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The Music Behind the Words

A fair share of writers do not write to music. At times, I’m one of them. This is probably because I like to talk to myself during the process and music only distracts from my conversation. Nevertheless, there are times when the perfect remedy for a sluggish story is music.

Galley Cat’s Find Great Writing Music links to screenwriters discussing the subject of what tunes get their creative juices flowing. I love these kinds of discussions. Having submitted my second book to the editor, I’ve had time to reflect on the grueling process. And music definitely played a part in it.

Here’s a list of some of my recent favorites, songs and albums that lit an imaginative spark, soothed a frenetic frame of mind, or made what was lusterless lyrical:

  • SoundtracksGladiator by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard, Let Me In by Michael Giacchino, Master and Commander by Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon and Richard Tognetti, The Beach by Blur and Mory Kante, The Insider by Jan Garbarek, The Social Network by Trent Reznor.
  • JazzBitch’s Brew and Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, Time Out by Dave Brubek Quartet, A Love Supreme by John Coltrane, The Magic Hour by Wynton Marsalis, Storytelling by Jean Luc Ponty.
  • Dance and Electronica Songs by Moby, Merriweather Post Pavilion by Animal Collective, This is the Happening by LCD Soundsystem, Saturdays = Youth by M83, Return to Cookie Mountain by TV on the Radio.
  • Classical Thaïs: Meditation by Jules Massenet, Cavatina by Stanley Myers,  Adagio for Strings by Barber, Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major by Bach, Xerxes, HWV 40 by Yoshikazu Mera, Gymnopédie No. 1 by Erik Satie, Orpheus and Eurydice: Dance of the Blessed Spirits by Christoph Willibald Gluck.
  • Mood Music and InstrumentalForest by George Winston, Speechless by Bruce Cockburn, Solo Piano by Tom Howard, Frio Suite by Jeff Johnson and Phil Keaggy, Voice of the Seven Woods by Voice of the Seven Woods.
  • Rock and FolkDark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and Animals by Pink Floyd, Ten Summoner’s Tales by Sting, Add to the Beauty by Sarah Grove, Ohio by Over the Rhine, Armchair Apocrypha by Andrew Bird, Kid A by Radiohead.

I rarely write to rock music and when I do, the mood has to be specific. In fact, I have never understood how some writers can write to rock, especially the hardcore, raprock, and metal kind. (Are you one of these people? I’d love to know how in the world you can concentrate with Rage Against the Machine.) When I do choose rock, it’s often of the more melodic, symphonic variety (see Pink Floyd) or the laid back folksy.

In general, I dislike lyrics in my writing music and feel they’re competing with the words in my head. While I love jazz, sometimes discordant and unconventional rhythms unsettle my creative equilibrium. However, during the writing of The Telling, Miles Davis’ Bitch’s Brew meshed so well with the mood that I kept returning to it. But by far and away, soundtracks and classical are my writing music of choice. (The cello piece by Yo-Yo Ma and the violin pieces, especially the String Quintet in C, on the Master and Commander soundtrack are some of my all-time faves.)

So how about you? What’s some of your favorite writing music?

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{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Katherine Coble April 25, 2011, 8:40 AM

    I’ve tried and tried but just cant write to music. I feel like someone else’s creation is pulling me away from my own.

    But i do love having music in the background when I game (usually Civ or Alien Crossfire), and for that i generally default to Kind of Blue, the Firefly Soundtrack, the Village Soundtrack (you got my note re. The planes, right?) and the collected Works of Pink Floyd and Marillion. Gaming is a similar frame of mind to writing for me so I suppose if I were able to write with music those would be my choices.

    • Carradee April 25, 2011, 12:56 PM

      Firefly has a soundtrack? *d’oh to self* Of course it would! *off to find*

  • Jill April 25, 2011, 8:51 AM

    I have four children. If I want to write, I have to wear headphones with music piped in my ears to block out the chaos swirling around me. I prefer music with accordion or brass. Mexican is the best. There’s nothing like Ramon Ayala (the best accordionist in the world) serenading me while I write. I rarely listen to rock, alternate or otherwise. And I can’t handle jazz at all.

  • Patrick Todoroff April 25, 2011, 9:42 AM

    I can’t write to music but I listen to it to orient my mind to the process. The type depends on the subject, but it tends to be ambient instrumental stuff.

