Listening to Music While You Write – Yes or No? (Plus Listening Resources)

earbuds musicWhether music helps or hinders writing and which music makes the best creative soundtrack are two perennial debates among the members of my writing circles. Some of my fellow writers are diehard devotees of tuning into a writing playlist, extolling the virtues of music to inspire and guide their writing. Others, at the opposite end of the spectrum, eschew music during their writing time, considering it a distraction that actually blocks or at least slows their creative flow.

Personally, I am conflicted on the topic. I love music. I love to sing and have even done so publicly on a few occasions. I have soundtracks for different times in my life – Pat Benetar and The Police for a particularly turbulent time in my teens; Kate Bush, Squeeze, and ELO for the slightly less angst-ridden years; and then – skipping ahead – K.T. Tunstall’s Eye of the Telescope for the long, slow demise of my marriage. This past weekend, my beau and I celebrated seven years together to a newly discovered Lyle Lovett channel on Pandora. Five hours and two bottles of wine later we were still exclaiming over the songs – old favorites and newfound delights – that Pandora’s magical algorithm pumped into my living room. Memories in the making.

But, when it comes to writing, I have never mastered the ability to listen to music passively. Maybe it’s my tendency to sing along. Though I have become quite adept at working through all kinds of other background noise – coffee shop banter, road traffic, the antics of my ten year-old – music tends to demand my undivided attention, therefore leaving me unable to string words together in a coherent fashion. Even classical music is too emotionally distracting for me. I have tried writing to Vivaldi, Mozart, and Bach, but their music tends to sweep my mind off the writing task at hand.

My inability to blend two of my favorite pastimes – crafting stories and listening to music – leaves me fascinated with people who are able to combine these two activities with great success. Some writers create whole playlists for a writing project, assigning songs to certain settings and characters. Some people can only write to instrumental music while others seem unfazed by having lyrics in their ear while they put words on the page. In Music to Write By: 10 Top Authors Share Their Secrets for Summoning the Muse Steve Silberman includes a link to a really interesting music video featuring a live performance by Steve Reich titled Music for 18 Musicians:

A music site called 8Tracks includes an entire section dedicated to “Writing Music.” I have to admit that I enjoyed the sample I listened to on the For Writing Dark Fantasy playlist which included, amongst other things, “Steampunk Orchestra.” Who knew?

Then there’s a site that will turn your mood into music. Stereomood translates your statement of mood into a playlist designed to evoke related emotions. You can type in almost anything: “I feel tired,” “I feel mysterious,” “I feel sunny day,” even “I feel piano.” I got a kick our of the “I feel magical” playlist.

A lot of my personal writer friends rely on Spotify to create their writing playlists. This popular music curation site is also cited in a series of annual “Best Writing Music” posts on GalleyCat (via MediaBistro). The Best Writing Music of 2013 is quite an extensive list.

Exploring these kinds of music curation sites, I can definitely see myself tapping into their lists to get myself in the right mood for a certain story or scene. Music is a powerful environmental element. Movies use music to wrap us up in the story, drawing us in and along by tugging on emotional chords. Perhaps we create a similar audio world for ourselves and our stories. Even if the actual notes don’t wind up on the page, perhaps there is an echo of the music in our words.

Though I still cannot listen to music “straight up” while I write, I will definitely experiment with pre-writing music to help me set the mood. I also sometimes use Coffitivity to get some music in my ear without distracting myself too much. I discovered this ambient noise app a little over a year ago and continue to use if fairly regularly. One of my favorite ways to use it is to “muffle” music that I’m streaming via Pandora. By adjusting the volume controls on each of the audio streams, you can create a blend of music and background noise that suits you perfectly. The combination that works best for me is mostly Coffitivity with just a touch of music.

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Photo Credit: photosteve101 via Compfight cc

23 thoughts on “Listening to Music While You Write – Yes or No? (Plus Listening Resources)

  1. First, I have to say that I love your music choices. Second, and this is me hedging, but it depends. On the music and the writing. The more complex the assignment, the less likely I will be able to listen to music. And while I love really energetic music most of the time, not when I am trying to do something involving too much of my brain.


  2. I’d say about 90% of my “entrepreneur” time at the home office, which includes a good amount of writing via blogging is done so with some form of music in the background. In fact, while writing the first draft of my book I had music playing and produced some of my best parts. I find that anything that requires me to be in a state of productivity will include music. Even when I completed school and then university I had music playing during some of my studying, albeit classical music for good brain wave states but none-the-less music. I have bookmarked the 8tracks site too. Thank you for that share.

