Music for Writing

Have you ever wished you had your own soundtrack? How much easier would life be if you could pick up cues from the ambient score? A suspenseful theme cuts the air as you’re about to step onto the bus, so you take the next one instead. Or maybe you wake up to a minor chord, deciding it’s a good day to stay inside.

Maybe it’s just me, but I sometimes think it would be fun.

As writers, we have the chance to do just that. Rarely do I sit for a writing session without a carefully selected playlist crooning in the background. This is likely a common trait within the craft, but it’s always struck me just how much impact it can have. I’ve always wondered if I have an overdramatic streak or if it’s something other writers have found as well.

I’m very picky about the music I listen to while writing. Sometimes it depends on my mood, or my general level of concentration. Sometimes it depends on the point of view I’m writing (I actually have separate playlists for each character, and each character has their own theme song.)

Not only is it effective, but it’s a fun way to set the mood and get yourself ready to spill a prodigious word count. Unless you pick the wrong music, then you’ll likely spend more time singing along than writing. Trust me on this. Not to mention it helps you plan your movie soundtrack- I have songs picked out for the end credits of the movie adaptations of my books. Too far? Hell no. Not far enough.

There are two types of playlists I make. 1) Music for writing. VERY different from music for walking around seeking inspiration. 2) Music for walking around seeking inspiration. Did I already say that? I have different criteria for each type, with different rules the tunes must stand up to before earning a place on my lists.

Music for writing

I have trouble listening to music with lyrics when I write. That’s where I usually end up singing along and writing ten words. Not useful.

So, when I write, I have a couple current favorites:

  • Marconi Union: They’re an ambient electronica group that’s a great backdrop for my current WIP, an edgy, dark, urban feel with beautiful glimpses of light and emotional swells and currents. They use sounds well, incorporating scrapes and rattles (one song even includes what sounds like a very eerie ventilator), transporting me into a derelict urban expanse, letting me hear the world I’m writing as I go. Love.
  • Video Game Music: Don’t judge me. Video game soundtracks can be great, because the music is designed to set background mood and build action, while allowing extended play without becoming repetitive or distracting. Also, video games now are rocking soundtracks as complicated and thought out as movies. Gone are the days of 8-bit theater (I will forever remember you… *sniff*). Try it out before you laugh. I may be a geek, but I’m hella productive with word count.
  • Explosions in the Sky: Another ambient rock electronica group. They’ve composed several soundtracks as well, so they know their stuff. They’re masterful at telling stories without speaking a word. Give them a listen!
  • Binaural Beats: Not music, per se, but highly effective when I’m struggling to concentrate. The basic idea is that they directly affect your brainwaves with specific frequencies, settling them into patterns based on the frequency you choose. I don’t know if the science works, but I will say they do the trick. They’re also great because you can get really long tracks, like 2 – 3 hours in one track, so it just plays innocently in the background without any of the distracting stops and starts of track changes. Give them a try. They sound a little weird at first, but when you get used to the sound, they’re great.

Music for walking around

If you’re anything like me, when you’re in the middle of a project, you never really stop thinking about it. So, having music in place for those times when you NEED to think about other things, like getting groceries or travelling to work, is a must.

Here, I’m not so worried about wording and concentration. I’m looking for the aha moment where plot points slide together, or a character’s viewpoint snaps into focus. I won’t get into specific bands, because there’s so many of them, but here’s what I look for.

  • Theme inspiration: Sometimes it’s just about setting the scene. Sometimes I listen to metal or techno, or just songs with lyrics that put me in the mood of where I’m trying to go. I’ve had some of the best breakthroughs when listening to this stuff.
  • Character inspiration: Alternately, I’ll listen to the themes for my characters: The music that makes me think of them, clarifying their motivations and passions. If it gives me my character’s particular swagger as I’m strolling the grocery store, all the better.
  • In-story inspiration: Why stop at theme? I know my world pretty well, and just like this world, there’s lots happening within it. Think of it like building your movie’s soundtrack. If I know I’m soon writing a scene in a dance club, I’ll listen to some of the stuff they might be dancing to. If I know I have an intimate scene where two of my characters are playing guitar around a campfire, I’ll listen to them play.

Few things bring a scene to life in your head like filling in all the scents and sounds (scents I’ll get into later. I’ll just say check out and hope to not lose too much of your life. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

Music can be the backdrop that brings our worlds to life. I’m always on the lookout for good instrumental bands, so if you have any other suggestions, I look forward to hearing them! Music can give depth to your thoughts, and let you draw that much more emotion into your words.

So, if you haven’t already, try adding it to your arsenal, and see if it makes a difference. Worst thing that happens is you spend an entertaining hour belting out your favorite songs to your living room (and its inhabitants… sorry.)

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