Music in YA

Perhaps my last post till August. Four trips are lined up for July, and the ten days I’m at home are all schooldays. Fortunately I’m feeling fairly organised about it all (except the financial side!).

So, without further ado, Alex once again gave me a great post topic. Here’s her tweet:


Anyone keeping up with the big YA Contemps of recent years might guess, like me, that this trend is at least in part caused by Gayle Forman’s fabulous If I Stay, due for cinema release this summer. As a sidenote, I don’t follow the American bestseller lists, but somehow I snagged a copy of this great book early after its release before many people in the UK had heard of it, so in a way I feel connected to its fate.


Anyhow, as a musician myself I watch this trend with equal pleasure and trepidation. Music is such a wide aspect of culture that often I see it abused, generally out of ignorance. It’s good to see the participation in the act of making music recognised (fun fact: musicians on average live eight years longer than non-musicians, so it’s not like you’re wasting time!).

You don’t have to be famous to make music; all you need is dedication. I’m not musical myself, besides adoring the mathematics behind it, but I passed my Grade 8 last week. I’ve practiced an hour a night for months, gone to school for aural lessons at half eight in the morning on Saturdays for a year, spent two years learning these pieces, spent eight years learning the instrument…you can see how huge this is for me.

However, also due to being a musician, it worries me to see non-musicians writing about music, either misusing terminology, overusing what’s commonly-known, or not using any of it. Had I never played an instrument there’s no way I’d appreciate music as I do now: I wouldn’t hear harmonies, or criticise the sound balance at concerts, or know a good song from a mediocre one—even now, I’m doubtful I could do any of these things properly. Playing in a band is especially valuable: for four years I’ve spent ten hours a week playing in ensemble, and I can pick out and accord my own part to individual parts in an orchestral piece.

Now, I’m not saying a non-musician can’t write a good book about musician-ing, and I’m not making prejudicial assumptions. Yet the very lack of brass fandom in writing suggests exactly what I fear. Carnegie Hall is bandied about as if only genius musicians are worth writing about with reference to music. ‘The bow was like an extension of her arm’ is the worst string-player cliché out there, and you’d certainly never catch a musician saying it in but the cheapest of sarcasm. Always it is strings, or clarinet or flute!

Our family collection, predominantly brass. (since added a ukulele)

Our family collection, predominantly brass. (since added a ukulele)

The brass are rowdy and lively, and I freely admit my bias, but I feel we have the most distinct section identity. We are the smallest (except the percussion, who are too busy tuning timpanis to socialise) but the most tightly-knit, with pub-nights and unmatched banter. We can also do the coolest things with our instruments. Just about everything you say about the trombone sounds dirty, we put the mark in marcato, we put the issimo in fff. I am convinced that every other musician cherishes a secret wish they became a brass player (Freudian penis envy, as I think of it). Sure, maybe all this buoyancy doesn’t suit your character or your story, but in my opinion the brass are the most versatile section of them all. We can do soaring tear-jerking solos – that’s what euphoniums are for, even! We can be warm and raucous, bad-ass or gentle. All we want is recognition!

That’s truly all I have time for. Live the good life till I get back to ya on the 9th!


4 thoughts on “Music in YA

  1. And yet very few of my characters explicitly PLAY an instrument (ie. go to the trouble of practise and such). Lynnetta sings and Aries/Leo [I haven’t checked whether the one playing has a scald-scar on his shoulder] plays the piano, but neither sweat the small stuff doing so. Music is ornamentation on the stave of WTCB’s motif.

    Also, I don’t get how you can say you’re not musical. Surely admiring the maths behind the music IS part of being musical, and if you love it and do something involving it every day (I’m saying this since it means I get to say I’m musical by listening to music and singing to myself! 😉 ), you are musical.

    Oh, look, it’s me! Glad to be of inspiration! I’m gladdened you mentioned the brass, too. 🙂 And “we put the issimo in fff.” Very true linguistically, too!

    I don’t suppose you caught the poem I posted on my blog on Saturday. It’s called The Relationship and I was inspired by seeing a flower arrangement in a church where roses were intertwined with score-paper. Anyway, point being that the narrator makes a metaphorical side-remark, and, though it’s probably not obvious, s/he’s bitter about playing strings because her lover plays keys and it’s something they don’t have in common. (Personally, I’d think it complementary!) Strings aren’t always that great. Actually, thinking about it, a bad string player makes a greater atonal/dissonant sound than a bad keys player.

  2. Reblogged this on Miss Alexandrina and commented:
    Tooting her euphonium for the brass section, my good friend and CP/writing partner, Lillian M Woodall, talks about the types of music present and absent from YA fiction. You’ll see I happened to inspire the post – and maybe I’ll write my own when I have more time.
    Personally, I’d like to see serious characters (like Lillie herself) with instruments that are less than typical. One gets comedic characters playing brass (“it’s a bloody euphonium!”), but very few serious characters where playing an instrument is part of their limbs – like being as described by Heidegger (Philosophy tangent 😉 ).
    It’s that age-old problem of how to include part of a character’s personality without having that take over the story. Opinions?

  3. This is really interesting. As a non-musician, I never thought about it this way, but I think I know exactly what you mean. I always hate when books focus on a passion of mine and do it all in cliches.

    Also, I would LOVE more books where the musician plays brass instruments. What is up with all these violins?

  4. Me again, being random:
    The sound engineer of Steam Powered Giraffe (that’s the robot/steampunk band I showed you) recently commented “I have more musical training [than anyone else in the band], but I am the least musically inclined.” perhaps that’s what you meant. Just thinkin’. 🙂

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