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  • Writer's pictureBarefoot Bookseller

The Bookshop Music Quandary

Updated: Oct 24, 2020

Recently, a lyric from Leonard Cohen’s song Almost Like the Blues struck me at the exact moment I was reaching a climactic (though philosophically obscure) moment in Milkman by Anna Burns. Cohen sung, “‘I have to die a little between each murderous thought. And when I’m finished thinking, I have to die a lot.” The lyric snatched my attention from the narrative and I lost my place in both the book and the song.

Personally, I don’t have the ability to untangle complex lyrical threads while wrapping my head around mercurial prose. And, clearly, this cognitive quandary is not reserved solely for growling Canadians and Booker Prize winners. The example expresses a more universal issue - that music with decent lyricism can’t be enjoyed whilst reading with novels with demanding prose.

As such, there’s a tension brewing in my bookshop.

On the one hand, my bookshop Spotify playlist entices passersby with some dangerously indifferent easy-listening music. On the other hand, I can no longer read while waiting.

The struggle is real.

So, my question is this. What, if anything, serves as a fitting musical accompaniment to a book?

Instrumental music is the most obvious potential candidate. My Cohen/Burns moment of psychological friction was caused by the rub of different voices relating different ideas. If there’s no second voice to throw me off, perhaps music will no longer hinder my reading.

In fact, like wine and food, some music and novel pairings might even be complimentary. Tchaikovsky could gel with Tolstoy; the autumnal Brahms with Jane Austen; Bonobo with Murakami. I read a tweet recommending Sigur Ros paired with The Martian by Andy Weir. The ethereal, otherworldly synths of Sigur Ros’s minimal aesethetic, combined with the singer’s incomprehensible falsetto, seem, intuitively, to compliment the space-survival epic.

Neuroscience, however, has already stuck its awkward beak into the debate and sided with those against listening to music whilst reading. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute have identified a particular region of the brain that’s overloaded when we combine reading with music. The reason is this: just as a word in a sentence derives its meaning from the surrounding context, a tone in a chord sequence derives its melodic coherence from its place in the music. Broca’s area is responsible for the process of contextualising with respects to both language and music. When Broca’s area is overloaded, we lose our grip on the context. As our handle on the context diminishes, so too does our ability to meaningfully process the music and literature.

So should we entirely divorce music from language during moments of true aesthetic appreciation?

Common sense says no. The majority of contemporary music is, in fact, written precisely to accompany language and lyrics divorced from their musical accompaniment often sound trivial and contrived. Music tends to enhance the emotional and intellectual significance of the lyrics. Melody brings an atmosphere that can allow simple thoughts to resonate with the listener in a way that the lyrics alone would never do.

Similarly, the combination of music and language is indispensable in film. Have you ever tried watching a movie scene both with and without the soundtrack? Without the score, the scene becomes imaginatively unrecognisable, comprehension becomes labyrinthine and the emotions become sterile. Disbelief, previously suspended, comes tumbling down like a house of cards.

So let’s agree that, in some cases, music can breathe added life into both language and fiction.

Film score composers take on that challenge professionally and they are some of the most under appreciated artists in the game: your Zimmers, your Elfmans, your Horners, your Hermanns, your Newmans, your Rahmans, your Williams(es?). All of them possess that wondrous ability to unite what the psycholinguistics team from the Max Planck Institute say ‘overloads’ Broca’s area when united.

Let’s say then that for every film and, conceivably, every poem, there exists a musical accompaniment that brings that something extra.

Perhaps, then, there exists a perfect musical accompaniment for every novel. Music that breathes added life to the words on the page. A certain soundtrack that heightens a reader’s emotional and imaginative receptivity: their capacity to be transported into another world. Those symbiotic accompaniments will be few and far between - to find a score that adds to the experience of reading rather than detracting from will be far from easy. I haven’t found one yet but I think it could be done.

So what I suggest is this. We create a new profession to which I’ll give the eminent title of Novel Score Composer. The world is (or, at least, I am) calling out for Novel Score Composers - those who can bring to the literary world something that it didn’t know it was missing. Anyone who thinks they are up to the challenge should let me know. Send me your recommendation for the perfect music/book pairing and a few words on why you’ve chosen it. The best pairings will then feature on the Instagram page for all to revere.

Best of luck.


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