I've been soundtracking ever since the days of Napster and SoundJam MP. Back then, I'd make themed playlists based on the moods I was in or what was happening around me. Collections of songs that reminded me of rain, songs that I could cry to, songs about dogs or cats, songs that spelled out the alphabet when you played them in order. It wasn't until one fateful day while reading the comic Blue Monday that I came across the idea of story soundtracks.
Behold! The beginning of an era!
Now, let's start talking about how we can make, or improve a soundtrack for your fic!
First of all: Look at your music collection. How big is it to begin with? If you're someone who really only listens to a few albums, doesn't stray too far out of one band or genre, then soundtracking might start out rough for you. But don't be discouraged! There's a lot you can do with single-band soundtracks, like if you have a band that has a huge catalog, and many years of musical evolution you can thumb through. (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Madonna are just some of the artists that come to mind.)
If you're looking to freshen up your old playlists, then it's time to start building your music collection up. One of my favorite ways to discover new music or rediscover some old music, is by reading music blogs. (Not just for hipster douches anymore!) I recommend peeking at an aggregator first, like The Hype Machine or Elbo.ws
When you see a blog posting tracks of bands you like? Go to it, and start combing through the archives! You may have a similar taste with the blogger, and easily discover more music you'll love. Another way is just click on names of blogs you like, or names of bands you think sound interesting. You might not love or even like everything you hear, but you never know what gems you'll stumble upon that will make it into your favorites list.
Some blogs that I adore: The Late Greats, This Recording, Sixeyes, My Old Kentucky Blog, Aquarium Drunkard, Some Velvet Blog, The Music Slut, The Yellow Stereo, Music for Kids Who Can't Read Good, You Ain't No Picasso, and Pretty Much Amazing.
There's also the idea of using "scrobbling" tools to help you find related music you like. Last.fm and Pandora radio create streaming radio stations and playlists based upon information you feed them about the kinds of music you like. Again, this is a process of trying artists and bands out, and then deciding if you like them enough to grab their tracks, or moving on. Also, don't be afraid to pick at other movie or show soundtracks to find goodies! I wouldn't have found a lot of my favorite songs or artists if it wasn't for the soundtracks of Scrubs, Grey's Anatomy, The O.C., Juno, Clueless, Empire Records, The Craft, Jawbreaker, Shortbus, etc. Think about shows you like, and where the music pops up there. Shows like So You Think You Can Dance is great to watch and listen for music choices since they cover such a wide range of genres, it's not all pop songs or slow ballads, you get a great mix for your musical education.
Now that you have your library stuffed to the gills with great music, it's time for some general things:
Listen to your music.
It doesn't have to be the songs you know you're going to use, it could be whatever's had your attention for a while. Just turn on your music and start listening. If you're soundtracking for a fic you are still in the process of writing, you might find yourself building up a collection of music that inspires you to keep going. It doesn't necessarily become the soundtrack, but it's a great way to start.
The thing about soundtracking is that it's really NOT as fast as you think it's going to be, especially if you want to do a good job at it. You have to have patience to listen and re-listen to music. Sure, you can (and I most certainly do) skip through the songs and listen to key parts, but that really should only be for songs you HAVE listened to all the way through before. The skipping is good to jog your memory for the feeling and tone of songs, but you're never going to be able to guess how well it works until you listen to it all the way through, AT LEAST TWICE.
That's right, TWICE. If you're not that music-savvy to begin with, listen to your soundtrack twice before walking away from it. Once you get more comfortable with soundtracking, one listen-through is fine. But for the sake of this workshop, listen TWICE. Once for an initial gut-reaction, and twice so you can take in any of the edits you start feeling you need to make. If you feel yourself wanting to move faster through one song over another? Then you're bored of it, and that song needs to go. If you don't want to listen to it all the way through, why would your audience? Pick those kinds of songs you don't get sick of, but you don't keep putting on repeat either. And by that, I mean try to avoid songs that you really just want to listen to because you're in love with them at the moment. Which brings me to…
(Everybody talk about) Pop music!
