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Meet Composer (and Author) Dan Brown!

author and composer Dan Brown at the piano
Ty Ueda
author and composer Dan Brown at the piano

If you’re a fan of mystery thrillers, adventure, and conspiracy stories, then you know the name Dan Brown. The New Hampshire native has written several novels featuring the character Robert Langdon, starting in 2000 with Angels and Demons, followed by 2003’s The Da Vinci Code, 2009’s The Lost Symbol, Inferno in 2013, and Origin in 2017. Three of them have been adapted as films, starring Tom Hanks as Langdon. Those books, along with Mr. Brown’s others, have spent numerous weeks on the New York Times best sellers list, been translated into 56 languages, and have sold 200 million copies worldwide.

In addition to being a novelist, however, Dan Brown is also a composer, whose Wild Symphony is gaining recognition by audiences of all ages. The symphony features 21 individual orchestral movements representing the funny or interesting sides of various animals’ personalities. The movements have fun titles like “Bouncing Kangaroo,” “Wondrous Whale,” “Clumsy Kittens,” and “Brilliant Bat,” and each animal’s music has an accompanying poem. His poems were collected in a fancifully published children’s book titled Wild Symphony, last September by Rodale Kids, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books.

In a recent email interview, I asked Mr. Brown about his dual careers.

Laura Carlo: Most people know you as a novelist, but my research shows that your music career came first. Can you tell us about your start in music?

Dan Brown: I grew up with classical music. My mom was a professional organist, and the family’s music collection was exclusively classical. My parents chose not to have a TV, so instead I played piano, sang in choirs, and went to lots of concerts. Classical music was a secret sanctuary for me as a child.

Science has shown that exposure to music at a young age stimulates creativity, focus, and emotional intelligence in young people, and I believe my family’s love of music had a profound influence on my decision to live a creative life.

Music has always been an integral part of my life, so much so that, despite my majoring in English and creative writing, I decided to make music my profession. I moved to California to become a singer-songwriter, but after three years, two dubious albums, and almost no success, I wondered if perhaps life was telling me something. I let music evolve into more of a passionate hobby while I wrote my first novel, Digital Fortress. Over the years, my love and engagement with music has never waned. Now, eight novels later, I still play piano and compose nearly every day.

 LC: When you began to write novels, was the idea to get away from music altogether and try something new, or did you plan to do the two careers at the same time?

DB: I started writing stories at a young age. When I was 5 years old, I dictated a story to my mother, who transcribed it for me. We did a print run of one copy and bound it in cardboard, and I titled the book: “The Giraffe, The Pig, and the Pants on Fire.” I have it in my library at home. My childhood love of stories became my full-time profession, but I never lost touch with music. Only in the last few years have I decided to venture out publicly with any music I’ve created... and Wild Symphony is the result.

LC: While the outcomes – the final products – are different, do you find anything similar in the creative process as you approach novels vs musical compositions?

DB: In final form, music and fiction may seem quite different, but I’ve always felt the underlying creative principles are the same. To compose music, one must understand structure, dynamics, theme, tension, and resolution. The same holds true for fiction. Three fortissimo movements back-to-back in a symphony work about as well as three consecutive car chases in a novel. Similarly, an effective melody, just like an effective chapter, asks a question and provides an answer. In addition, I’ve always believed that music and novels entertain in a similar way – by providing exactly what the listener or reader is hoping for… but doing it in a way they don’t see coming.

LC: And do musical ideas and novels just flow out of you, or do one or both creative outlets take more energy, or more pre-planning, more forethought, than one would think?

DB: Music feels like more of a “flow” for me than fiction is. Langdon thrillers require a tremendous amount of research, reading, planning, writing, and, above all, revision. Each novel is years in the making. For some reason, I find it much easier to sit at a piano and play what I’m hearing in my head. Of course, the same revision process applies to music, but it is a less time-consuming endeavor.

LC: How do you start composing a piece? With musical thoughts already in your head, like Mozart? Or maybe starting from a blank piece of composition paper and picking out tunes on a keyboard? Or something else altogether?

DB: For most of us, I believe inspiration comes from sources both internal and external. A composer might have a musical idea that materializes “magically” out of internal silence. Alternately, a composer might have a cognitive reaction to an external stimulus, from which an idea is born. Wild Symphony was the latter – the idea sparked some 30 years ago when I heard frogs croaking in a bog near my home. Some were low bullfrogs, some were high peepers, some were in the middle, but they were all singing distinctive but repetitive melodies. To me, these overlapping patterns had a fugal quality, and I immediately went home and wrote the piece “Happy Frogs,” which inspired the rest of Wild Symphony.

LC: I know you shouldn’t ask a mom which one is her favorite child, but have you a favorite piece among those you’ve written so far? If so, why is it?

DB: I composed a piece called “Inside” which has always felt special to me. The music I identify with the most, whether created by myself or someone else, tends to be the music I find emotionally moving.

From Wild Symphony, one of my favorites is “The Ray.” It has a placid, meditative mood that has a calming effect on me even after hearing it countless times.

LC: Does the idea of someday writing a score for one of your novels-turned-movie interest you?

DB: My time in Air Studios watching Hans Zimmer compose, produce, and record the movie scores was both inspirational and extremely humbling. As they say – “The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.” In other words, I will not be scoring movies anytime soon.

LC:  Are there any upcoming projects that you can tell us about at this point?

DB: I’m working on the next Langdon novel, which I will be completing soon.

MGM is developing an animated feature film of Wild Symphony, which promises to be a very fun project. My hope for Wild Symphony – whether book, music, concert, or film – is that it will continue to bring families together and spawn in young people a continuing discovery and appreciation of classical music.
So there it is … some Dan Brown projects in the works for both his writing and his composing sides.

Now how about another listen to music from Wild Symphony? Here’s “Happy Hippos,” which will definitely leave you and your children feeling happy!

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.