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Using Orchestral Music to Find the Tonal Beats of a Story

So, today, I have an interesting idea for a writing experiment I'm going to try and I thought I might share my idea with the rest of you to see what you thought of it and if you would be interested in trying it. My idea is to use orchestral music (though other kinds might also work) to figure out the tonal beats of a story. By this I mean you let the different sections of a piece of music help you figure out if a happy beat is followed by a somber beat or a foreboding beat or a comical one. That doesn't mean you delve too deep into the specifics of what happens in the story, mind you. You're just letting the music guide you on if things get better or worse for your characters, if they succeed or fail, and if some new element comes into the story, like a new theme being used in a symphony.

Keep in mind, I'm not saying that you use an entire piece to figure out the tone of an entire chapter of your story. This isn't a 1:1 ratio, where 10% of a ballet equals 10% of your story. You can use an entire piece to work out the beats of a single scene or a few bars of the music determine the tone and mood of one or more chapters. What I am proposing is not some exact formula with strict rules. It is merely a tool that you can use to help get yourself started and to help you find inspiration. If, as your work progresses, you find the original arrangement of story beats doesn't work, then you simply change them as much as is necessary.

I'm sure that me describing this may not be enough to convey how this approach would work, so I think I'm going to use the music that put this idea in my head and describe the beats that the notes inspired me to use. That music would be Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. We'll only be going through the 1st part of the ballet, Adoration of the Earth, which is divided into several sections, Introduction, Augurs of Spring, Ritual Abduction, Spring Rounds, Ritual of the Rival Tribes, Procession of the Sage, The Sage, and Dance of the Earth. I'll hyperlink to specific timestamps of YouTube videos, telling you how a particular section of the music will inspire the basic tone of a beat in the story.

You'll notice right away that I'm not actually being too precise in what is happening. It may be something as simple as "Things get worse," or "A brief period of calm giving characters and audience a chance to breath." That being said, I can tell you the basic gist of the story that I'm planning. It involves my Half-Orc protagonist, Perdita Nightshade, as she makes a journey across the Transitory Plane of Fire.

Her motivation is simple enough: Travel from Planet A in Galaxy A to Planet B in Galaxy B by taking a "shortcut" through the Plane of Fire. Thus, she will use a Fire Portal on Planet A to enter the Plane of Fire, make her trek across the Plane until she reaches another Fire Portal, and, passing through it, arrive on Planet B, bypassing all the lightyears of distance between the Planets in the process. The distance between the two Fire Portals on the Plane of Fire is by no means short, from the perspective of a 6'6" humanoid, but it is a distance Perdita can manage using more than one means of transportation. It may take her a few days, a few weeks, or a whole month (at the longest,) but it's better than the alternatives.

What sort of things Perdita will do and encounter along the way I cannot say just yet. I am only using Adoration of the Earth from The Rite of Spring to help me get the tones of the beats of the first stretch of the journey, nothing more. Oh, but before we begin, the hyperlinks will only take you to the start of the sequence. The video won't stop at the points I list, so you'll have to do that manually. Sorry if that's inconvenient for you. Also, because the hyperlink address itself counts toward the character limit on these posts, I'll have to break this into chunks, despite the text itself clearly not adding up to 10,000 characters. Sorry about that, too.

0:00-3:00 Perdita, on Planet A, makes her way to the Fire Portal, navigating through a strange environment to do so

3:00-3:28 Perdita passes through the Fire Portal and arrives at a seemingly inconspicuous location on the Plane of Fire (perhaps a cave.) She moves to a vantage point to get a better lay of the land.

Dance of the Young

0:00-0:21 Perdita beholds the Plane of Fire in its full glory for the first time and is left awestruck by what she beholds.

0:21-0:33 Perdita observes a violent struggle between native creatures of the Plane of Fire, foreshadowing the many dangers that she will face.

0:33-0:42 Perdita begins her trek into the harsh environment of the Plane of Fire, starting to fear that she may have bit off more than she can chew

0:42-1:16 Perdita struggles across the Plane of Fire, having several brushes with danger that culminate in a close call of some kind that leaves her shaken but also hardens her resolve

1:16-1:30 A scene or sequence with some levity to it, albeit levity with underlying tension

1:30-1:40 Perdita acquires a more swift means of travel across the Plane of Fire, which offers her some hope

1:40-1:58 Perdita begins to make haste across the Plane of Fire and things are off to a relatively smooth start, resulting in a cautiously optimistic beat

1:58-2:17 The speed at which Perdita travels begins to present some dangerous of its own, especially as she enters some ominous terrain

2:17-2:33 The combination of speed and treacherous terrain does indeed cause Perdita to have some nail-biting experiences and she catches her first glimpse of a Big Threat in the distance

2:33-2:45 The Big Threat takes notice of Perdita and begins taking aim for some sort of ranged attack

