Portraying one art form through another is a notoriously difficult task. No one ever wins the argument over which version is best when a book is adapted for the screen, and arguably depicting the visual or aural through the written word is an even more daunting task. Here we have a look at some of the best works of fiction themed around the joy of sound, from ivory-tickling primates to mixtape-ing pop fans.
Coltrane by Paolo Parisi
We’ll start with something that isn’t strictly fiction…. Paolo Parisi’s graphic novel depiction of John Coltrane’s life, from his humble beginnings in North Carolina to playing the New York club scene with Miles Davis, is structured around Coltrane’s album, Love Supreme. It’s a sneaky entry into this list, but the way that Parisi captures sound in such a visual medium is too remarkable to ignore. The illustrations mirror everything a jazz fan is trained to listen for: improvisation, enormous crescendos, and a constant undercurrent of syncopated rhythms.
Mr Big by Ed Vere
As long as we’re playing with pictures, now is a good time to mention Ed Vere’s misunderstood gorilla. When gentle Mr Big, who regularly scares people with his humungousness, spots an unloved piano in a shop window, he finally finds a way to get past the way he looks and express his true, jazzy self. Mr Big is a wonderful book, and it provides a great way to talk to children about self-esteem and appearances. But more than anything, it’s fun and vibrant and touching and silly and exceptionally funny. Let’s hear it for Mr Big indeed.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Invisible Man was inspired in part by T S Eliot’s epic poem, The Wasteland, one of the places where Ellison claims he first saw jazz set to words, calling it ‘as intriguing as a trumpet improvisation by Louis Armstrong.’ Indeed Louis Armstrong plays a particularly important part in Ellison’s tale of an unnamed black man, rendered culturally and socially invisible by his race. Delve into this novel with Armstrong’s ‘What Did I Do (To Be So Black and Blue)’ on repeat in the background.
Pop and Rock
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
No list of novels about music would be complete without this love letter to musical obsession. Hornby has always written about music perfectly – you should definitely take in his collection of pop song essays, 31 Songs – and in High Fidelity he completely encapsulates that strange and infinitely personal way that music made for the masses can so particularly soundtrack your own life.
The Commitments by Roddy Doyle
“All the good 60s bands started with a ‘the'”. So says Jimmy Rabbitte, manager of a group of bored, unemployed teenagers with no musical talent who form an unlikely soul group in Dublin. Later adapted for screen and then a popular stage show, The Commitments brims with effective contradictions – it’s chaotic yet sharp, cynical yet warm. Once you’ve fallen in love with Jimmy, move on to Roddy Doyle’s recent follow-up, The Guts.
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
When Toru Watanabe hears an orchestral arrangement of the Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’, he starts to reminisce about his college days in Tokyo in the 1960s. The musical pedigree of this novel runs deep: as well as referencing The Beatles repeatedly throughout, the 2010 Japanese film adaptation was scored by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
This commentary on individualism and state control presents us with a rather less orthodox musical experience. Composer and author Anthony Burgess’s anti-hero, Alex, is moved to ecstasy and gleeful brutality by the sounds of Beethoven. When doctors subject Alex to weeks of overexposure to sexual and violent imagery in an effort to cure him of his brutal tendencies, they subdue him but simultaneously remove his freedom of will and expression and cause his body to reject music.
If I Stay by Gayle Forman
Adapted for screen in 2014 in a film starring Chloë Grace Moretz, this touching novel tells the story of Mia Hall, a talented young musician destined for New York’s prestigious Juilliard school. When Mia is involved in an accident, she has to face enormous loss, and the future of music in her life is called into question.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Included for the lyrical talents of the Oompa Loompas, who came up with such gems as:
“Dear friends, we surely all agree
There’s almost nothing worse to see
Than some repulsive little bum
Who’s always chewing chewing gum.
(It’s very near as bad as those
Who sit around and pick the nose).”
Don’t tell us that you never came up with tunes for these when you were a kid…
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
This is only in our miscellany section because the accordion is an awfully hard thing to put in a box, both musically and physically. The exuberant sound of Hans Hubermann’s melodies are so vital to the reason that we love him, and Zusak ties the man to the instrument with warm, affectionate language: “Sometimes I think my papa is an accordion. When he looks at me and smiles and breathes, I hear the notes.”
An awful lot of Shakespeare
Once again, Will defies categories. There’s no one play that comes to mind when you think of Shakespeare and music (although if you disagree, please let us know in the comments!). But aside from inspiring ballets, operas, musicals and films (The Lion King anyone?), he also gave us some of the most memorable pieces of language about music in our literary canon, from Antony and Cleopatra‘s “Give me some music; music, moody food/Of us that trade in love” to Twelfth Night‘s “If music be the food of love, play on;/Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,/The appetite may sicken, and so die”.
So what are your favourite musical stories?