Music has always been a part of the creative process for me. I play classical guitar and am a music journalist, so I enjoy novels about musicians’ lives and careers, what it’s like to play an instrument and perform, the music scene, and the part music plays in ordinary lives.

I’ve discovered many terrific books that touch on music in some way: Dana Spiota’s Stone Arabia, for its portrait of a singer/songwriter and his relationship to creativity, success, and self-invention; Nick Hornby’s music esoteria in High Fidelity; and Jonathan Coe’s weaving of music in the lives of working-class characters in The Rotter’s Club. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad includes a fascinating depiction of commercial music and the rock scene, while Pat Lowery Collins’ Hidden Voices: The Orphan Musicians of Venice brings us to 1770s’ Venice and inside an orphanage renowned for its musical program under Vivaldi’s tutelage. I loved Vikram Seth’s insights into playing in a quartet in An Equal Music, and Susan Segal’s Aria for its marvelous depiction of a diva.

But most of all, I love and am inspired by novels about music that allow me to feel I’m actually hearing the music, particularly those in which music serves as a catalyst for transformation. Here are my favorites:

 An Evening of Brahms, Richard Sennett

A meditation on the experience of music– what it is to play, listen, or be moved by it. Here a teacher is thinking about Brahms’ piano quartet in C minor:

 A passage of dark harmonies then appears in the strings, six bars in which the players seem to be searching for a center, a place from which to begin. The piano does not help them; once more it rings out stark octaves but this time a tone lower…. Brahms forces the strings to repeat their figure of sighing and emptiness three times. These repetitions increase the tension; confusion is pushed to the breaking point by a string passage of even darker harmonies which do not resolve—and then all at once the piano and the strings push forward together as if in a rage, and the piece is launched.

 Appassionata, Eve Hoffman

In this exquisitely written novel, Hoffman explores the role of art in a world of suffering and violence. Here she describes her character, a concert pianist, as she plunges into a performance:

She turns to the opening section of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade, and forgets all else. The theme, with its rueful half-tones, compressed and repetitive like the circling of obsessive thought, the line curling and uncurling from itself, till it eventually expands into openness of major tones and wide arpeggios, pulls her into its vortex till there is nothing outside it.

Bel Canto, Ann Patchett

Opera arias are more powerful than the government in resolving a hostage situation in Patchett’s masterful novel. Here are the thoughts of a man at the moment he is first bewitched by opera:

Without opera, this part of himself would have vanished altogether. It was early in the second act, when Rigoletto and Gilda sang together, their voices twining, leaping, that he reached out for his father’s hand…. The pull they had on him was so strong he could feel himself falling forward out of the high and distant seats. 

In Search of Lost Time – Marcel Proust  

A phrase of a sonata by a fictitious composer Vinteuil haunts the narrator throughout Proust’s masterpiece. So important is this music to the novel that scholars have argued, since its publication 100 years ago, about Proust’s inspiration. From his own papers, it appears the music that triggered this memory was Camille Saint-Saëns’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Minor. This excerpt is from a scene at a private salon gathering where the narrator hears Vinteuil ‘s piece performed:

. . . suddenly enraptured, he had tried to grasp the phrase or harmony—he did not know which—that had just been played and that had opened and expanded his soul, as the fragrance of certain roses, wafted upon the moist air of evening, has the power of dilating one’s nostrils. . . . This time he had distinguished quite clearly a phrase which emerged for a few moments above the waves of sound.

 Nora Webster – Colm Toibin

An older woman begins to sing again, after decades, and finds solace, engagement, and a true haven in herself. Here she is experiencing her own voice:

 She did not know that her voice could be so deep; and whatever way Laurie was stretching out the notes, she found herself moving much more slowly than she had meant to. She had no trouble with her breathing and no fear now of the higher notes. She felt that the piano was controlling her and pulling her along…. She felt that she was singing into silence; she was aware of the silence as much as she was of the notes.

 Reservation Blues, Sherman Alexi

Alexi takes the magic of music to a new level in the form of an enchanted guitar belonging to bluesman Robert Johnson. At times the guitar talks or plays itself, and it triggers a magical musical odyssey for a misfit rock band. Here are samples of two different characters as they first try out the guitar:

Thomas picked it up, strummed the strings, felt a small pain in the palms of his hands, and heard the first sad note of the reservation blues…. [Victor] played that guitar like a crazy man, and chords and riffs and notes jumped out of that thing like fancydancers. If you looked close enough, you saw the music rising off the strings and frets.

The Soloist – Mark Salzman

This novel can be read as a striking duet between a cello teacher and his brilliant student. I love this metaphor Salzman uses of the sensation of the student’s playing:

Kyung-hee made the arpeggios sound like waves out in mid-ocean, gentle in appearance but with enormous power under the surface.

The Song Is You, Arthur Phillips

In Phillips’ novel, the narrator finds himself increasingly fixated on pop singer Cait O’Dwyer, and becomes a muse for her art. Phillips’s larger theme is how music works its magic on us, and manufactures longing:

 She sang through the laughter, holding the melody like an egg, her voice straining pleasantly, her smile broadening, her breathing heavier than in the demo’s thinner version…Cait had found another splinter of heartbreak.

I am grateful to all these authors as a reader and listener, for enhancing my appreciation for musicians and for music, and as a writer, for inspiring my own fiction.