History That Never Was

Home of Dawn Vogel: Writer, Historian, Geek

Music to Evoke a Sense of Time and Place

Since I’m currently spending most of my workdays listening to my old iPod, I’m getting hit with a lot of nostalgia based on the songs. Any random song might send me back to my days in St. Louis as a teen, to my college dorm room, the variety of concerts I went to, or the years I spent living in a college town when I wasn’t a student there. There are memories of places and people, and definitely the fashion, too.

While writers often listen to music when they’re writing, the laws about using song titles, song lyrics, and other musical cues in writing are difficult to navigate, to the point where they aren’t worth it for most authors to sort out. It’s easier to just leave the music stuff out of the picture.

But with music capable of evoking powerful nostalgia, how can authors use that factor in their writing without running afoul of copyright and licensing issues?

One method is by talking about the style of music. A game we played recently, Damn the Man, Save the Music, which has its roots in 90s music, mentions the genre of “sincere women with guitars/pianos,” which immediately conjures images of The Indigo Girls, Tori Amos, Jewel, and others. By generically describing the sound of a song by one of these artists, you can evoke this sense of time and place in your reader without actually mentioning an artist, song, or title. This has the added benefit of making your story more accessible to someone who has never actually heard the song or artist in question.

The other benefit this has is that it keeps your work from becoming dated. Talking about bands that were popular in the 90s might help ground your story in that decade, but what if your story is set in the future? Are people still listening to those “ancient” bands, or just something that sounds similar to that earlier music?

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