Music First, Words Second

By Louise Ure

I had a chance to visit my husband’s family on a recent trip to Seattle. Always a dicey proposition. “Psst,” someone hissed as I passed the front bedroom. A hand snaked out the scant two inches of open doorway. “I thought you’d get a kick out of this.”

I took the offering with a thumb and forefinger. Bruce’s brother does all his shopping at flea markets and garage sales, and you never know what he’ll come home with. This time it was a gem.


A CD called Miss Calypso, performed by a woman I knew for other talents: Maya Angelou.

Who  knew? It started me thinking about other writers – both mystery and general fiction — who started off in life as musicians. First came the tune. Later they added words.

It seems natural that songwriters would later turn to novels.



Leonard Cohen. Jimmy Buffett. Kinky Friedman. I guess three verses and a chorus were no longer enough for them.

But there were lots of other musicians as well. Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man) was a trumpet player and pianist, with a love of jazz.

Mystery writer and presidential daughter Margaret Truman had a singing career before a writing one. The critics were kinder to her books than they were to her vocal talent.


Ed McBain was a pianist, too, but I’m sure glad he later turned his attention to fiction. The world would not have been as fine without his 87th precinct stories.


How about thriller writer Greg Iles? Guitarist, vocalist and founder of the band Frankly Scarlet, Greg only turned to writing when he  realized that the life of a traveling musician wasn’t right for a family man.

James McBride (The Color of Water)
is musical theater composer, songwriter and sax player. He’s still making music today, although I’m delighted to see that he describes himself first as an author and second as a musician in his publicity material.



Bill Moody’s still doing gigs in San Francisco’s North Beach.



Ridley Pearson is an orchestral composer and folk song writer.

Hal Glatzer uses his vocal and guitar skills on the page as well as out loud.

John Lescroart  has got a new CD out (Whiskey and Roses) as well as a new book (Betrayal).


It’s an international phenomenon, too. The 2006 Australian Idol winner, Damien Leith published his first novel, One More Time, last October. And Norwegian writer, Jo Nesbo, who created a detective with the unfortunate name of Harry Hole, is both an economist and a musician.


Best-selling Japanese author, Haruki Murakami (After Dark) owned  jazz clubs in Tokyo and performed for years.
A recent New York Times interview with him provides perhaps the best reason there’s such a dramatic link between musicians and writers.


“Practically everything I know about writing … I learned from music. It may sound paradoxical to say so, but if I had not been so obsessed with music, I might not have become a novelist. Even now, almost 30 years later, I continue to learn a great deal about writing from good music. My style is as deeply influenced by Charlie Parker’s repeated freewheeling riffs, say, as by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s elegantly flowing prose.

Once, when someone asked Thelonious Monk how he managed to get a certain special sound out of the piano, Monk pointed to the keyboard and said: ‘It can’t be any new note. When you look at the keyboard, all the notes are there already. But if you mean a note enough, it will sound different. You got to pick the notes you really mean.’

I often recall these words when I am writing, and I think to myself, ‘It’s true. There aren’t any new words. Our job is to give new meanings and special overtones to absolutely ordinary words.’”

In a recent blog post over at Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room , Sharon Wheeler talked about hearing a soundtrack for books she reads. So that’s my musical question for you today: Do you hear a song or a singer when you read certain works? Is there such a thing as a soundtrack to a book?

And is there any logical link between musicianship and writing?


20 thoughts on “Music First, Words Second

  1. Sharon Wheeler

    Some more writers for my list, Louise, given music and books are two out of three of my favourite things!

    I suppose if there’s a link, it’s the creative one, and wanting to perform for an audience. And I bet while most people reckon they’ve got a book in them somewhere, loads of us have played air guitar in front of the mirror and dreamed of being famous! Shame my guitar playing (air and real) sucks frogs!

  2. Zoe Sharp

    Louise – what a wonderful post, and I love the Murakami quote because it’s just so right. I’m constantly looking for a slightly different way to use ordinary words, although occasionally coming up with new ones is satisfying, too. Mesmoronic is one of my favourites. It’s something that’s totally stupid but you just can’t take your eyes of it.

    And I constantly have music playing when I’m writing. I listen to everything from Gregorian chants, Cajun, Cuban, opera, to bluegrass, classical guitar, folk, German thrash metal and heavy rock. Nothing creates mood for me quite like it. And song lyrics are so often a real work of art.

