Monday, 14 August 2017

Writing to Music: A Medievalist Approach - Emily Murdoch

For the latest in the series Writing to Music I am delighted to turn the blog over to Emily Murdoch.
Over to you Emily...

If music be the food of love, play on . . . where words fail, music speaks . . . without music, life would be a mistake . . . It is hard to find anyone who does not love music, even if our tastes will vary! As an author, there are very specific conditions that I have to work in to be able to get the Muse flowing, and music is a vital aspect of many authors. The question is, did it for our medieval ancestors?

We can argue about medieval literacy until the cows come home, but the fact that the medieval ear had a true love affair with music is one few would argue with. There is a great deal of sheet music that has come down the ages to us from the time before the 1500s, and much of it from the church. 

Singing praises to God was just as much second nature to them as singing the latest chart songs to us; it brought them closer to each other and to their Maker in a way that only religious harmonies can. 

In fact, the very idea of melody and harmony intertwining, weaving in and out of each other like a woven basket was born in the monasteries, and some believe it was used as a form of concentration – and entertainment – for the scribes copying out new versions of the Holy Scriptures.

That is not, naturally, to say that music was only found in the province of the cloister. The battlefield was just as likely to contain song and instruments, but for very different purposes – and much lewder lyrics! Marching songs, songs to stiffen the sinews, songs to encourage you to move faster, think quicker, kill speedier . . . The Crusades bore a huge medley of different songs, some in English, some in French, and all just as unpleasant about the enemy. 

Just as I may write a quickly-paced scene with a quickly paced tune in the background, so previous generations of soldiers have been spurred on by the beating of their heart and the pounding of a drum. That respect, perhaps, not much has changed. 

As the medieval era began to turn towards the Renaissance, perhaps the last great medieval King took it, and transformed it into something more than an ode to the love of God, or the love of war: but instead, the love of a woman. Henry VIII was more medieval tyrant than reformed Renaissance man, despite his father, and he knew that music itself could be put to work, to do something for you, to sing for its supper. His wooing of Anne Boleyn, no matter which side of the debate you come (Team Katherine? Team Anne?) was a truly transformative change in the way that we see music. Now it wasn’t just the world changing the music. Music was changing the world.

Henry VIII in 1509

We know thanks to modern science and studies that listening to music with lyrics can really hinder our concentration, and I surely can’t be the only one who has been listening to a great song, and then realised that I had typed out the lyrics for the last two sentences! Having low level music, however, has shown in some studies to increase productivity and reduce the stress hormone cortisol in the body, so our ancestors can’t be all wrong. 

Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, absolutely hated writing to music, and instead stated that he would rather write in a soundproofed room on the top floor of a building, with no feet stomping above him. Stephen King loved writing to music so much that he actually created his own band of authors! He called it ‘The Rock Bottom Remainders,’ and it contained writers such as Amy Tan, Scott Turow, Joel Selvin, and Barbara Kingsolver.

I certainly find music an excellent soother when I am trying to work out a key passage in one of my books, and I have found songs, humming, and musicians tripping across my page more than once in a wonderfully poetical irony.

I would be remiss to end the article without sharing some of the music that I listen to when I am writing! When writing in my medieval series, I love to immerse myself in historically accurate tunes: Mediaeval Baebes is a gorgeous vocal group that recreate medieval music and at times, put a modern spin on things. 
Musa Venit Carmine -Youtube

When I’m writing my bestselling Regency series, it’s all about soundtracks: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, even Northanger Abbey! It’s a wonderful way for me to keep the manners and civilities in mind as I write. 

For my most recent series, Western historical, I’ve taken a completely different approach, writing to modern ‘cowboy’ music, to separate myself from my other series! It can get slightly complicated when I write more than one series in a day, but the music grounds me, keeps me close to my (current) historical time period, and forces me to stay centred on what I’m working on.

No matter what, I always have RainyMood on in the background. I love the sunshine so I have no idea why I am always desperate for the sound of the rain behind me, and I absolutely love this free website. 
Rainy Mood 
Check it out, and read any of my books at the same time: you’ll be listening to the same sounds that I did when writing it.

Thanks so much, Emily!

Emily Murdoch is a historian and writer. Throughout her career so far she has examined a codex and transcribed medieval sermons at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, designed part of an exhibition for the Yorkshire Museum, worked as a researcher for a BBC documentary presented by Ian Hislop, and worked at Polesden Lacey with the National Trust. She has a degree in History and English, and a Masters in Medieval Studies, both from the University of York. Emily has a medieval series, a Regency novella series, and the first volume of a five-part Western series published, and is currently working on several new projects.

Buy her books from Amazon UK and Amazon US
You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram, BookBub, and Facebook.


  1. Very cool - I keep a CD rack next to my computer. There is no writers block as long as there is music.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the article, Christina! Look out for more in the series over the coming months :-)