I tend to avoid current Top 40's music in soundtracks for one specific reason: I don't know if it has staying power yet. That's the great thing about "hit" songs, they worm their way into your heads and for a week you can't stop humming them. And hey, that's great that you found an enjoyable song. But a month from now, are you still going to be as happy with it, or are you going to be reaching for the skip button?
One-hit wonders are like memes that are designed by nature to fade over time. Songs that you still love a year later are the ones you're going to want to keep around, and use in soundtracks. Not that I want to say you should NEVER pick a song released recently, or that happens to be climbing the charts at the time, but approach with caution! Try to dig through your archives before you settle on the "it" song of the moment.
Sometimes there is also a better way you can use a popular song! These days, acoustic or indie covers of popular songs are as ubiquitous as the pop songs themselves. Is there an A Cappella version by the artist out there? Or a remix/mashup that makes you sit up and take notice more than the original? How cool is it to hear a familiar tune but in a more relaxed, stripped-bare form! If the lyrics and meaning of the song are the important part, than usually a soft cover version is just what you need. It conveys your meaning and makes your listener's head turn.
I say: go for the unexpected; be clever and ironic in your choices of songs.
But if you're going for pop, then OWN it. If you are a pop-soundtracker, then use pop to every advantage you can, and really go digging for those snappy tunes that fall through the cracks, or were hits a few years ago. Repackage them, and give your listeners a surprise!
I obviously have a taste for indie pop, alternative, punk and new wave music. You can tell by looking at my song choices and what usually shows up on my Last.fm. But do you know that I also love things like hip-hop (old and new school) and bluegrass? Never write off a genre completely. These days, artists cross over into different paths, and you shouldn't ignore them just because they fall under what genres you've written off as not being your taste.
Never got a taste for rap/hip-hop but love rock and punk music? Listen to Saul Williams and then tell me what you think. How about techno and hip-hop? I recommend you listen to Tricky or the Teddybears.
Hate Country but love 80's music? Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers fall nicely in-between for me when it comes to amazing Americana music like that. Still hate country? Old Crow Medicine Show or Langhorne Slim might leave you wondering. Or hey, give Johnny Cash's later albums a listen. You can't deny the presence he leaves behind in songs like "God's Gonna Cut You Down" and his cover of "Personal Jesus".
Not a fan of classical? Try anything by the Kronos Quartet or Vitamin String Quartet. They do amazing covers, and you might find yourself enjoying a new spin on your old favorites.
Keep trying things in genres, sample fringe and crossover/cover artists. Don't force yourself to love something, but give it an honest listen before you throw out an entire genre. Ask your flist or your music-savvy friends for recommendations! You might not love it, but the more music you listen to, the more you develop and refine your tastes and your feelings on it.
Okay, enough of my music snobbery, let's get to what we all came here for! The soundtracking of fiction!
Types of Soundtracks:
I'm going to identify a few soundtrack "types". I'm sure there are a more, but this is what we're working with today. Then, we can combine the first three methods of thinking about what songs are appropriate in a story, to the storyboarding soundtrack where I'm going to cover what I'm sure you're all here for: how to soundtrack PORN.
Using: Fortunate Son by topaz119, Gen, John-POV
This fic might seem the easiest to do an Era-specific soundtrack to. A sampling of Classic Rock from the 1970s-1980s, makes sense to be the types of songs John would be listening to in the backgrounds of this story.
First step I used was to put all the Classic rock tracks I had around together and then I started filtering out from there. You can see I mainly worked from film soundtracks to Tropic Thunder and The Big Lebowski. The former because I know it has classic rock songs that also relate to war and other themes of the fic, and the latter because there are songs on there that also slide into the era, but that I know I can riff off of and start building a really good list of songs with.
From here, I just started listening and reading. When something didn't work, or I found myself bored by it? It was gone. I decided to also include the CCR track the fic was inspired by and named for. Maybe it feels too much like an obvious choice, so one could conceivably omit it and still make a really good soundtrack without it.
Soundtracks that have a definite progression to them have always interested me more than ones that are just kind of mish-mashed together. Though with this set, I want to aim for the listener to be able to play the songs in any order, and still get immersed into the story. Since this isn't a storyboard-type soundtrack, and all I want in the joined theme are qualifiers like Classic Rock and from the 1970s and 1980s. The final playlist looks like this:
Using: All The Pretty Little Horses by annkiri, Gen, Outsider POV.
