Whether 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.