    Dad. Husband. Entrepreneur.

  3. I have trouble writing with music too. BUT, I’ve discovered that I enjoy having movie soundtracks on while I write. I’m working on a fantasy, so I tend to listen to Harry Potter, Narnia, and Pan’s Labryinth. Sometimes the music is a little too intense so I’ll switch over to Yo-Yo Ma or guitar instrumentals. It started out as a way to block out noise at coffee shops, or my kids at home. But yeah, I can’t listen to anything with lyrics otherwise I completely lose focus.

  4. I like this post topic! Personally, I find that listening to music really gets the creative juices going. I find that if I listen to music with no actual words (such as epic instrumentals, or sweeping choral performances not in any language I can understand) that I don’t get bogged down trying to process what I’m hearing. Once again, glad to see this post topic! Thanks for writing it!

  5. I love this post. I’m glad I’m not the only one who can’t concentrate on writing when I’m singing. I can, however, listen to classical music like nerdzybones because it prevents me from following along. But there’s nothing like BIlly Joel to spark some creativity….I wish I were one of those people who could sing, dance, and write!

  6. Because my novel is quite complex and emotional in places, music for me is essential to get my emotive juices flowing. It is amazing to me – how a certain piece of music that suits the mood of my story, can completely change the whole atmosphere of my writing. It just seems to unlock my whole creative side.

  7. I am very much like you in this – I can’t listen to music passively so listening while I write distracts me. But I do take “mood-setting” breaks before I begin writing when I need to step away and energize, and listen to songs that fit the tone of what I’m writing before I get back to it.

  8. Like you, I find music distracting while I write. But I also find silence distracting. My creative juices seem to flow best when I’m immersed in quiet, indistinct bustle. I’ve used to Coffitivity + music method to this end with good results, but only if the music I’m listening to is completely instrumental (since I tend to want to hear and understand lyrics) or in a language I don’t understand.

  9. Absolute quiet for me when I write (the only sound to be heard are the tapping of fingers on the keyboard). However I do love music and listen to it when I want to ‘wind down’ or ‘wind up’. Great post Jamie, was not aware of most of the music sites you mention 🙂

  10. I have classical music that I like to write to. But, I’ve been loving ” Lorde’s” album as well. I guess it depends on what kind of mood I’m in because, I can write in silence as well. But, I really prefer some classical or instrumentals.

  11. I’ve always listened to music as I write, but in the last couple of books I’ve had to change to instrumental soundtracks. For some reason the lyrics I loved so much, kept dragging me away from Muse. I know some writers who use the endless hours of white static on You Tube. Tried it, and it didn’t quite work for me.

  12. I really enjoyed reading this blog. I usually listen to music when writing, but nothing with lyrics because then I begin to sing along. I generally listen to classical or meditation music.

  13. I always listen to Pandora or one of my movie soundtracks. I think it has something to do with my idea that complete silence feels more like punishment, and all I can do is listen to the clock tick or the keys tapping. That effectively shuts up my muse. But, if I put on music, my imagination comes alive because now it’s something I want to be doing and it becomes a party!

  14. When I was doing NaNoWriMo last year, some of the word wars I participated in were music related (ex: listen to this youtube compilation, and write as many words as you can during…) Anyways, I found the tone of my writing greatly changed depending on the tone of the music. One in particular was an Epic Adventure playlist, which sent my plot in another direction. Certainly was an interesting experience 🙂

  15. Great topic, great discussion. I subscribe to “it depends”! Depends on my mood, and what I’m writing. Might have said before that I can’t do it if it’s music I really feel drawn to at the time, want to sing along with, or listen to intently.

    But recently had some favorite piano jazz on from Pandora and it was providing calm in the background, not always the case. It probably needs to be what would usually be considered “background” music, something that blends in nicely, as if it were a running brook, or birds singing outside. Normal.

    Some big symphony or a jazz/pop singer would probably distract me, I’d want to get into that.

    So, my answer is Yes, and No!!

  16. Thanks to everyone for sharing your listening habits and tips. I love that there’s such a mix of approaches to blending music and writing.

  17. Pingback: Shareworthy Reading and Writing Links Feb 28 | Live to Write – Write to Live

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