The story is about a little girl who only sees her father when he visits at night, and tells her stories about Sam and Dean Winchester – the ghost-hunting brothers. The author uses themes like night-time, bedtime stories, and lullabies and a father's love of his estranged daughter and decided that this type of fic needs soft, quiet music conveying a lot of emotion in very simple words and lots of music where strings are carefully plucked. The kinds of songs you would play to lull someone to sleep gently.
Just thinking about this genre, these songs/artists/albums popped into my head. So I decided to start listening to them and get into the mood:
Nick Drake's Pink Moon will become my focal point to build the soundtrack around. It emulates what sticks out in the story to me: simplicity, quiet, sweetness, a lullaby-like quality found in the way the acoustic guitar is highlighted. So in soundtracking this fic, you'll want songs like that. Songs that say a lot but are very quiet, with almost-whispered vocals. Nick Drake actually felt like a strong enough artist within the soundtrack that I decided to layer him in there. A Nick Drake piece starts it, shows up in the middle, and ends it. I really want to highlight his sound, and use the other tracks to support it, but I'm not going to score it completely with Nick Drake. I'm not Wes Anderson.*
But at the same time, I don't want a song like Needle in the Hay by Elliott Smith, which was the track I was thinking of in my initial thoughts. Though this soundtrack is going to concentrate on mood and feeling rather than totally the content and lyrics of the music, I'm more depressed by Needle in the Hay. I definitely wanted something by Elliott Smith because his sound is very much what I am thinking of, but passages like this:
"Hey, baby girl," Dean says. He smiles and holds his hand out to her.
Emily wants to run to him but now her Dad isn't just her Dad, he is also Dean. She can't imagine that her Dad is the Dean of their bedtime stories, but he is with Sam. Darting glances between Sam and Dean, Emily suddenly wonders if these men in her kitchen are actually men or something that Sam and Dean hunt. Dean takes another step forward and Emily takes a step back.
Emily glances at Sam who is still sitting, his eyes huge, a surprised expression on his face. Her Dad shoots Sam a quick glance and then crouches down. "You can come in, Emily," her Dad says. "It's okay."
Back under her covers, Emily wriggles down to get comfortable. Her Dad is sitting up with his back against the wall like he always does and Uncle Sam sits at the foot of the bed. Her Dad is smiling again, and Emily thinks how her Dad must really like Sam because he is always smiling around him.
"So, what story should we tell?" her Dad asks Sam, pulling Emily closer.
That remind me that underneath the quiet and lullaby-themes, I want to convey something sweet and loving. Something hopeful. A quick dig through his discography on iTunes later, and I find a really nice cover of Big Star's Thirteen. It's a song about growing up, but I think it can still evoke that sweet, fatherly love idea that the fic evokes.
Some more edits later, and a listen-through and I'm very happy with the final product:
There are the Nick Drake songs I wanted to show off, as well as Elliott Smith for his haunting vocals. Ryan Adams also does a great song in "Night Birds" which does a lot with the piano to make you think nice, sleepy thoughts. The Wallflowers track is hidden at the end of their album, Breach, and it's something I imagine was written using a music box. Which is exactly what I think of when I think of what kinds of sounds you'd find in Emily's room (aside from Dean telling her stories). Dark Was The Night is probably the most self-indulgent track on there for myself, because it's an instrumental, and it sounds almost out of place until I think about how much it evokes the stirring of something in the night.
(Plus, from my own knowledge of annkiri, I know she listens to WAY more classical and opera songs than I do. I can't make a soundtrack of her fic without trying to merge both my indie sensibility with her classical taste.)
Using: More Human Than Human by cathybites, Space AU, J2, NC-17
This might seem similar to the other two soundtracks we just went over, but unlike the first two, the songs can be from different genres, eras, and more than one theme is strung along throughout it. Basically, it involves looking at the central themes of the fic, particularly looking at what sticks out for you.
This type of soundtrack tends to be more atmospheric and less literal than other types though. You're looking for songs to evoke mood and feeling, and not literally sing what is happening to your characters, but rather allude to it.
