I was wondering if a character was in a nighclub or at a concert. How do you represent the music?
It got me thinking that writing is a very non musical medium and that it is actually pretty hard to make the reader hear what you want to.
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All mediums have their limitations. The medium of books is the written word. Despite the popular dictum of "show don't tell", you cannot address any senses directly through writing, you have to describe everything that your readers are then asked to imagine.
Music is no different than any other aspect of reality, when it comes to writing about it. There is a large specialized vocabulary to describe the different aspects of music, if you want to be very accurate and detailed, but just like all technical jargon this is usually not readily comprehensible to the layperson. Everyone can hear a crescendo, for example, but most people do not know that that term denotes.
So you must make a decision: Do you write as an expert to experts, in a similar way as some technical science fiction relies on a good understanding of the relevant technology in its readers? Or do you use common but vague terms like "loud", "rhythmic" or "exciting" to allude to experiences with music that most of us share?
If you write to a non-specialist audience, think about writing about music as similar to writing about anything else. You describe a house in your story without being an architect and knowing what architrave is. You describe emotions without being a psychologist.
Just carefully observe the music and your characters response to it, and describe that. And leave the readers some leeway to fill in what a "heavy beat" or "pleasant melody" might be for them. It does not matter, if the music they imagine differs from the one you have in mind, what is important is that this music has the same effect on them.
What you must consider, though, is the character of your narrator. Is he an omniscient, neutral narrator? Then he would use standardized, educated, but non-specialist language. Is your tale told by a music enthusiast? Then you need the terminology of music, because she will think in it. (You can still write for a lay audience, if your terminology explains itself from the context, or its exact meaning is irrelevant to the plot.) Is your narrator an teenage boy? Then use the language of teenagers to describe the music.
If you are writing fiction, your narrator will dictate how you write about music. Make yourself familiar with how such a person speaks by doing research. The internet is full of all types of people discussing music, so this should be fairly easy.
Let me add a lengthy quote from "The Serpent Mage" by Greg Bear, narrating the entirety of Mahler's Tenth Symphony. This is to give you a clue how deep in detail one can get, how you can convey a whole concerto piece through a written text.
The first movement of the Tenth was an elegiac adagio in F sharp major-minor. Michael fell into the music despite its intense anxiety and sadness. The weave of the music was hypnotic, swinging from domestic tranquility to ominous warning. What ensued was almost painful in its intensity - a dissonant clash of the orchestra, topped by a solo trumpet blaring a high A note - death and destruction, shock and dismay. The adagio, now concluded, seemed complete in itself, and it left Michael almost empty of feeling, drained.
The second movement, a scherzo - the first of two - was a complete contrast, beginning with a heavily satiric taunt in changing rhythms and tempos and then transforming the theme of the first movement into a happy country dance. It concluded joyously in the major key, leaving Michael with an overwhelming sensation of hope. That sensation was tempered by the third movement, titled Purgatorio. In B flat minor and 2/4 time, it drew its own conclusions after seesawing between anxiety and hope, sun and cold shadow… and those conclusions were dark, declining.
'"Oh God, why hast thou forsaken me?'" Kristine whispered.
"What?" Michael asked.
"That's what Mahler wrote on the original score."
The beginning of the second scherzo nearly lifted him from his seat - a shrill blast from horns and strings and then back to the dance with life and hope, decline and death.
"The poor, sad German."
"I was not responsible for Mahler. Or for his child. That was not my work at all."
The scherzo brought to mind that long-past snippet of conversation between Mora and Clarkham under the Pleasure Dome.
"Did Mahler lose one of his children?" Michael asked Kristine.
"A daughter," she said. "His other daughter was incarcerated in a concentration camp during World War II," Kristine added softly, leaning to speak into his ear.
"He was dead then," Michael said.
"Maybe he could tell what was coming. Seeing what the old world would bring." Michael felt a thrill run up his spine. Yes… Old world passing into new.
More anxiety after a rich, romantic interlude. Horns, xylophone accents, clarinets and French horns - that hideous solo trumpet again, intruding into the anxiety, presaging a delicious, horrible revelation.
Michael was frozen in his seat. He could hardly think about what was occurring within him. Old world into new.
