Time & Place — Cue the Music!

We all have songs that remind us of a person, place or particular event in our lives. Filmmakers and the creative geniuses behind TV shows and TV commercials are obviously aware of this, too. Some authors, including the mystery writer Peter Robinson, have created characters that are passionate about music so the songs that are meaningful to his fictional characters are threaded into his novels.

This is not new. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously did this with jazz tunes in THE GREAT GATSBY —much to the dismay of literary purists of the time. I was surprised when I saw the recent film adaptation (with Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role) that director Baz Lurhmann’s chose contemporary music —contemporary as in NOW— and not contemporary with the action of the Jazz Age storyline. The musical choices were actually kind of cool and shaded the story in a unique way. Of course I became irate when the one Gershwin composition used in the film turned out to be one I knew was written a year after the action taking place. Yeah, this bugged me. I guess because it felt like a mistake.

I also felt a little disoriented when I saw a commercial for Dior perfume, featuring the actress Natalie Portman as a runaway bride. Her escape is accompanied by of one of my all-time favorite blues recordings —Janis Joplin singing ‘Piece of My Heart.’ The mini drama doesn’t seem to match the lyrics and they definitely don’t mesh with my childhood memories of that wonderful, heartbroken voice.

Without even thinking about it I can list songs that take me back in time with vivid memories from my childhood and teens: ‘Stop in the Name of Love’; ‘When I’m 64’; ‘Rikki Don’t Lose that Number’; ‘Sea and Sand’ etc. etc. etc.

I’m rambling around in circles because I appreciate the power that music has to awaken memories and to heighten a sensory experience, but I must acknowledge that mismatches with reader’s memories are always a possibility. I’ve got a few lines from an old song in my current novel-in-progress. It predates the protagonist so she comes at it with new ears —as poetry more than as a song— and I hope that readers will share her perspective on the song more than mine.

We’ll see…


  1. A post after my own heart. 🙂 My current WIP makes mention of two Jo Blankenburg songs, both of which mean a lot to /me/ even if the reader hasn’t a clue what they’re about. Then again, maybe some day someone will read the story and send me a message about the music! Now that would be nice.

    • Candy Korman

      Yes, you are a music blogger it would make sense for music to inform your fiction. It’s a given in television and movies, but in books it’s trickier. We, as storytellers, must account for readers not knowing, not liking or having discordant associations with our musical references. Still nothing cues time & place like the right tune!

      • Candy Korman

        You’ve hit the heart of the dilemma. The music that speaks to the author may not speak to the reader. Beyond very, very popular/familiar tunes, our memories are knitted up with our OWN soundtracks. Sometimes a song that is supposed to be happy makes us sad… That’s why Janice Joplin singing Piece of My Heart in a Dior commercial about a runaway bride hit me the wrong way. It wasn’t about running away. It was about running toward someone. Anyway… Cue the Music and the story goes on!

  2. My music is always the backdrop I have going on while I am working. It would be interesting to find that the music itself is infusing into the words I write, but then, I would think that the reader would have to know the same music I listen to while writing.

    Or maybe we all have our own soundtracks so what might work for me within a certain scene is completely different than what you hear.