Music and Writing

printed musical note page
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I was inspired to write this after reading Audrey Driscoll’s post on the same subject. Audrey lists the music that influenced her writing, some of which she worked into her books, and some of which, as she puts it, “lurk[s] unseen, despite its huge influence”. It’s a good post, and I encourage you to read it.

I don’t usually listen to music with lyrics while I am in the act of writing. That would just distract me. Sometimes I’ll put on a little atmospheric instrumental music that suits the mood, but that’s about it.

But as any author knows, writing a book is more than just the time spent hitting the keyboard. You spend most of the time “writing” a book thinking about it, mulling over plot intricacies and character motivations in your head. And then is when what you’re listening to really plays a role.

I didn’t listen to much music for The Start of the Majestic World, but I did listen to quite a bit of the radio show Coast to Coast AM while I was planning it. That definitely influenced the story. A few times while writing, I did cue up the soundtrack to Deus Ex, because that game was just the right vibe of weirdness I was trying to get in Majestic World.

The Directorate also has relatively few musical influences. I listened to “The Captain” by Leonard Cohen almost daily while I was writing it, as well as assorted military songs and marches, including “Heart of Oak” and “The British Grenadiers”, which probably influenced the militaristic tone of the novel.

For my current work-in-progress, I’ve been listening to Western music and soundtracks from Western films. Also, the folk song “The Bonnie Earl of Morey”, which I currently have referenced in the book itself, though I may yet cut that.

For the most part, in all my work, music is a minor influence. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I’m not very knowledgeable about music, and so don’t think about it that much. I couldn’t write about it the way Audrey does, for example.

But there is one other story I wrote that was much, much more influenced by music than any of the rest. It’s the super-dark tale I alluded to in this post. 

First of all, during the process of writing that one, I was listening over and over again to Kay Starr’s performance of “The Headless Horseman” song. It’s a children’s song, so it’s more cutesy than scary, but for some reason it was running through my head constantly when I wrote this book. I don’t know how to explain, but the light-hearted handling of a rather frightening subject somehow fit very well with my mood.

Then, while I was writing the story, a friend played Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” for me. I thought the unnerving blend of romance and death was exactly the sort of eerie dissonance I was going for in my book, so I included a reference to the song.

Coincidentally, on the same album that includes “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, there is also a song called “E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)” that references The King in Yellow, which was a major influence on my book as well.

But the weirdest part of what was already a surreal writing experience didn’t become apparent until nearly a year after I had already finished writing the story, when I heard the song “The End” by The Doors.

I had heard the beginning before, in the film Apocalypse Now. But when I heard the full, uncensored version, I was immediately stunned by how well the disturbing imagery Morrison used in his lyrics matched the tone of my book. Images and motifs in each fit together eerily well, as did the song’s general feeling of a slow descent into madness. I felt like Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell could have had a field day with it.

What about you? When you write something do you listen to music, or otherwise let it influence your writing process? Any examples of a song that really fit your work?

17 Comments

  1. I don’t listen to music while I write, and now that you mention it, music doesn’t factor into my books much either, which is strange considering how much a part of my life it is otherwise. I couldn’t imagine a world without music, so why I haven’t included it in my fiction, I don’t know. Think I’ll have to rectify that.

  2. Thanks for mentioning my post, Berthold. It’s funny — writing my latest work, I wasn’t immersed in any music, even though a specific piece is mentioned in the story. In fact, I listened to a lot of current affairs programs and documentaries on the radio while writing. Maybe that’s why it took so long.

    1. I’d probably never finish anything if I were listening to current affairs programs much–I’d get too frustrated thinking about that! 🙂

      1. It was an interesting experiment in so-called multi-tasking. My conclusion — it doesn’t work. I’d concentrate either on the writing OR what I was hearing, not both at the same time. It is indeed a wonder I completed a 100K word manuscript. And back to music — the brain can take in music at the same time as its owner is doing something like writing. I suppose because music is processed in a different part of the brain than language.

  3. Music doesn’t play a factor in my writing, although occasionally a song or artist may be referenced. The best example is that the Doors The End plays a small role in Deviation. That said, my preference is that there is always music playing in the background. Whether I’m at work, or in the car, or jogging, or writing, or cooking, or just doing whatever. I don’t pay 100% attention to my background music, but it is there to provide me with the occasional distraction from what it is I’m focusing on.

    I compare this to how I survived in law school — I tried to study in the quiet of the library once or twice and found myself incapable of focusing on the material. Put me in the student center where people are eating and talking and gathering and there’s all sorts of noise and I could study because I had distractions that kept me there. And I compare this to how I survived in meetings for years — by doodling on my note pad. Doodling gave me a distraction that allowed me to focus on the discussion in meetings.

    It’s the same with background music — it provides me with a distraction that allows me to focus. Which makes no sense, but makes total sense to me. And besides, I just love music. It’s preferable to the TV as background noise.

    1. My story Apple of Success, I have a character who just broke up with the love of his life. While he’s driving home I have him listening to some songs whose lyrics mimic what he’s feeling. Some of my favorite songs by Lobo and Jim Croce kind of fit the story. Its tricky getting the credit right to use the lyrics.

      1. This is where being a fan of really old music with expired copyrights comes in handy. 🙂

    2. Sociological studied have found that students studying in a quiet environment retain more short term information. Those who study in a noisy environment retain more long term information. FYI

      1. Interesting. I have always been more about the long-term than the short-term. 😉 Also, I was never really into last minute (short-term) cramming. I always felt that if I didn’t know it by then I wasn’t going to figure it out in that last couple of hours.

  4. Interesting timing on this article, Berthold! My writer’s group had a speaker (Baron Bircher) this past Saturday who mentioned that when he writes novels, he uses playlists as a tool for sustaining the ‘feel’ of the story over the lengthy time it takes to finish it. If he finds that he’s had to step away for awhile, he’s able to get back in the groove, so to speak, and pick up where he left off without jarring the output too much.

    Personally, I’ve found that with my short stories, the use of music varies as much as my subject matter. Some stories are practically based on the mood a particular song evokes…Others, no music whatsoever. I don’t plan it that way…I guess you can say I pants my use of music. 🙂

    Great post!

    1. Thanks! Glad you liked it. Yes; I’m much the same way when it comes to music.

      The playlist idea is interesting. A while back, I found a blog series devoted to authors making playlists for their books. (I meant to include this in the post, actually…) The only one in this series who book I’ve actually read is Anthony Tambakis. It doesn’t hurt that his musical tastes align with my own: http://www.largeheartedboy.com/blog/archive/2017/07/book_notes_anth_6.html

  5. I usually write in silence but I should have something in the background. No lyrics. Like you, it would be distracting. But I think it would help.

    Excellent topic. Thanks for writing this.

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