How to Develop a Playlist for a Book

After discovering — to my disappointment — that the mix of songs I’d put together originally for Blood and Fire did not survive my computer’s incident with the dragon poop, I’m going to have to start over.

Fortunately, I’ve been down this road before. I have a terrific playlist that I’d once made up for a class novel study of Lord of the Flies, and that one I was smart enough to actually PRINT. Suggested songs for the release of an anthology once upon a time, too. And I’ve got the one I did for Wind and Shadow. Not starting completely from scratch, then.

But as I go back through my admittedly limited experiences to do this thing, I thought it would be helpful for anyone else out there who’s ever thought about making a playlist (or, to use the old-school vernacular, a “mix”) for a book if I went over my process. It’s actually a lot of fun, unless you take it dead seriously, and then it can be a chore. So if you’re going to take a couple of hours out of your day or night to identify the best music for the literature you love, just try not to be too finicky about it. It’s an exercise in interpretation and mixed mediums, not a teeth-gritting, butt-clenching affair.



The good news is that if you’re going with current technology, making up your playlist is as easy as drag and drop, once you’ve got the file ready in your preferred software. I remember making mixed tapes up with a recorder when I was a kid (dating myself once again), and I still enjoy burning music to CD for plays and listening to in the car. Very satisfying.

Don’t worry, my rules / method isn’t as complicated as the ones Nick Hornby developed for his character in High Fidelity. I don’t think so, anyway . . . (shifty eyes)

Materials: The book in question, sticky notes, pen/pencil, music collection, your preferred technology

Step 1: Have the book out in front of you. It’s easy enough to think in general about the events in the plot, the hero and the villain (singular or plural), yadda, yadda, yadda, but to make a list of the songs that nicely reflect the movement of the story, you need to go through it chapter by chapter, or if necessary, page by page within a chapter that really made an impact on you. It’s not thorough reading, unless you’re reviewing some part that really grabbed your imagination.

Step 2: Not every page needs a song! Stick to the most memorable, meaningful bits — the essence of the novel. You’re choosing music that communicates the underlying feelings as they ebb and flow in the book, songs that will convey whatever is jarring and disconcerting, setting up a mix that represents how the book makes you feel at its most emotive times. Whatever emotions or images certain genres of music give you, stories will do the same. It’s that electric link between a song and a moment in the story that you’re going after.

Step 3: Use the sticky notes to flag the most bothersome pages. This is the part where you’re avoiding the gritting of your teeth and clenching of your buttocks. Making a playlist is supposed to be FUN!!! So if you’re in Chapter Four and you KNOW there’s a song to go with the awkward first date scene but you can’t quite remember what it is, just flag it and move on. The book isn’t going anywhere (unless it’s due back at the library or your friend is breathing over your shoulder), so you have time to go back when the song finally hits you. Another way to use the sticky note (and they can be virtual, like on your phone, laptop, or tablet) is to jot down what a song you happen to hear reminds you of in the book you’re thinking about. For example, I was in the car on a road trip last year, thinking about Blood and Fire, and a song came on the radio called “The Animal I Have Become”, and it hit me — perfect song for Grant Michaels, after he discovers the truth of his situation in the beginning of Book 2. So I grabbed something (can’t quite remember what it was now — might have been a notebook, could have been my phone) and I jotted it down immediately. I’ve lost the evidence, now, but simply the act of committing the thought to a place helped to anchor it in my head.

Step 4: Organize your music manually. Whether you’re going one song at a time on LPs or dragging and dropping, nothing is worse than accidentally putting everything out of order when you’ve been associating songs with exciting moments, quotes, character growth, etc. Watch out for that! From time to time, do a screen shot or a print-out, or document your decisions in a concrete way so you don’t end up like me . . . (sigh) . . . starting over. I prefer annotating my lists so I know, chapter by chapter, what songs I’ve picked.

And that’s basically it. Knowing the tone of what you’re seeking and finding the match in your music is like an Easter egg hunt, and it feels great when you’re successful, because creating a playlist for a novel is an expression of it through what Aristotle called the most perfect art. When you listen back to it after it’s complete, each song should bring to mind what happens in the story, capturing the mood, the setting, the suspense or the excitement, the way background music compliments a movie scene or establishes the atmosphere. That brings me to the final rule, or suggestion . . .

Step 5: Size doesn’t matter. Yeah, I know some of you are giggling and I know who you are. Totally true, though. You don’t have to use the entirety of a song to express one moment in the book. A clip, a verse, the introduction — any or all of the piece can be your focus. And if you want to go in-depth on that, emphasizing what part is most effective in its connection to the story or character or what-have-you, you can do either (or both) of two things:

  • write out / jot down the verse and its corresponding chapter / pages / paragraphs / quotes
  • learn how to cut and arrange music into a mash-up, or a melody

I’m actually dying to do the latter. I’d like to do the former, but I already tend to assign it to students and end up demonstrating it in the classroom, so when it comes to my own at-home fun, it can just wait. Making a mash-up sounds like a lot of fun, too.

So, bearing all of this in mind, hopefully this will be the week I will actually sit down and put together the playlists for the rest of the Talbot Trilogy for your enjoyment, as well as my own. I do like to listen to the tracks while I’m puttering around. I like movie soundtracks in general, you see, almost preferring them over a complete album of one artist’s work, because when it’s in a body of work to represent a story, the movement or message or connections between each piece can be so astounding to uncover. My favourite movie soundtrack of all time has to be Twister, but it’s a tough call with many others. Sometimes, I just put a movie on with the express purpose of listening to the soundtrack music.

So, to recap:

  1. Use the book. Don’t worry about being overly specific, but at least one song per chapter to really convey the atmosphere and theme of the story.
  2. Use genres and your own knowledge of music to your advantage. You’re reading a murder mystery and there’s an action scene? What music did you really love in your favourite action movie?
  3. If you can’t think of a connection right away, go back to it later.
  4. Keep it all organized. Document your choices. Starting over is annoying as hell.
  5. Whole songs or parts of songs — it doesn’t matter, as long as it makes sense to you.

Oh, and here’s a tip: some writers (like moi) give cues to the readers by naming specific artists or songs in the narrative.

Now, here’s a question that has just come to me: if you’re reading a period / historical novel, do you have to stick with music appropriate to the era, or can just anything work? IMHO, non-period music in a historical piece (book or movie) is annoying because it is often anachronistic. I don’t like parts of Dirty Dancing for that reason, or that King Arthur-y film with the late Heath Ledger. In the film Marie Antoinette, though the use of film style and colour reflecting the chaotic ending of the monarchy in 18th century France does meet the alternative rock used by the film maker to communicate the titular character’s personality and experiences. So maybe it’s all in how the whole story is put together. What do you think? If you were reading (or ARE reading) a period / historical novel right now, and decided to make a playlist, would you do the research into making the music fit, or go with whatever makes most sense (e.g., connection) to you at the time?

And today, a Vlog: in which I explain 3 different ways to Roll Up the Rim*

So I decided to experiment with the vlogging format, playing around with the editing features and software. I often recommend video logging to my students but I realized I really should be trying it out myself so I can give them suggestions, caveats, advice, and so on. Plus, it was kind of fun!

*It’s a Canadian thing. 😉

So, what did you think? I might use this idea for a lesson now and again, especially if I’m going to be out of the classroom. Next time I should try it with the camera pointed at the board, while I’m doing notes or diagrams . . .