Everything is Music

Source: http://www.fromoldbooks.org/

First, a plug!  My coworker Lily hosts a radio program, InBetween the Music, which explores the connections between music and literature, music and film, music and places, seasons, celebrities, and more.

The latest episode, appropriately timed with the release of the newest edition of A Farewell to Arms (it has all 39 alternate endings), focuses on the music connected with/inspired by Ernest Hemingway.

The show’s other literary-themed episodes include:

. . . . . . . .

Inspired by those episodes of InBetween the Music, I’d like to list some of my favorite intersections of music and (mostly) Juv/YA literature:

Music that features or even plays a central role in the story

The “Song of the Wanderer,” from Bruce Coville’s book of the same name – an enchanted ballad created by a long-lost ally of the unicorns, a song that speaks of one torn between homesickness and wanderlust.

Oh, where’s the thread that binds me,
The voice that calls me back?
Where’s the love that finds me —
And what’s the root I lack?
My heart seeks the hearth,
My feet seek the road.
A soul so divided
Is a terrible load … [1]


The narrator’s description of the nightclub performance, in “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin, as a conversation:

Something began to happen.  And Creole let out the reins.  The dry, low, black man said something awful on the drums.  Creole answered, and the drums talked back.  Then the horn insisted, sweet and high, slightly detached perhaps, and Creole listened, commenting now and then, dry, and driving, beautiful and calm and old. [2]

He then describes the music as a form of storytelling, the story itself as something primal and essential – “the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph  …  There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.” [3]


The bittersweet lullaby that Katniss sings in The Hunger Games (“Deep in the meadow, under the willow…”); and the chilling ballad, “The Hanging Tree,” that she sings in Mockingjay.  The first expresses a more optimistic hope for peace, while the second expresses an ominous, despairing kind of hope.  In addition to setting the tone of each book, the songs reflect the regional culture of District 12, alluding to the history of Appalachian folk music.

More specifically, singing connects Katniss with the memory of her father, whose voice was said to be so beautiful that birds would stop to listen.


Ruby’s song, from Sylvia Peck’s Seal Child.  Peck’s fictional folk song (she even includes the score within the book’s opening pages, so you can learn the melody) captures the mysterious and eerie beauty of seals, and sets the same mood for the story as a whole.

What never shivers
Nor sleeps in a bed?
        Seals of silver, seals of gold.
What is it dances
With sailors long dead?
       Seals of silver and gold … [4]


She can’t say why or how, but the moment Saaski discovers the bagpipes in the storage loft, she’s “running up and down and around the scale in a wild little air,” [5] and then romping like a pro through a mad rigadoon.  The tunes she makes up seem oddly familiar to her, all of them untamed, unearthly, and yet very earthly – “a thistle-and-thorn tune, all full of quick, sharp notes,  …  a softer marigold melody,  …  a queer old, old song she knew about the sun  …  a thrumming, buzzing bee song …” [6]


The following statement by Sherlock Holmes, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet:

“Do you remember what Darwin says about music?  He claims that the power of producing and appreciating it existed among the human race long before the power of speech was arrived at.  Perhaps that is why we are so subtly influenced by it.  There are vague memories in our souls of those misty centuries when the world was in its childhood.” [7]

And Watson’s description of him during a violin concert:

All the afternoon he sat in the stalls wrapped in the most perfect happiness, gently waving his long, thin fingers in time to the music, while his gently smiling face and languid, dreamy eyes were as unlike those of Holmes, the sleuth-hound, Holmes the relentless, keen-witted, ready-handed criminal agent, as it was possible to conceive.  In his singular character the dual nature alternately asserted itself, and his extreme exactness and astuteness represented, as I have often thought, the reaction against the poetic and contemplative mood which occasionally predominated in him. [8]

It’s almost a meta-moment, Doyle giving us this sketch of Sherlock as a dynamic, realistic character rather than a 2D hero.  Holmes insists on keeping a cold, practical mindset, scolding Watson for romanticizing the detective’s work, and yet music turns Sherlock into a bit of a Romantic himself.  Just look at his poetic wording re: the ancient power music has over human beings.

. . . . . . . .

Songs that remind me of books I’ve read:


Hayley Westenra’s “Dark Waltz” and Loreena McKennitt’s “Mummer’s Dance” remind me of Juliet Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing – of the festive mood at the Full Moon dances, of Tati and Jena dancing with their true loves, of Jena’s vision in the mirror…


The first time I heard Coldplay’s “Paradise,” it made me think of Katniss for some reason.  Maybe the idea of finding peace only in dreams – there’s a scene in The Hunger Games that especially fits, but I can’t say more without spoiling things.

. . . . . . . .

Music directly inspired by literature:

My favorite of Loreena McKennitt’s poem-inspired songs is “Stolen Child,” based on the Yeats poem (see my previous notes on that).  She also sings Alfred Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” and Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman,” infusing the first with a bright/melancholy mood, and the second with an eerie/ominous mood.


Emilie Autumn’s “Shalott” is a fiercer, more brooding interpretation of the Lady’s inner conflict.


The twelve songs in Kris Delmhorst’s album, Strange Conversation, were inspired by the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Browning, Jalal al-Din Rumi (several of Rumi’s works inspired the album’s final track, “Everything is Music”), and others.


And, finally, the way Tolkien’s Middle Earth songs (as much as I know about them, since I…uh…haven’t actually read The LoTR or finished The Hobbit ^_^;;) are presented in the Peter Jackson movies, from Gandalf’s playful and contemplative fragment of the “Walking Song,” to the dwarves’ eerie, resonating “Misty mountains” (at least as heard in the Hobbit trailers).

For a more detailed book-based discussion of Tolkien’s music, see Gene Hargrove’s commentary.  See also David Jon Fuller’s post on other types of music inspired by Tolkien, from Nimoy to Zeppelin (yes, that Nimoy, with his *snerk*-tastic “Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” 😉 )


What say you, fellow travelers through La-La Land?  What are some of your favorite intersections of music and literature?


[1] Bruce Coville. Song of the Wanderer, (Scholastic, 1999) pg. 168.

[2] James Baldwin. “Sonny’s Blues.” Fictions.  Ed. Joseph Trimmer and C. Wade Jennings.  (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985) pg. 95

[3] “Sonny’s Blues” Pg. 95

[4] Sylvia Peck. Seal Child (Morrow Junior Books, 1989) pgs 59-60.

[5] Eloise McGraw. The Moorchild (Aladdin Paperbacks, 1998) pg. 81.

[6] The Moorchild. Pg. 135.

[7] Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 1. (Doubleday & Co., w/ preface by Christopher Morley)  pg 37.

[8] Sherlock Holmes. Pg 185.


  1. I LOVED Sonny’s Blues, despite not having much of an ear for that kind of music. I loved the description of that scene, and hark back to it as I write my own WIP. Writing about music is extremely hard — I hope I can achieve some of what Baldwin did in his story.

    • That’s awesome! It really is hard to describe music – there are types of melodies I love without being able to say what it is about them that I love. Like the “Misty mountains” song.

      And I love when an author can pull off anthropomorphism, the way Baldwin does with the instruments in “Sonny’s Blues,” to make it feel natural.

      Best of luck with the WIP!

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