Monday, March 4, 2013

Scattered Musings on Music & Magic

Music is magic. This is known. Innumerable fantasy novels feature magical tunes and sorcerous musicians. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones—a list of cliches in the form of a travel guidebook, as useful as it is hilarious—catalogues several forms of magic in fantastical fiction: magic that comes with a price, synecdochically sympathetic magic, nature magic "done by attuning to trees and breezes and things," and so on. She gives a full paragraph of explanation for every kind of magic but one: the ninth entry is simply "Music," with no explanation given or required.

Supernatural singing is as fixed in our shared imagination as the idea that you can make some things happen by talking about them—especially if you speak Latin, or Quenya, or the language of dragons. In Tolkien's Silmarillion the world begins with singing rather than speech. And according to Oliver Sacks "music occupies more areas of our brain than language does." Dr. Sacks often writes about patients who suffer severe neurological damage and afterwords need music to maintain memory, identity, or the ability to tie shoelaces. The right tune can hold them together.

Now here's Karl Paulnack, Director of the Boston Conservatory, in a 2004 speech to new students. You can find the whole speech on Amanda Palmer's blog. This bit is from the beginning:

Ptolemy's Wizardry 
The Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of…helping us figure out the position of things inside us. 

This bit is from the end:

Well, my friends, someday at 8 pm someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.

Readers likewise come to books overwhelmed by the outside world (I do, anyway). And fantasy is escapism, right? It offers an escape from the world we know—and the possibility of returning to it whole afterwards.

William Alexander won the National Book Award for his debut novel Goblin Secrets. His second novel, set it the same world and city, is yet another fantasy about music


  1. I wonder if that is why so many writers write to music?
    And why Amanda and Neil Gaiman hit it off so well ;)
    Nice article Will - thanks for the ponder!

  2. "In Tolkien's Silmarillion the world begins with singing rather than speech."

    I didn't know that -- that's marvelous. And in some ways more believable than just The Word, because you can FEEL that music slips its finegrs into more parts of your brain than language alone. Maybe poetry comes closest to turning language into music.

  3. Lovely post, Will. I, too, have written "yet another fantasy about music," and the end of Paulnack's speech really got to me. So do the studies that show how music and memory are interwined, and how music is one of the last things to leave us.

  4. I really enjoyed this post Will. I have always loved the music throughout Lord of the Rings. It is easier to remember a song than memorize a poem, so I guess there is something to that!

  5. One of the wonders of the recent Tolkien-based movies is that they took the music so seriously. I definitely heard music when I read the chapter on Lothlorien. To say nothing of Tom Bombadil.

    Lovely post, Will.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. I had never heard of the Tough Guide to Fantasyland before. It is now on hold at the library for me!

    Angela's Anxious Life

  8. Thanks, all! Ellen, my favorite bit of the new Hobbit movie was definitely dwarvish singing. And Angie, don't drink anything while reading the Tough Guide! Your beverage will shoot out your nose.

  9. I loved this post! It seems that music is always popping up in my writing...partly because of my music background, I imagine. But also because music IS magic to me, magic that we have access to in our everyday lives, not just in fantasy. Thanks for the reminder.

  10. And music and story, sound and literature, weren't such separate disciplines once upon a time...


Have your say...