    Sharon – I daren’t ask about favourite thing number three . And how do you suck a frog, exactly … ?

  3. billie

    Louise, each of the books I write has its own soundtrack, which is a file in my iTunes library named the same title as the book. All the songs that the characters like/listen to/dance to or that otherwise get me writing or remind me of the story go in that file. At some point it becomes a powerful tool if I need to get into the world of the book quickly. Later, it’s a little bit like hearing songs from high school – very powerful at reminding me of the “world” I inhabited while writing the book.

    It’s funny – there are a number of songs where I always listen for tiny riffs that in my mind “tell the whole story” of that song.

    Also funny – I was thinking just yesterday how much I admire the writers of music for soundtracks to film. When they get it right, it’s incredible. I was watching Cider House Rules and thinking how that music fits the narrative so well it’s almost painful.

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    F. Paul Wilson, David Morrell, Heather Graham, Harley Jane Kozak, Michael Palmer…

    I think though that ANY creative discipline enhances the writing process. So do activities like sailing (have you ever heard a sailing nut use sailing metaphors for the writing process? It’s fascinating.)

    Actually, just living enhances the writing process.

  5. Louise Ure

    Hi Shaz. I have no musical ear, so I’ve never even played at air guitar. But maybe it is that desire to be heard that applies in both cases. And you stumped Zoë with the “sucking frogs” mention.

    Ms. Sharp, I think the complete phrase (courtesy of Andi Schecter in a fit of pique) was something like “that really sucked moist green tree frogs.”

    And Mesmoronic is such a fine new word.

  6. Louise Ure

    Billie, I adore the notion of retaining all the important musical signatures for a book! I’d do it right now for my own work, but today that would be a delaying tactic … organizing instead of writing. It MUST be done for the new book. What a good idea.

    My favorite riff from a soundtrack? The plaintive nine notes on a guitar that haunt the film “All the Pretty Horses.”

    Alex, thanks for those other names! (I was embarrassingly shy of women musicians in this blog). We’ll have to ask sailor Patty Smiley about her metaphors for writing. I can already imagine how your dance background has translated into words on a page.

  7. j.t. ellison

    I am in awe of every artist who can do something in addition to writing. The wordplay takes all my creative endeavors. Though I did play clarinet when I was younger. I doubt it helped ; )

    Wonderful post, Louise!

  8. Louise Ure

    JT, I met a reader in Seattle who said he “collected” the hobbies that mystery writers enjoyed. I have a feeling that many of those hobbies mentioned music.

    Hope you’re feeling okay. Nice to see you here today!

  9. Karen Olson

    Wow, I had no idea!

    I don’t hear music when I read, and I don’t play music when I write. But the Rolling Stones most definitely provide the soundtrack for my books.

  10. Louise Ure

    Mornin’ Santa,

    I’m SURE people can air write books. I hear from these folks at every cocktail party. Always full of the book they’d write, except they never sit down and write it.

    And yes, the Killerettes are living proof that there’s a link between musical ability and a talent for writing!

  11. J.D. Rhoades

    It will come as a surprise to no one, I’m sure, that the “soundtrack” for my books is heavy on Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, and of course, Steve Earle.

    And for what it’s worth, I’ve played guitar for going on 30 years now, although I haven’t played outside of my own living room for quite a while.

  12. Mark Terry

    Ah, gee, I have over the years played piano and saxophone well enough to teach it and now am studying guitar.

    But the whole thing sort of begs the question:

    Is the writer or the musician more like to tell you: don’t quit your day job.

    Or as the joke I read in a Jonathan Kellerman novella: “What’s the difference between a musician (fill in writer here) and a large pepperoni pizza?”

    A. A large pepperoni pizza can feed a family of four.

  13. pari noskin taichert

    New Mexico music, Louise. Robbie Jude, Al Hurricane, Sparkx.


    I remember seeing that Maya Angelou CD on your desk, but I didn’t look closely enough at it. All I noticed was Calypso and that’s one of my favs.

  14. Louise Ure

    You’re going to have to add Tish Hinojosa to your New Mexico soundtrack, Pari. She’s from Austin, not New Mexico, but she sings about your mountains.

  15. Elaine Flinn

    Late to the party – Comcast was down for almost two days here doing ‘maintenance’. 🙂

    But I did want to stop in and say what a terrific post subject!

    And ‘mesmoronic’?? Love it.


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