Do You Hear What I Hear? – Music & Writing

music for writers music-581732_960_720I believe the majority of writers are creatures of habit. Many of us have a writing routine. Maybe we sit in the same corner in our favorite Starbucks, or sit staring at the person who is already there until they get uncomfortable and leave. Not that I have ever done that. Or, perhaps there is a particular ratty old sweater or broken-in pair of slippers you have to wear before the word count can begin.

For most writers, one of the key elements is sound — or the lack thereof. A large percentage of writers insists on total silence in order to create. If you are one of those writers and have a significant other, or kids, or pets, I imagine that is a huge challenge. I have an image in my head of a writer, steaming cup of hot something beside them, settling into the silence to write. Her fingers hover over the keys, a sentence of unparalleled brilliance comes into her head… and the lovely quiet is shattered by a ringing doorbell. Or a truck’s air brakes outside. Or a million other distractions.

These potential interruptions are why I write to music. For me, music is not a distraction. Instead, it is an aural blanket that wraps around my brain and protects me from outside influences. I also employ a strategy that might be unique among writers, but I’ll save that for the end.

For writers who do use music to write by, the types of music they listen to are as varied as the genres of music. Classical music, without distracting lyrics, is a favorite. A mentor of mine once told me that baroque composers like Vivaldi or Bach are perfect for stimulating the creative centers of our brain. He said something about the overt ornamentation of the music and the lack of obvious rhythms or… something. I don’t know, I had fallen asleep by the time he finished his explanation. Which is what I do when I listen to classical music and try to write.

A number of authors use soundtracks – from both movie and video games. I get that. They are designed to be have memorable themes, be catchy, and inspire certain emotions. That seems like a good recipe for creativity as well. YouTube can be particularly helpful with finding long mixes of these soundtracks, since it can ruin the mood if the music runs out or switches to a different song or genre. I’ve done a bit of writing to a megamix of The Sims soundtracks I found there, but even some of the First Person Shooter or WarGames have counterintuitively melodic themes.

I would guess that fewer people listen to music with actual lyrics. The most common refrain I hear from writers is that if they are hearing words in their ears, they aren’t hearing in them in their minds, which does make it tough to write.

I never write in absolute silence. I suffer from tinnitus, which makes silence kind of painful. Regardless of that, I will always use music as a type of time or mood machine. My first book was a memoir, set primarily in the 1970s. I have always had what I refer to as a “phonographic” memory – when I hear a song, I am instantly transported to the time and place I first heard it. That’s very handy when writing a memoir of events three decades earlier.

I also have mood pieces I write to. If I am writing a scene filled with dread, but no overt action, I love to listen to the music from the Masked Ball scene from Eyes Wide Shut. If you can listen to that without getting the willies, you are a stronger person than I. When writing a scene where all hell is breaking loose, I love to listen to the chaos of Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky. Yes, I realize that both those pieces of music would drive the average person insane. It doesn’t impact me that way, as insanity is not a long drive, but instead, a short putt for me.

One more thing I do that might push any other writer over the brink: I will often listen to a single song on repeat for the entire time it takes me to write an entire novel. According to my iTunes counter, I listened to Gerry Rafferty’s Get it Right Next Time over 800 times while I wrote my third book. Why in the world would I do that, other than my undying love for Gerry Rafferty? Because it creates a Pavlovian response. When I slip the headphones on and hear the opening notes of a song for the three- or four-hundredth time, it’s like a shortcut into the world I am writing.

What about you? Do you need silence, or is there a particular piece or style of music you listen to as you write?

Author: Shawn Inmon

Shawn Inmon hails from Mossyrock, Washington — the setting for his first two full-length books, Feels Like the First Time and Both Sides Now. His newest release is Rock ‘n Roll Heaven. By day he works in real estate with a side of public speaking. Learn more about Shawn on Facebook or his Author Central page

35 thoughts on “Do You Hear What I Hear? – Music & Writing”

  1. Thank you Shawn. I had forgotten how music can help buffer other distractions. Now if I can eliminate other distractions such as working, household cares, etc., I’ll get back on track.

  2. Great post, Shawn. I love music, and I grew up in a family of musicians. Depending on the characters and the story I’m writing, different soundtracks have inspired me, from Rat Pack classics for one novel to Led Zeppelin and Bowie for my current project. I listen when I’m doing character work or plotting, but when I’m actually writing, I need complete silence.

    1. I think complete silence is the preferred mode for the majority of writers, making it easier for them to hear those voices in their head. 🙂

  3. I’m one of those “total silence” writers. Somehow the sounds of life don’t distract me much. But at night I need a white sound machine to sleep because every tiny sound will wake me. How weird is that?

      1. There are machines you can buy for under $100.00 that will emit a variety of sounds, including white noise, fans, and some have waves or other repetitive sounds that mask outside noise. Most have a volume control.

        1. Yes. Because of my tinitis, I have a hard time sleeping in silence. I bought a white noise machine on Amazon on Black Friday for $39. Now it goes everywhere with me. It’s also great in hotels for shutting out elevators, water running in the room next door, etc.

  4. Very interesting! For the majority of my writing time I sit in silence (except for my parrot offering sage advice from his stand in the window!). But sometimes for first drafts – which I like to write as fast and freely as possible – music is helpful, though for exactly the opposite reason to most writers. As a former musician I can’t listen to classical music without *listening* to it – I find I get drawn into too much analysis! For me it’s got to be much more earthy – everything from Pink Floyd to NWA (and yes, Right Next Time is on my playlist too!). Curiously, I find lyrics help – they short-circuit that part of my brain that intellectualises what I am writing and frees me up to write much more fluidly.
    Fascinating how we are all so different while doing essentially the same thing for the same ends!