  • Greg Mitchell April 25, 2011, 10:21 AM

    I write to music. And I have written to Rage Against the Machine and Korn, and even Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People” for action scenes. If I’m writing something that requires lots of tears and heartache, I listen to the Pierces. To me, writing is like acting, so I’ve got work to myself up into an emotional state to “feel” what the characters are feeling. I can’t write while I’m editing, though. That’s all clinical and what not, so I need to concentrate, but I compose whole soundtracks to my writing. I’ve been known to hit a song that really captures the mood I’m going for, and I’ll listen to it on repeat FOR HOURS until the scene and/or the mood has passed. I don’t even hear the music in any real sense, just feel the beat and type to the rhythm. They could be singing about Uncle Joe’s cat or something, but I don’t listen to music for lyrics. I just need beat. Actually, the louder it is, the more I mellow and can concentrate. But, I write to silence many times, too. Some of the best music is the click-clacking of the keyboard when a scene’s really coming together.

    • Greg Mitchell April 25, 2011, 10:22 AM

      Hey, check me out not reading back what I wrote:

      That should say “I’ve got to work myself up…”

      And that should say “…can’t listen to music while I edit”, not “can’t write while I edit” :p

    • Katherine Coble April 25, 2011, 10:36 AM

      A) i cant hear “Beautiful People” without thinking of the Vegas episode in SG:Atlantis.

      B) best $5 i ever invested in my writing career was for a soundpack that emulates typewriter noises on my Mac. I fiend on that clacking and the DING-slap-hisssss of the carriage return.

  • Carradee April 25, 2011, 11:02 AM

    The grunge-ish metal actually helps me get some freelance assignments done faster, I think because I subconsciously want to stop being screamed at.

    Generally, I either need metal or rapid-beat music when working. Within Temptation is my favorite band, though I also like others like HB*, Fireflight*, Visions of Atlantis, and Delain, but then I also tend to start absentmindedly singing along when there’s a female singer.

    I think that “sing-along” thing is why I tend to work better to male-fronted metal like Red*, Skillet*, Three Days Grace, and Linkin Park.

    To relax, there’s Enya, Gregorian, Virgin Black*, Evanescence, Within Temptation, Blackmore’s Night, Vixy & Tony, Karnataka*, Sooj, Jars of Clay*, Nicole Nordeman*, Sleepthief, Emilie Autumn (Enchant album), soundtracks…

    With fiction, I find music that fits the tone and emotions/events of what I’m writing. I have an entire playlist for a relationship arc that will span several books in a series I’ve shelved, at the moment. I have everything from hip-hop to classical on some of these playlists. No rap, though.

    I’m with Greg Mitchell. When a song works perfectly for what I’m writing, I can listen to it on repeat for quite some time. It becomes background noise after awhile, but it still helps.

    But then, I’ve also been known to listen to a favorite song or album 100+ times in a week. And still like it afterwards. (I can usually also sing it at that point.)

    I also like having “theme songs” for individual stories and characters. Helps a ton for quickly delving back into a project.


    *Christian artist.

  • Brandon Clements April 25, 2011, 1:09 PM

    Explosions in the Sky, The Glitch Mob, and Bon Iver are my favorites for writing. I find instrumental is best, or music that I love so much and am so used to that the lyrics don’t distract me.

  • E.J. Apostrophe April 25, 2011, 6:09 PM

    I like to write to Baroque music or smooth jazz music. Since I write during the down times of work, I usually write to smooth jazz and let the words flow.

  • Sally Apokedak April 26, 2011, 6:56 AM

    Love this question and the answers.

    I never listened to music when I wrote. But when I was writing the climax of my last manuscript I was sitting in my mother’s living room and she keeps the TV news on all day every day. I couldn’t help but get dragged away from my story with the blurbs about parents killing their children in all kinds of gruesome ways. Ugh.

    So I put on headphones and played Apocalyptica’s Farewell over and over and I wrote about the terrible thing my heroine had to do to my hero. And I cried as I wrote. That piece of music fit my final two chapters perfectly. Over and over as I edited the one really traumatic scene I listened to that music. I think it helped.

    Since then I have started listening to classical music as I write. I don’t think I’ll ever write to music with lyrics. But movie soundtracks are great because they are meant to be dramatic and they help with pacing, I think.

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