Why Music Matters to the Neo Renaissance Writer


The first protagonist I ever wrote in a novel is Matt Lanier, a farm boy from southern Minnesota with a near-genius level IQ. He’s a professional musician in the classical and jazz arenas, but can also hunt and fish, butcher a chicken for dinner, paddle a canoe and navigate in the wilderness, fix a motor, speak passable French, and knows something about art and art history, among other interests.

They key reason I wrote Matt as a musician is that music is one of a few disciplines that combines the abilities of both sides of the brain. I figure an ordinary guy like him should have some extraordinary powers if he wasn’t a cop, soldier, or government agent. “Why do musicians have special powers?” I hear you ask. Here’s how:

  • Music and the left brain:

The left side of the brain handles the linguistic, logical, analytic, objective functions of the mind. In music, this correlates with translating the written code on the page (the sheet music) into signals to the body to create certain notes on one’s instrument. In simplest terms, imagine a computer generated performance of a song. Every note is the correct pitch, correct length, correct volume. But even if the most skilled human musicians or computer-generated music can sound technically perfect, something is still missing. That missing ingredient comes from the right brain.

  • Music and the right brain

The right side of the brain handles the emotional, creative, intuitive functions of the mind. In music, this correlates with interpreting the notes on the sheet music in a way that communicates emotional impact to the listener. The right brain is also where spontaneous composition (aka improvisation) is generated.

If you’ve ever cried while listening to music interpreted by professional musicians, your right brain has responded to the way the performers have interpreted and imbued the notes with some sort of passion. The composer’s intention may have been to move the listener to tears or sadness. Other compositions may have elicited tears of joy, an urge to celebrate, dance, revere God, or even anger and/or confusion.

Here’s one of the best examples I can find to illustrate the difference between technical “perfection” and deep emotional response. Left brain vs. right brain.

Left brain first: 

Now right brain: 

Get a different feeling in your gut with each version? I found the second version to be quite emotionally powerful. Some of you may  have gotten more emotional impact out of the first version. It all depends on your personal experience with either type of performance and what sort of stimulation moves you to feel a certain emotion. Your emotions are unassailable. They’re always right.

Version two, even discounting the effect of the setting being the Super Bowl, as well as  the accompanying video of crowd roars and jet flybys, was quite different from the first. The tempo and meter were different, different instruments were used (orchestra vs. wind band) and this performance had vocals by one of the great pure voices and singing talents of her generation-Whitney Houston. Like her personal life or not, the lady had one kickass set of pipes and knew how to interpret a song to make you feel the way she wanted you to feel about that song and those lyrics.

Back to the left-right brain theory: both sides are equally important in music. The left side (think logic) enables one to analyze, understand, quantify and qualify the music. We listen to the US Marine Band and our left brain tells us their performance is technically flawless. Our right brain may have some input, perhaps on the order of making us feel a patriotic emotion of some sort–perhaps an Olympic gold medal ceremony, or recalls our past military experience or that of a friend or family member.

When Whitney Houston sings the “S.S.B.,” our right brain may dominate. I’m guessing many of us also felt tears welling up, stomachs roiling a bit, a sense of joy floating through our bodies. Perhaps the Marine Band performance elicited a stronger dose of patriotism. Or maybe you felt sorrow for a loved one lost in combat.  The two versions brought out unique sets of emotions because your right brain participated in listening along with your left.

The skills my protagonist, Matt Lanier has honed over the decades of his music career are a keen ear for details. He also happens to have perfect pitch, sharp hearing down to very soft levels, and he understands nuance in sound more than most. This is imperative in music, but comes in handy in the story because he can hear the slightest changes in people’s voices when they are lying to him vs. when they’re telling the truth, which keeps him investigating the death of a  friend even when he seems to have reached a dead-end.

The language of musical notation is all about details. Perhaps dozens of bits of information must be analyzed in one bar of music to make sure those notes are played perfectly. Matt’s keen eye for detail saved him from being blown to bits in a propane-leak explosion because he noticed that a closed door that should have been open. He opened the door to put it in its proper place, then smelled gas and barely got out alive (spoiler alert!).

So you can see, being a professional musician could come in handy some day for a character thrust into a suspense novel on the plains and forests of Minnesota. It might make the difference between life and death. 🙂

My questions: Are you left-brain dominant or right-brain dominant? Tell me about the song or piece of music that had/has the greatest emotional impact on you, whatever the emotion.

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