Research by Music - a different way of preparing a novel

12th March 2012
Writers of fiction have all kinds of ways of doing research, and most of these are pretty mundane and dull. This is an article, however, about a sometimes overlooked and pleasurable source: research by music.

Research - as it usually goes

For most writers of historical fiction, there's a lot of reading of history books involved in the process of research. A lot of looking into all those murky facts and figures, dates of battles, births and deaths of kings and queens. All this provides the framework into which you slot your story - and woe betide any novelist who gets his or her facts wrong. There is always someone who'll notice.

Research is taken seriously by the more academically stringent writers. Most of us head off to the odd historical building or castle from time to time, where we plod around with our flask of tea and sandwiches, trying to soak up the atmosphere. Some even pull on the white gloves and delve into original source material in record offices and museums - though. I'm not too keen on the white gloves, to be frank. (I'm probably more the thick-leather-gauntlet type, which I then put to good use in the garden for pruning thorny Berberis hedges and roses).
thorny shrub with red leaves
Ouch! Berberis - you definitely need gloves for these.

Research by music

What I do like a lot, though, is listening to music. Music has been something that has flowed through my veins for as long as I can remember. Not only that, (and, sorry, this is where things might start to get a little peculiar) but I believe music helps us to go back in time, to span the centuries and to see, hear and feel what it was like to be there, at the very time and place when the piece was composed or performed. It is as if music has a magical property that can link us directly to the past by a kind of vibrational thread. To take you even further into the realms of improbable fantasy, I also believe it is possible to get an idea of how people spoke from their music, the rhythms and cadence of conversation.

Now, the precise dates of the composition do not always have to coincide exactly, year-for-year with the events being written about. You can give or take a few decades, either side. When I wrote Virgin and the Crab it was the Elizabethan composers, Tallis and Byrd, but also a lot of Italian Renaissance music I listened to for research, including Josquin des Prez and the much-later Vivaldi. When I wrote The Arrow Chest it was Elgar, but with lots of Schubert and Brahms thrown into the mix. At present I am writing Wildish, and for that it can only be Handel.
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English composer Edward Elgar. "What's that, you say? The Arrow Chest? Ruddy nonsense!"

Soothing Stuff

Not only is music one of the best research tools ever, it is also a delight to work to anyway. It does wonders for your Iambic Pentameters, and it also soothes the mind. And anyone who has ever tried writing will tell you that soothing the mind definitely comes in handy at times.
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Oh well, that's enough grumbling. Let's finish with a bit of research I've been doing lately for 'Wildish' - sung in this instance by Kathleen Ferrier.
Art Thou Troubled' from Handel's opera Rodelinda

"Art thou troubled? Music will calm thee,
Art thou weary? Rest shall be thine,
Music, source of all gladness,
Heals thy sadness at her shrine,
Music, music, ever divine,
Music music calleth with voice divine.
When the welcome spring is smiling,
All the earth will flow’rs beguiling,
After winter’s dreary reign,
Sweetest music doth attend her,
Heav’nly harmonies doth lend her,
Chanting praises in her train."

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