2:45-2:59 The Big Threat launches its first attack and misses (2:48-2:49) prepares than launches its second attack which lands closer than the first (2:49-2:53) then prepares and launches its third attack (2:53-59)
Ritual Abduction

0:00-0:05 The Big Threat's attack triggers some kind of environmental threat, such as a flash flood, landslide, or stampede, which Perdita sees is heading in her direction

0:05-0:19 Perdita flees from the environmental threat, struggling not to be overcome with panic

0:19-0:30 The Big Threat gives chase, ratcheting up the tension considerably

0:30-0:38 Perdita narrowly avoids attacks from the Big Threat as she flees from the environmental threat which is still very much a problem

0:38-0:42 Perdita sees a means of escape from both threats to her life

0:42-0:55 Perdita narrowly escapes both threats

0:55-1:09 Perdita makes her getaway but hears the Big Threat making very angry noises behind her and concludes she may not have escaped the Big Threat for good

Spring Rounds

0:00-0:27 Perdita (and the audience) get a chance to breath as she enters a new and clearly less dangerous region of the Plane of Fire. Perdita takes a moment to rest and make preparations for the next leg of her journey

0:27-1:03 Perdita begins the next leg of her journey, covering a fair amount of distance but having to deal with a generally oppressive landscape that gradually starts wearing her down

1:03-1:37 Perdita passes through an area which causes her to experience feelings of sadness, possibly regret. What specifically causes these feelings I'm not sure. Whatever it is, this section of the story, however long it takes, is a somber one

1:37-1:57 Perdita experiences something bittersweet following her somber experience, something which may give her some hope but also some apprehension

1:57-2:24 Perdita endures a miserable trek through a more oppressive environment and senses that worse things are ahead of her

2:24-3:17 Perdita enters a bleak, desolate, and very difficult region which steadily pushes her to her breaking point, with progressively worse obstacles causing more and more problems until she's just about to snap, then, just when things look like they could not possibly get worse...

3:17-3:34 THINGS GET WORSE in the form of a dangerous encounter with some sort of native creature, person, or group. Fortunately, this situation is as brief as it is sudden

3:34-4:04 Perdita makes it to the safety of a settlement, and is able to rest and recover, taking some time to reflect on things up to this point and consider where she needs to go next, thus giving the audience another chance to catch its breath and also get its proverbial bearings

Ritual of the Rival Tribes

0:00-0:32 The settlement is suddenly attacked by a new threat, such as a pack of Monsters, a group of bandits, or the like, taking everyone, Perdita included, by surprise, but defenses are successfully, if hastily, raised

0:32-39 Perdita helps to rally the people during a brief lull in the fighting

0:39-0:56 The defenders repel repeated assaults and begin working together as a more effective team

0:56-1:30 The attackers begin to break and retreat. Perdita leads a team in pursuit to eliminate the threat for good, a definite turning of the tables sort of story beat

1:30-1:51 The attackers are cornered and defeated (not necessarily slain) but the sounds of the battle attract unwanted attention from a new threat

Procession of the Sage

Whole thing Former enemies quickly band together to fend of the new threat, leading to a frenzied, chaotic battle, only for the new threat to abruptly retreat, clearly frightened by something that isn't them

The Sage

Whole thing Perturbed by the strange turn of events, the groups call a cease fire and go their separate ways, with Perdita taking her leave to continue her journey, sensing that something is definitely amiss. This is a "calm before the storm" beat

Dance of the Earth

0:00-0:24 The Big Threat returns and has clearly set its sights on Perdita!

0:24-0:54 The Big Threat chases Perdita as she makes a mad dash for a narrow pass or some other escape which will once again put her out of its reach. It steadily closes the distance on her.

0:54-1:05 In another very, very close call, Perdita just barely escapes the Big Threat's clutches. In the process, she also gets out of the oppressive region of the Plane of Fire and into an area which promises to be less dangerous.

So, there's an example of my idea for using orchestral music to work out the beats of a story and the tone of those beats. Keep in mind, this is still just an experiment I'm trying and I have no idea how much of this stuff will be in the final outline or the final version of the story. As I said, this is just a way to get the whole thing started. Let me know what you think of my idea and if you're interested in trying it yourselves!


I used the album Who’s Next by The Who for my book. Or at least for the main character’s arc. I wanted more of a rock edge to my story but not full metal or punk.

I figured listening to an album that’s meant to be a complete work itself (as opposed to a collection of songs) is an experience in much the same way that a novel is an experience. Each track fits into and contributes to the whole album like how each chapter contributes to the whole novel.

Mad Swede

I do use music when I'm writing, I find that it helps get me into the right mood when I'm settling down to write certain passages. My choice of music depends a great deal on what I'm going to write which means I need to have some idea of what the days writing will cover. That said, sometimes I'll just go with the flow and pick some music at random before I start writing.

Wiht that written, I don't use music to set a beat or pattern to my writing, I don't find that to be useful or neccessary.