Writing and Music

Today's post comes courtesy of a suggestion by Carrie, who has the good taste to like Dead Can Dance.

I do most of my writing while listening to music, usually with headphones on so as not to irritate the rest of the universe (and to block it out).

The good thing about music is it stops me from procrastinating elsewhere. At least, that's the theory; sometimes we have system failure, but mostly it works.

If the room's silent and I'm tapping away, I might start wondering what people are saying on twitter and flip over there for a few minutes, or an hour, or two. Music locks up the Procrastination Region of my brain, which appears to constitute approx. 80% of my neurons, and keeps me typing in the right window.

My music selection is quite eclectic and changes daily. The one thing I can guarantee is I never listen to classical music while writing, which isn't to say I don't like classical. We have season tickets for the Brandenburg Orchestra. But classical doesn't have the same locking effect on the Procrastination Region.

There are core bands who always get slots. Beatles, Pink Floyd, Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Fleetwood Mac, Enya, Loreena McKennitt.

I'm listening to fairly standard popular rock, with a heavy weighting towards Celtic/Folk and Etherial Darkwave.

Then there are a large number of bands who rotate through. Right now I have Ace of Bass, Toto, Alan Parsons Project, Alannah Myles, T'Pau, Extreme, Peter Gabriel, B52's, Pretenders, Heart, Blondie, Lily Allen, Boney M, The Veronicas, Sugababes, Miranda Sex Garden (mediaeval & darkwave), Garbage (band name, not my evaluation), Rogue Traders, Merril Bainbridge, Kevin Rudolf, Jackson Browne, Gwen Stefani, T-Rex, ELO, Cranberries, Ultravox, Visage, The Seekers, Flash and the Pan, Big Audio Dynamite, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Heather Nova, Tory Amos.

Sometimes the song will match beautifully. Once, while editing over and over a paragraph I just couldn't get right, and getting very frustrated with it, Fairground Attraction came on, singing, "It's got to beeee...P_E_R_F_E_C_T!" Thanks for the help, guys.

So the good news is music keeps me on the job. The bad news is, it affects the rhythm of what I'm writing. I know you know all good writing has a rhythm, and unlike music the rhythm of writing isn't constant. If I'm not careful, I end up writing a story that bounces in 4/4.

I fix that by playing different music for different scene types. It works!

Action scenes get heavy rock music. Especially fights.

Description is written to Celtic, Folk, and Darkwave. Description must not be written to rock or pop.

Dialogue gets either Celtic, Folk, Etherial Darkwave, or...silence. Every character speaks with his or her own rhythm and own speech patterns. It's really important I concentrate on a character's speech until I have them dialled in. The quieter it is, the more quickly I can hear them.

When Nico's thinking to himself, acting on his own, or arguing with Diotima, he gets Pop/Rock. The fact that Nico thinks to pop music is probably sad, but that's how it is. He's frequently surrounded by people with brains the size of a planet, such as his brother Socrates, his girlfriend Diotima and his boss Pericles, so a little light relief for his own brain cells doesn't hurt.

I can sing along and write at the same time. This is because my mouth is rarely connected to my brain.

Weirdly, I've discovered many normal readers can't hear the rhythm in a novel, but they respond to it.

FYI, this post was written to Rivers of Babylon (Boney M), Golden Brown (The Stranglers), Ebony Eyes (Bob Welch), Me Myself I (Joan Armatrading), Don't Call Me Baby (Madison Avenue), Rapture (Blondie), Funky Town (Boney M), Sunday Girl (Blondie), Midsummer Night Blues (Waldeck - great Austrian twenties band), Not Fair (Lily Allen - this song's hilarious), Lady Madonna (Beatles), She Came From Planet Claire (B52's), Another Day (McCartney), Poles Apart (Pink Floyd).


Shadows said...

"Description is written to Celtic, Folk, and Darkwave. Description must not be written to rock or pop."

Well said.

Dead Can Dance gives me that flow that I really need to find to stop, relax, and hover on descriptive passages.

Gary, this was a splendid post. Very helpful. I will try this 'pop' you speak of.


RWMG said...

I don't listen to music while I write, but if I do, it must either be instrumental or in a language I don't understand, otherwise the word part of my brain is listening to the lyrics, not what I'm writing.

