Name one non-living thing that teenagers everywhere love: music.
It may be Christian rock, country western, hip-hop, or the traditional music of an exotic culture—but I haven’t known a young person from any background who didn’t enjoy some type of music.
Featuring music, or a love of it, is a great way to make a story and its characters more relatable to a teen audience.
Sometimes music is fundamental to the story and the main character. Sometimes it plays a supporting role, with the love of a certain type of music appearing as one facet of a secondary character’s personality. The plot or main character arc may depend on music to motivate a character to act and change, or a character’s involvement with music may influence another character’s feelings for him.
Examples of contemporary YA fiction employing music in the storylines are Sarah Dessen’s This Lullaby and Just Listen, Michelle Buckman’s My Beautiful Disaster, and Judy Blume’s Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson. A friend and fellow author also suggested a YA fantasy novel, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsong. In my novels, 8 Notes to a Nobody and 10 Steps to Girlfriend Status, one of the main characters plays the clarinet, and her music is an important part of her life.
Before you search your favorite music to incorporate it into your fiction, a word of caution about including any part of a song’s lyrics: you might get into trouble! Lyrics are copyrighted, and it’s difficult (or expensive) to gain permission to use them unless you know the artist personally. However, in the U.S. any song or musical work published in 1922 or earlier is in the public domain.*
Society tends to associate particular musical instruments with certain looks and personality types, but if you think outside the (music) box, they needn’t be stereotypical combinations.
When you imagine a male teenager who plays electric guitar or bass, how do you picture him? Is he a bad-boy rebel with long hair and a sketchy reputation, or a modern-day Buddy Holly with close-cropped hair and glasses? If that musician is a girl, is she a Shania Twain or a Cindy Lauper?
How about a female flutist (a.k.a. flautist)? Do you imagine someone outgoing and a member of the marching band or a lover of the classics who is quiet and shy? She may be a serious student, or perhaps she uses her music to escape her troubles at school or at home. If your male character plays the flute, does he date a girl in the student orchestra, or is he an introvert? Does he play classical music but listen to hard rock? Does he study the martial arts?
If you employ irony by pairing a musician’s love of a particular instrument with that of a hobby that seems to contradict it, you can make a character even more memorable. Is the cello player also a skydiver? Does the drummer rescue cats?
Playing music can be a diversion, a forced extra-curricular activity creating conflict with a parent, or perhaps a young person’s primary focus and anticipated career. Your teen character may play the organ at church, compose guitar music for a band, write lyrics in secret, or work in a recording studio—for fun, for profit, or to gain experience.
Bonuses in incorporating music into a story come not only in more relatable, three-dimensional characters, but also in creating believable settings and scenes with easy-to-use sensory details.
In addition to the obvious instrumental sounds, consider other sounds as well as the marvelous sights and smells surrounding the playing of music. Think of the aromas of wood or a leather case—from an acoustic guitar or a cello, antique or brand new. Light plays with musical instruments, bouncing from metal horns and showing off a violin’s luster. Back to sounds, some of the most interesting are those that occur before and after the music plays. Sheet music rustling, discordant tuning, cases rattling or scraping the floor, locks snapping shut. Use them to show joy, frustration, or anger.
Remember that teens all over the globe can identify with other teens who love music or are involved with it in some way. Your story will truly resonate with them when the music one of your characters loves happens to be the music they love too.
Which YA novels have you read that feature music?