Music while you work

First of two blogs on ‘music while you’re writing’ this. I was inspired, if that’s not too high-falutin a word, to write about this one by a conversation I had on twitter with fellow writers about what music to listen to when they write.

What do you listen to? I asked ’em. One replied, tongue in cheek: “the music of my soul” another said her writing is powered by heavy guitary girl rock such as the Breeders – which fuel her feisty female characters. People suggested Nick Drake, The Stones, Mozart.

Others said – no, just quiet – it’s all or nothing, writing. Many writers I suspect, feel like this. They don’t listen to music as it can be a distraction – you get into a kind of zone when you write where time passes differently. It’s an important place that zone – you don’t always find it and if music helps you get there you will use it, if it doesn’t, you won’t.

With me it depends what side I got out of bed. Sometimes I appreciate silence – other times sounds. If I do listen to music it has to be something where there are no lyrics, or where the singing is buried in the background. Otherwise I find the words of the song tear my attention away from the words I’m tapping onto the electronic page or scribbling into my notebook. So music with interesting and involving lyrics is a particularly bad idea. No Nick Drake for me then – or Leonard Cohen, Dylan, Elvis Costello – no to any singer songwriters really.

Something purely instrumental like classical music or jazz is favourite – but there are bands too where the lyrics don’t really intrude. Songs sung in a language you don’t understand, for example – and for me that’s any language other than English. Sigur Rós then, erm (tries to think of other examples).

Plus, some bands have a language of their own – the Cocteau Twins for example, remember them? everybody loved ‘em, no-one knew what on earth they were on about. They provide great writing music. Early REM – same kind of a deal.

I’m sure there’s lots more examples.

Dance music also does the trick – but that raises another issue. Sometimes the mood of the music is important too. It’s emotion lotion music isn’t it? The sound of it changes the way you feel as surely as a cocktail of chemicals.

So if your aim is to be a modern-day Kafka there’s no point listening to something that’s going to have you dancing round the desk.

It’s hard work finding the right music to suit the mood – I’m surprised I find time to do any actual writing.

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19 thoughts on “Music while you work

  1. If I listen to anything while writing, it has to be instrumental. My only exception is an opera. One of the most inspiring and calming albums I have had a tendency to throw on multiple times while writing is Keith Jarrett’s “The Koln Concert”. Listening to anything with lyrics utterly distracts me.

  2. I know exactly what you mean about the “zone,” though for me getting there usually requires music. I listen to all kinds when I write. I don’t know how many times a song will come on the radio, or in a movie or TV show, and my Muse starts to speak. I’ll go hunt down the song, then play it on loop for hours, where it just blends into the background. Lyrics don’t bother me. As long as I’m in that “zone,” I’m golden. I listen to anything from techno, to hip hop, to alternative, to pop, to country. Yesterday the song at the end of Snow White and the Huntsman spoke to me. That’ll probably be the next song I choose when I sit down to write. Thanks for the interesting post!

    • Yes – there’s more to be said about that zone I think, maybe in a future post – and I definitely agree with what you say about the relationship between what you are writing and certain specific pieces of music – in fact that’s what my next blog is going to be about. Thanks for your comments!

  3. Usually I prefer complete quiet when I’m working, but sometimes, usually when working on ideas, making notes, I like to listen to ambient music. I find anything with a melody and a rhythm is too distracting.

    • When I’m sitting down properly writing I have rules about what I can listen to – no lyrics etc – but when I’m writing notes there can be TV on in the background, kids yelling, you name it – and whatever music happens to be on!

      • You’re made of stronger stuff than me, I wouldn’t cope with that, I have the attention span of a two year old tanked up on cake and tartrazine pop. I do get good ideas on trains, for some reason, but am much too poor to utilise train travel as a writerly device.

        Thanks for following my blog. I can’t promise you an exciting experience there, but unlike my book, it does have pictures.

  4. Music does ‘reach your soul’. At least it reaches the level of awareness that we, in the course of our daily lives, unwittingly supress.
    Writing should make you feel – fear, joy, sorrow. Anything as long as it generates a response.
    Listening to music, I believe, helps connect us to those deeper feelings that linger in the background. To create powerful work we need to revisit those depths.
    Couldn’t listen while I’m working though. I need quiet for that.

  5. Chris, I like your blog and I followed! As far as listening to anything when I write, I need quiet. My grandchildren used to live with me and it was hell trying to write with them upstairs. I finally have my own office now and can close the door and write to my hearts content and I love it that way.

    • Yes – there’s a difference between music and the sound of kids having a wrestling match in the background as I know to my cost – the atmosphere in my house isn’t always conducive to quiet contemplation – but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  6. I find it isn’t only when you’re actually writing – as in putting pen to paper (or keyboard to computer), that you need quiet. I spend hours thinking about what I need to write. I like to get to know my characters before I actually write about them because that way I feel they’ll be believable.
    Family and friends are supportive and understand that I need to have peace when I’m writing, but they have difficulty in understanding why I often float in a little world of my own and (for that short time at least) don’t really want to be part of theirs.
    That’s when I’m either involved in plotting or having imaginary conversations with people who are perhaps just beginning to develop in my mind. Sometimes I need to spend time in La La Land. It’s where stories begin to come to life. (Yes I’m weird. And proud of it!)

    • I don’t see anything remotely weird about taking your craft seriously Peggi! I have a growing family so I have to snatch those thinking times when I can – on the bus to and from work for example. I always have a notebook with me.

  7. I prefer to write at coffee shops… I prefer the energy around me. It is inspiriting! If I am working through some block then I prefer to be at home in the quiet so that I can get up every 5 minutes and walk around to move my own energy.

  8. I find music distracting when I write, if I put any on it has to be something I don’t know very well otherwise I’ll be too busy rocking out to do anything!! I generally write on the train though on the commute into work, so it’s usually not a problem!

    • That’s interesting isn’t it – loud rock music! Still, as I say, for me it’s the lyrics which are distracting not the music itself. Thanks for your kind comments Joesephine.

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