CKHB said...

Freaky. My name is Carrie, and until today I didn't know anyone else who owned a Dead Can Dance album. Now I know more!

I actually like silence, because music usually distracts me. Yet, if it's very late at night, I'll often turn on a movie (one I've seen so often that I practically have it memorized). It feels less lonely to have voices in the background, and I know when 2 hours have passed...

Meghan said...

I prefer silence myself while writing but I have been inspired to write certain scenes for my novel after listening to a great song. It's amazing how music can be so wonderfully influential.

scaryazeri said...

A suggestion...Try Muse. They are amazing, and somehow go well with writing. personal preference, of course. :) They are an english band, so you might have not heard of them. but they are very transferable across the countries.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

I'm working on a Satyr/pixie story for an anthology of pixie stories. Fantasy fiction probably requires as much research as any other type of fiction. Listening to ethnic music and lots of pan flute music has been a part of it.

In another mood I may listen to marches. Pixies are so unpredicatble.

Ricky Bush said...

Make mine blues. Nothing like Bobby Blue Bland singing "Further On Up The Road" to get the manuscript flowing that direction. Anyway

Mimzy said...

I'm a hard rock sort of girl. Nightwise, Eurobeat techno, or Dragonforce for anything action-y. Lordi for anything action-y and creepy (they're a creepy band). Nanne Gronvall and J-Pop for anything happy and whatever is on the radio for just about anything else. Except for sad scenes. Sad scenes need classical or new age.

Gary Corby said...

Carrie who likes DCD, meet Carrie who likes DCD. I think you two may have a few things in common.

You must have had a slight shock, CKHB, when you read the opening of this post.

I know what many of you mean about silence maybe being best. For me it's a productivity tradeoff. If you can manage with silence all the time then you probably have better powers of concentration than me!

Thanks for the recommendation Scary. I notice Muse's music was used on Twilight. This is not a good sign. But the band name is definitely right for me and I'm getting a couple of Muse songs from iTunes.

Ahh, the blues. I play guitar (very badly). I should have said I've got a fair amount of Eric Clapton in there too.

Mimzy, it might be great for you, but hard rock would *definitely* have me writing in their rhythm.

Marching music...ummm, thanks anyway, I'll pass.

Tabitha Bird said...

Hey Gary, I am new to your blog. thought I'd stop. great post. Although I cannot understand how people write to music. I will sit there singing away and listening to the lyrics and then no words are getting written at ALL. But I WISH I could write to music. It just seems so 'writerish'.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...


You've just listened to the wrong marches!

Imagine a procession of victorious Pixies fresh from killing off wicked fairies:


Imagine the grand choral procession for the Great Singing:


(The music starts about a third of the way in.)

Gary Corby said...

Welcome Tabitha! Lovely to have you here.

I wouldn't worry about writing to music or not; as long as the words come out right, it's all good.

Bill Kirton said...

I don't just not listen to music (sic), I can't even understand how anyone can listen and write at the same time. My brain couldn't handle it. Also, just to be deliberately contentious, I wonder what the musicians would think of their work being used as aural wallpaper. Imagine someone reading one of your books at a concert where the music takes priority. It wouldn't work, would it? Hmmm, does that mean literature is a superior art form? Discuss.

Jinx said...

I can sing along and write at the same time. This is because my mouth is rarely connected to my brain.

Hahaha! I rarely listen to music when I write, but there are times when it helps immensely, especially for a specific scene I'm trying to get down.

And I have listened to NIN, TOOL, and Korn for fight scenes. They work quite well. =)

Excellent post, Gary.

Gary Corby said...

OK Bill, I'll bite.

We have paintings in our lounge room, but I'm pretty sure the artists don't expect us to do nothing in the room but admire their work. Similarly, I can promise you most of the world's computer programmers are coding with iPod ear pieces surgically implanted.

Reading is labour intensive. Once your eyes are locked on the page there's not a lot else you can do. But there are quite a few people who will read with classical music playing in the background. Conversely, there are people who'll listen to an audio book read to them while they drive. I even recall seeing a couple of editors say they do it!

Am I upset? No, not as long as they enjoyed my book and want to read the next one.

This comment is brought to you, btw, by You Make Loving Fun (Fleetwood Mac), but don't take it personally Bill.