The first thing I did, was start listening to music on my iPod and writing down general notes of songs I thought might work:
Specifically, I was trying to choose songs that make me think of the future, without being literal in that sense. I poked around my song lists for songs to at least LISTEN to while I compile the songs together. (Remember how important I said listening is! Listen to related songs, and start making the connections to other songs, it's the best way to start!)
Songs like Artificial World, Operated On and Synthesizer remind me of machines and robots because of the digital manipulations these tracks use in the melody. If you try and ask yourself "what does the future sound like?" I come up with ideas like "robotic, electronic, metallic, artificial". I want music that will evoke these ideas and emotions in me. The lyrics also match up with the theme, I especially like how
Operated On, in fact works really well up against the first passage:
"Sometimes," Jensen said, grunting as he sliced into his skin, "I get the impression I'm better off not dealing with people. It's a real pain in the ass being human."
Jared winced as he watched the scalpel slide into Jensen's flesh, carving a neat little flap in the middle of his chest. He knew that it didn't hurt Jensen, and that he didn't have to worry about blood spurting out everywhere, but he still could feel the queasiness kick up in his guts, setting his stomach rolling. Jensen peeled the flap of skin back, and that was Jared's cue to look away. No matter how many times he had to help Jensen with his maintenance, that was something he would never get used to. "Technically speaking," he said as he dug around in the toolbox, "you're not human."
It keeps the creepy mood of the first few lines when you picture someone carving into their own flesh (silicon soul though he may possess). The repeating melody is a lot like you would think a robotic person could be, something constant and repetitive. The fact that the song also bridges out with a background sound a lot like a heartbeat also fits the themes perfectly, juxtaposing the mechanical along the human. The fact that it's called "Operated On" is just a happy coincidence really. The lyrics don't always have to fit with the scene in action, but more on that later.
Off On It uses a lot of interesting alternative beats and clanking clunking, metallic percussion instruments and techniques. If anything is going to remind your listener of robotics, it's something like that. It's content also relates to the theme of Jared and Jensen's rather complicated sexual relationship.
Strange News From Another Star is a soft, pulled back ballad-type song that when played, makes me think of drifting through space, slowly and sadly. It's why I also want to put in tracks like Life on Mars, or Love is Like Oxygen and Space Age Love Song. These songs put me in the mood of a Space Rock Opera, and the classic feel to it ties in with both what I know the author listens to, and yet it will draw in clever references. Whether these songs make the final cut, is to be determined by my listening.
Artificial World is going to get cut from my initial draft though, and here's why: 1) I've just proven that I can find songs with both sound and content matching the story, but in this case, it's all sound, but the content is about an artificial girl.
Which leads me to 2) It is too literal. It's would be a great song to listen to in order to put oneself in the mood of creating a fic like this, but unless you ARE basing a story on a song, you're not going to want to find something fitting that well because hey, where's the challenge? If there is indeed a song out there about Gay Texan space rangers and their robotic boyfriends that they won in a poker game? I don't want it here. The same way authors are asked to do less telling and more showing, soundtrackers don't necessarily need tracks that emulate their fics verbatim. They want to put the listener into the mood and atmosphere of the fic and let their imaginations fill in the gaps where words and music don't.
The last few songs I struggled over until I started listening around my music library and clicking through Hype Machine. Just by searching around for other artists that do trip-hop songs I stumbled on Portishead, and remembered the song Roads, which works so perfectly for the fic, I wanted to kick myself for not remembering it before. The haunting vocals and deep reverberating sounds are incredibly space/sci-fi-esque on their own, and a listen-through later, I know I'm happy with it.
And now? THE PORN!
Using: Five People Dean Doesn't Mind Screwing by regala_electra, Adult, Wincest and Het. Dean/Sam, Dean/Cassie, Dean/Self, Dean/Tara, Dean/Crossroads Demon.
Don't let anyone tell you not to soundtrack porn. First of all, think of 10 different songs with the word "Yellow" in the title. I'll wait.
Took you a little while, yeah? Maybe you do know 10 or more, maybe you only named a handful. (My list goes something like: Yellow, Bright As Yellow, Mellow Yellow, Yellow Ribbon) Okay now think of 10 songs with the word "Love" in them.