  5. I, too, have acute tinnitus. In spite of that, I also have acute hearing, that is, I’ve got better than average hearing, so that I can hear sounds that most other people don’t hear at all, or unless they really try. And, to top it off, I have a peculiar form of claustrophobia; it isn’t so much spatial as it is “presence” that makes me feel like things are closing in, restricting me, and irritating me. The presence of people, and their noise, primarily. A triple whammy.

    Music, then, is extremely important to me. I don’t think I’d last long without it. So, yes, I “use” music for more than the deep enjoyment that I get from it. I prefer orchestral or chamber music (Though I really don’t care for the Baroque period at all *yawn*, preferring the Classical period onward) yet my tastes are quite varied and broad, ranging from jazz to rock to folk and “new age.” And my MP3 player is my very best friend. But if there is not music coming through my speakers or headphones, there is always music in my head, often leaking out as I hum (which mildly irritates/amuses my wife). Even when only in my head, music has always helped me mask those sounds that would otherwise intrude too much on my thoughts.

    When it comes to writing, especially the highly creative phases of writing, I tend to prefer silence, or as close to silence as I can get with all of the sounds in my head.

    Yet I do find myself playing the same work over and over. Like Revien’s version of The Rip, or the 1st Movement of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony in E minor. Yes, as you say, these are shortcuts into the world that I’m trying to write about, or at the very least shortcuts into a particular passage or “scene.” The musical pieces that I listen to are also spirit guides, at the very least framing the context of my work, my mood, and my mental effort, and smoothing the way somewhat.

  6. Great post, Shawn. I listen to music like you do, as background noise that shuts out everything else. I may have the radio on all day but only actually hear three or four songs, favorites that won’t be ignored. Otherwise, I love to listen to soundtracks, especially The Mission, Last of the Mohicans, The Ghost and the Darkness, Blood Diamond, almost anything by Ennio Morricone. I find silence annoying, because then I can hear all the little noises: dogs barking, truck engines, etc. And just thinking about this is emphasizing all those noises; thank you very much!

  7. Must have music! And almost all of the music I listen to while writing has lyrics. I do have to listen to songs I know well, though, so I don’t find myself concentrating on the lyrics instead of what I’m writing. With a well-known song, the lyrics slide right through my consciousness.

  8. Such a great post. I was just thinking about this the other day. I love listening to music when I write. The type of music varies depending on what I’m writing at the moment. If I hit a run while listening to a song I’ll put it on repeat.

  9. “When I slip the headphones on and hear the opening notes of a song for the three- or four-hundredth time, it’s like a shortcut into the world I am writing.”

    YES!!!!!!
    My epic soundtracks of choice are Two Steps From Hell,Audiomachine or, depending on the mood, Jo Blankenburg’s music.

  10. Interesting post. I’m not a total silence person. I can, in fact, write in any environment, except one that is playing music. The TV can be going, movies can be playing, the kids can be screaming, and I can tune it all out. I can totally get into the writing zone. However, put on music and I’ll be, like, “You need to turn that off.”

    I like music and my brain can’t concentrate on output when it’s playing. It’s like music puts me in input mode and I can’t separate my brain into a mode where I’m putting out words. With music on, I either want to sing along because I like it, or I don’t like the music and I just want it off.

    1. I tend to listen to stuff that I am so familiar with, it doesn’t impact me in any conscious way. I suppose if there was a new piece that I fell in love with, I wouldn’t be able to write to that.

  11. Music makes me listen to it.
    MY first novel was how it was invented for the first time in the universe so it would be impossible to have any playing. For the first half of the book there was no such thing in existence. And even once it was there, it was not human music.
    I could possibly write to this kind of music though. It’s kinda music that isn’t.
    And it does not feel like human music to me. I dare you to give it a listen:

  12. When I was young and a great multi-tasker, (Like most teens) I could do anything to music, and frequently did. However, now that I’m old and can concentrate (at least that’s my story) I find the music gets in the way of my creativity. It’s not that the words distract me.The emotion of the music interferes with the emotion I’m feeling at the given moment in the story. It’s impossible (Unless you’re listening to the same song for 800 times) to have the musical emotion match the emotion of the story.
    So I don’t listen to music when I write any more.
    I’m also an old curmudgeon, and I can’t find any new music that I like as much as my old stuff, so I save my playlist for special occasions 🙂

  13. An interesting piece! As a musician and a writer, I need to keep the two occupations separate. When writing, I’m distracted by music because I analyse or assess it. Music can, however, help me to generate ideas and liberate imagination–as long as I don’t try to write things down at the same time. The most powerful liberator for me is improvising my own music, either vocally or instrumentally: after a session of melodic improvisation I often find I write fiction much more easily.

  14. Thanks for an interesting post, Shawn. However, I was a professional musician for many years, and for me, music is never background. Thus, I find it impossible to write if music is playing. I don’t need total silence, but on the other hand I absolutely agree on one point you made. A ringing telephone takes me completely out of my writing world.

  15. I started out needing complete silence, moved to instrumental soundtracks, then for a book set in the 1960s listened to nothing but the music of the era. Now I can write to just about anything but the television. It’s interesting the way our minds adapt.

  16. I really enjoyed this post Shawn. I have to write in complete silence. I’ve tried writing to music but for some reason it’s very distracting to me. Interesting how we can all be so different.

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