliar. When she had last been here, the room had been crammed with excited, drunk, hot bodies dancing to The Cranberries’ Celtic-flavored rock. Kate had vaguely recognized the song: “Salvation.” That song had played over and over in Kate’s head after Imogen’s death, the lyrics frustratingly blurred in her memory. Four months after her sister’s funeral – following an afternoon of binge-crying and self-recrimination – Kate bought the CD and read the lyrics on the insert.

She had been incredulous.

“Salvation” was an anti-drug anthem.

She had wondered if Kenzie had played that song as a middle-finger saluted to her parents.

And now, as Kate stepped into France Sloane’s living room, the memory of that song bouncing off the full-length windows, the frenetic beat whipping the partygoers into a manic energy, barged into her consciousness.


Frances Sloane sat in her wheelchair by the massive windows that had deflected “Salvation” so long ago.


Interestingly, I was not familiar with “Salvation” before I wrote the scene. I had to research songs of that genre in that period. To find a song that so perfectly suited the scene, the character, with an added dose of irony, was uncanny.

From my perspective, any method that can lead to breakthroughs in the creative process is worth exploring. If it works for Einstein, it works for me.

For the panel which I moderated, I invited the panellists to send me a song choice that reflected their work, either in terms of character, process or tone. The panellists – authors Ann ParkerTrevor Shane, Don Helin,  Christine Goff,  and Terri O’Dell — provided a fascinating sample of genres. My brilliant thirteen-year-old daughter created a one minute mashup on Garage Band. We played the mashup and asked the audience to guess which author used which music. Unfortunately, the format of this blog will not allow me to upload the file, but I invite you to check out author Ann Parker‘s blog post, “And Now, For a Musical Interlude” on the Poisoned Press blog, where she lists the questions I asked the panellists, and provides the mashup link at the bottom of the post.

Do you listen to music when you write? Read? Do you like characters who are musical?

0 thoughts on “Upping Your Chances to Become Einstein

  • mlhelliwell

    I have a very visceral experience to music – and I’m sure I’m not alone. I can feel music on my skin, if that makes any sense – some of it very pleasant, some of it grating, and the best of it like I am actually swimming in it.

    Many people use music to write to, but I can’t – too distracting, perhaps for the reasons above. However, certain songs absolutely inform characters or scenes, and I often will listen to them when I am driving to work or walking to help me “write” when I can’t actually get to my keyboard. There are some songs now that I so identify with particular books/characters that I can’t hear them without those associations. It is a combination of the music itself and the lyric. I listen to alot of soundtracks – many with instrumental pieces that were written to highlight action or story – and I find those can be helpful when imaging scenes and settings.

  • Tom Sawyer

    Fascinating, Pam! I almost never think of my characters that way, though occasionally as operatic.

  • 1cathrynfox

    Very interesting. I’m unable to work to music and in fact had this discussion with my son just the other day. I find it too much of a distraction. He has started wearing headphone and listening to jazz when studying, and he used to be like me, music disturbs him. But in order to block out noises at university, he has to wear them and now finds it soothing, and helps him study. Interesting stuff indeed.

  • Bev Pettersen

    Interesting post, Pam. I have theme songs for my books but I can’t listen to them during the actual writing, but more for inspiration. I need silence for writing.

  • Julianne MacLean

    I love characters who are musical, and I love music, but I can’t listen to it when I write or read. I need silence, and I even sometimes wear sound reduction headphones while writing, in order to block out the outside world. I find music one of the biggest distractions, because my attention can’t help but go to it. Especially if there are lyrics. That really messes with my game 🙂

  • donnagalanti

    Pam, what fun to hear about the songs that coincide with your books! Music talent and writing are closely aligned (I play the piano). I did have theme songs for both my thriller A HUMAN ELEMENT, and it’s forthcoming sequel. I can’t listen to music while writing, but rather I listen to the songs just before sitting down to write. It puts me deep in that place and character that I’m writing about, as if I’m at the movies. And don’t we all see our books as movies in our heads? 🙂

    I had theme songs for my characters and even for certain scenes. My villain, X-10, was written to the Gladiator movie soundtrack which fueled the writing of his passion and rage quite well! Now for the next ThrillerFest it would be great to see you on a panel of performing writers – playing and debating at the same time. 🙂