Yet all this was accidental - the matching of the Tenth -
Unfinished. Interrupted by death.
- with The Infinity Concerto.
Uplift, again the anxious strains, and back to domestic normality, the world and social life and children -
Mixed with a foreboding of disaster to come -
Of change and trauma and anticipation, foresight -
Harbinger of a new age, of fear and even disaster - Then quiet, skeletal strings, thinning out the fabric of reality, extending the cold from his stomach to his head. Drums pounded unobtrusively, ominously.
On the stage, the largest drum - an eight-foot-wide monster - was assaulted by the drummer with one shattering beat.
The coldness vanished, leaving him suspended in the auditorium, hardly aware of seats, orchestra, walls, ceiling. He could feel the sky beyond. In his left palm lay a pearly sphere. He closed his hand to conceal it.
Camouflage. Everything had been camouflaged to mislead, misdirect. The Infinity Concerto was not by itself a Song of Power. The similarities had seemed merely coincidental.
Mahler's Tenth was leading the way, closing out the old world, describing the end of a long age (sixty million years! or just the end of European peace - or merely the tranquility of one man's life, blighted by the death pf a daughter… perhaps feeling what the second daughter would have to suffer in a new world gone twice mad) and expressing hope for a time beyond. Rich, anxious, neurotic, jumping with each tic and twitch of things going awry, trying to maintain decorum and probity in the midst of coming chaos.
The beats of the huge drum accented a funeral dirge. Again the skeletal tones, this time from muted trumpets . . and then heralding horns, a light and lovely flute song of hope developed by the strings…
becoming strained again, overblown, life lived too hard, tics and twitches -
Drum beat. A tragic triad of notes on the trumpet.
Drum beat. Low bassoons vibrating apart the seconds of his life. Michael still could not move.
(Deception. Camouflage. Misdirection.)
The tempo increasing into a new dance, new hope - recovery and healing - and yet another decline.
Michael was growing weary of the seesaw, but only because it was too close to the everyday pace of his life. Life in this world, world passing.
Rise to triad and…
A disaster. The entire orchestra seemed to join in a dissonant clash, trumpet holding on the high A again, matched by more horns, another clash that made his head ache, reprise of the theme of everyday life…
And then the trumpet, released somewhat from its harsh warning role, was allowed a small solo. The triad reoccurred on other instruments, in a major key and hopeful, not shattering, and then domesticity.
a segue, connective tissue old to new
How much like what had happened recently, the weirdness mixed unpredictably with Earth's solid reality and inner silence of mind. There seemed to be a rise in intensity to some anticipated triumph, thoughtful, loving and accepting… but not acceding. Quiet contemplation.
Michael could move again. He glanced nervously at Kristine to see if she had noticed. The symphony was coming to a conclusion, and he felt his inner strength surge.
Triumph. Quiet, strong and sure - overcoming all tragedy.
The last notes of the Tenth faded, and Crooke seemed to reappear on the podium, and the orchestra seemed to become real again.
Of course in your everyday writing you hardly ever need to go into this level of detail. Give the genre, give the mood. You may give the title, music is at hands' reach of today's readers so if they are compelled to do so, they can play it freely.
Music can give background to the scenes, follow them - describe its changes of the beat to reflect the effects. It can guide, influence the characters. It may hint, explain, or pretty much do everything a secondary character that can't physically touch the protagonist can do. You can make the music an actor - like in the above piece.
Or you can go the easier way. Reflect the music in the impressions of the characters - instead of writing about the music, write about their reactions. Tapping the rhythm, going into melancholy, getting annoyed, getting cheered up against their wishes, calming down, delving into reminiscences. That's the easy way, music being the background.
The neat thing about that approach is that you filter the music through the perception of a character. Two different people will react differently to the same piece of music. An omniscient narrator, or a switch of perspective can give a nice bit of exposure of a character's mind through showing how they react to given piece. "That lie aimed at kids who don't know any better" vs "that piece which truly inspires to greatness"? "That little annoying tune" vs "an uplifting, cheerful melody"? "The legend of magnificence and harmony" vs "that boring, long thing snobs listen to, to show how elaborate they are"? You can use music to ask questions, and have the reader judge the characters by the answers.