If it takes you more than a MINUTE to name your first five, please go all the way to the top of this workshop and start building up and diversifying your music library because ALL MUSCIANS HAVE DONE SINCE THE BEGINNING OF TIME, IS WRITE SONGS ABOUT SEX. SEX THEY WERE HAVING. OR THE SEX THAT THEY WISHED THEY WERE HAVING. No really, I betcha even Beethoven starting writing music in order to get laid. (My list if you're curious? Lovesong, Love Me Tender, Love My Way, Love Machine, I Love You, Baby I Love You, Your Love (Is Lifting Me Higher), Love Stinks, The Book of Love, Love Will Tear Us Apart, I Think I Love You, etc.)
So we've got no shortage of music out there either speaking explicitly or subtly about sex. In fact, I can throw a big huge pile of them together right now:
From there, I open up the fic I'm working with. The author has already done some of the work for me, and separated this fic into sections that I can work to find songs to fit for. My initial notes look like this:
You can see why I don't normally hand-write notes...
This is a great way to show off storyboard-type soundtracks. One of the main reasons I love soundtracks, is because it usually made the writing process go smoother for me, when I could hear the music playing that set off a scene, I knew the mood, the tone I wanted my words to reflect.
Most of the traditional soundtracks you find out there work like storyboards. Though sometimes movie soundtracks are packages with the occurring songs out of order, there's still that little feeling of joy you get from being able to both hear and read the story as it progresses.
I've isolated the parts I want music to happen where and just from skipping and listening (constant, CONSTANT listening to music) I've come up with an initial playlist I really think will work for the story.
I want a mix of both subtle tracks like Dirty Mind and Oh Comely, which have sexual implications in the lyrics. But I can also use the more explicit tracks about sex like Flower. I'm using it for the Cassie/Dean scene because it really showcases the lust she feels for him, and how they both were just kind of crazy hot for each other.
I'll end up switching out Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah!) for Orgasm Addict by the Buzzcocks for the scene where Dean bangs... Dean. It's rough and straight to the point, like an explicit, fast-paced sex scene you might use with Dean like this.
Songs like Red House are great for love scenes in SPN fics because they allude and imply sex, but at the same time remind you of the classic music the show itself is set to. Think about the kinds of songs you'd play yourself to "set the mood", and then flip it and put yourself in Dean's place.
Using: it's not the years, honey, it's the mileage by ignited, Sam/Dean futurefic, NC-17
Sometimes, you can't REALLY explain why a soundtrack works, and that was my fear in going into this workshop. Sometimes you just FEEL a certain way, and the story in your head is set to a very specific sound.
Turns into this:
And you've no idea why. I think we can all agree that both writing and reading fiction and listening to music stirs up deep emotions in all of us. And if you just feel a spark, a connection from a piece of words to a song. The just go with it.
It's good to be thoughtful with your choices of songs, and just keep listening, above all else. Keep listening to music and don't stop until your gut tells you you've done it. Play it the next morning, or pass it along to friends while you're still working on it when you think it's incomplete. Because hey, if a fic can have a beta, than why not a soundtrack too?
The art of soundtracking is the art of creating a whole from the sum of it's parts.
All The Pretty Little Horses
More Human Than Human
Five People Dean Doesn't Mind Screwing
it's not the years, honey, it's the mileage
- The Cast of Were the World Mine – Unite Rhythm With Words
- Blur – Music is My Radar
- CSS – Music is My Hot Hot Sex
- Pixies – Rock Music
- Madonna – Music
- LCD Soundsystem – Watch The Tapes
topaz119, cathybites, annkiri, & ignited for letting me dissect their fics and soundtrack them! Thanks regala_electra for letting me do the same, as well as giving me some ideas to kick-start it. missyjack for taking my wee suggestion and running with it. oxoniensis and the rest of the mods for this whole crazy roundtable thing in the first place. I've always wanted to do this!! Thank you!!
* In the liner notes for the Rushmore soundtrack, Wes Anderson reveals that he originally intended for the entire movie to be scored by Kinks song, since they were the artist he thought captured the feeling of the movie the best. While he ended up with only one Kinks song on the soundtrack, the fact that the rest of the music is very British-invasion and almost all Kinks-era, his theme shines through.