Writing Advice: Listening to Music

I actively read through a variety of writing related forums- which sounds worse when I actually say it- and at least every other day I see something about writing while listening to music. It’s almost trivial that people are too afraid to give it a try, like somehow it’s condemning their writing career if they do it without asking first. So I’m going to compile a list of the pros and cons.

Pros

  • The noise is good for some people. For many people it’s easier to concentrate with noise in the background to tune out so they can focus on their work.
  • Music can set the mood for writing. For instance if you’re writing a story set in the south and you pop on some blues or country, many find it well change their mood and get them in the right state of mind. This can work with themes as well. If you’re writing about poverty, for instance, listening to rustic bluesmen sing about ain’t gotting no spare change then you’ll definitely translate that into you’re writing.
  • Many people can find inspiration in music. If it’s the themes of the music, the images it portrays, or the overall mood and attitude, there’s always something to take away from it. Whether it affects your writing on a sentence by sentence scale or by impacting the entire story it can be a positive.

Cons

  • Many people can’t work with background noise. It all depends on the type of person you are.
  • Sometimes it’s good not to have distractions. Even if you can work with background noise, that doesn’t mean you should. There are times when you need to buckle down, eliminate all distractions and just write. In this instance, you should not listen to music.
  • It’s easy to make it more about the music. In this sense it’s about procrastination. It may take hours for some people to find the perfect music, create the perfect playlist, or get in the perfect mood before they start writing. Oh you can go to skip the next song and find yourself cleaning up the music folders on your computer moments later.

So there’s that. It all really depends on knowing yourself and what works best with you. Don’t be afraid to try new things. If you try it and it doesn’t work, you lost maybe five minutes, for which you can blame me.

If listening to music does happen to work with you, I have some more advice. A way to reduce the amount of distraction is by listening to music without words, or at least just long instrumental sections. Finding movie soundtracks and game soundtracks you like is a good first step to this. For a good period the only thing I listened to while writing was Echoes and Atom Heart Mother Suite, both by Pink Floyd. Then The Endless River came out and I stopped listening to anything else. One band I’ve noticed is very popular with writers would be Explosions in the Sky. They’re a purely instrumental band with some of the most beautiful and elegant modern music I’ve ever heard.

This goes back to the second pro I listed, but try to fit the genre you’re writing. If you’re writing an epic fantasy novel, maybe give the Skyrim or the Lord of the Rings soundtrack a listen. Or if you’re writing a space sci-fi adventure, you can’t go wrong with the Halo or Star Wars soundtrack. It’s all about trying to get those influences to rub off onto you’re writing.

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23 thoughts on “Writing Advice: Listening to Music

  1. I do this all the time – for some reason, having music playing seems to quiet the part of my mind that keeps looking for distractions. Soundtracks are good, since they’re usually nicely thematic. I’ll second the “Skyrim” recommendation for fantasy, or the “Fury Road” soundtrack. For science fiction I’ll usually break out some of the “Mass Effect” game soundtracks, or something from one of the recent Marvel Studios films.

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  2. Interesting read… I tend to have music on as I somehow get distracted more by silence if that makes any sense. But like you say music without words or ones I don’t know are best, and the LOTR soundtrack is on my music list yes 😀

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  3. I’m all over the map with this one. It’s all about the mood I guess. Sometimes it’s silence, sometimes it’s 80s R&B, sometimes country, sometimes piano, etc.

    Recently I was working on a short story where the setting was a hot and humid front porch in Georgia during the 1940s. I turned to Pandora and played Big Band classics from the era. It helped with setting the mood in my mind. Whether or not it translated into the work, that remains to be seen.

    One last thing: there are apps in the Apple store that you can download that play backgound noise. It’s for those who don’t want to listen to music but don’t want silence either. I personally like the app that plays the “coffee shop” sounds.

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    • Thanks, I have Android but I’m sure there’s something like that in the store. But also you can’t really prove if the music translates to your work, but it’s something I feel just happens. I’m sure some might disagree though.

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  4. I have a tendency to listen to music constantly (arguably too much), and I have found that it helps me a great deal when writing. In particular, if I’m writing poetry, I have one song that I will just set on repeat and turn almost all the way, and it’s just nice to have something in the background (I find). However, I can see how it could be quite a hindrance to some.

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      • That’s funny; it’s the opposite for me. If I’m writing a novel, I can’t have too much noise in the background for a lot of it, whereas with poetry, music helps me isolate more abstract ideas. I can see how with some poetry other than free form (metered poetry, for example), music could make it difficult to focus.

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  5. I’ve written almost all my work with music playing in earphones. The emotional cadences in the music fuel my character’s voices and lend me a sense of drama, as well as helping to propel the stories forward. What I’ve used in the past is Michael Nyman (Gattica, As the Bee Dances), The Cure (Bloodflowers), and Electronic (Twisted Tenderness). Way back when, film director Barry Levinson, wrote the entire screenplay for the movie Diner over one weekend while listening to one cut from an album (cannot remember the title of it now as it was the 1980’s,,,my apologies). He played the tune over and over as he wrote!

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  6. You really made some good points here. I think it is about the individual. I don’t listen to music while writing poetry, but I do when I’m writing stories. I prefer no words. I usually go for something by Hans Zimmer. But you’re right, some people make excuses and waste time over finding the perfect song.

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  7. I’ve always found that music- particularly classical and movie soundtracks- helps me write and stay focused. It clears my mind and helps shut out distractions. I would definitely recommend it to anyone writing anything- even just essays or other non-creative fiction.

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  8. For those who (like me, most of the time) who’d rather not have music in the background, a cool trick is to tune a radio to a gap between stations — where you hear ‘white noise’. Whether you play it through headphones or straight from the radio, the effect can free your mind to focus on what you want it to.
    Then there’s always WCPE.org — the classical station out of Chapel Hill NC. It offers up a very nice mix of sounds, 24/7, commercial-free.
    Doug

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