Sound or Silence: Music and Writing

Kurt Vonnegut listened to jazz when writing, Stephanie Meyer to Muse, and Stephen King writes to Metallica and Anthrax.  The Beatles are quoted as listened to by every novel writer from J K Rowling, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Salman Rushdie.
Conversely, Philip Pullman says that music ‘disrupts the rhythm’ of his writing, and Nathan Englander wears earplugs when writing to drown out any noise at all.  To listen or not to listen, that is the question.
Sometimes getting into the writing zone happens all by itself, the muse joins you, the magic sparkles, and the words spill effortlessly from your brain and on to the page.  But sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes your monkey-brain scuttles anywhere but on the story you’re trying to write. You stare out of the window, or at random things on the internet, and fantasize about what’s for dinner.  Is it wine o’clock yet…?

Monkeys in my Head, by Mark Bryan

This is when music can come to the rescue.  There is loads of scientific research on the benefits of writing while listening to music. It connects different parts of the brain, and triggers the release of dopamine, the chemical which controls the mind’s reward and pleasure centres.  It also wakes up the hypothalamus and hippocampus (stress and emotion areas). Now, I’m no brain surgeon, but this all sounds like a good thing.

However, when it comes to writing, not all music is created equal, and should be selected with some consideration.   With that in mind, I create my own playlists, which have a couple of different roles.  First of all, music can be a form of research, a way to submerge my imagination into the setting, the history or the drama of the piece, like a film soundtrack. Not to mention any memories it may bring to the surface.  I play music whenever I need to reconnect with my work, as it helps recreate the mood consistently, helping me to pick up where I left off.  Also, as my workspace is in my attic, music can help drown out the distractions from the rest of the house.
I tend to start my writing day with loud music, relevant to what I am writing.  A mellow and ambient playlist helps me be productive once I’m writing, but when I’m truly in the thick of it, I turn it off completely, especially when I’m re-reading or editing something.  For me, that takes 100% of my brain power.

Music can help you get over your procrastinations and your writer’s block by untapping your subconscious.  I know there are scientific explanations, but to me it seems magical.  How you use it is as personal to you, as is your story.  Mozart might get on your last nerve, but it might help your fingers tap across the keyboard.  Experiment. Punk may help write an angry or energetic scene, or a violin concerto might be just the thing you need to get romantic.

Metal plectrum, by AbercrombieCumbes
  • I start with my music turned up quite loud, and then reduce the volume as I get into the writing.  Top tip: Don’t play the music directly from the inbuilt speaker on your laptop.  My speaker is placed behind about a metre behind me.  You need your music to be in the background, not in your face.
  • Create your own bespoke playlist, which keeps you in the mood of your novel. Try plugging keywords such as your character’s name, book title, theme or genre into the search box on iTunes, Spotify or YouTube, for example.
  • Don’t listen to music you don’t like or find inspirational, and if a certain tune starts to bug you, delete it. Change and update your playlist as your story progresses.
  • If you really don’t know where to start, try a ready-made playlist, of which there are thousands out there, then add your own as you find them. As I write this I am listening to a Spotify playlist I found in the ‘Focus’ genre, called ‘Mellow Beats’.
  • It’s not going to hurt to try a bit of music, if you’re stuck in a block or a rut. Worst case scenario is that you realise you are one of those writers who prefer silence, but you’ve managed to expand your listening repertoire in the process!

Here are a few links, courtesy of the internet:

Remember, you are in control of what you listen to, when and how loud.  Personally, I’m off to download everything The Beatles ever recorded…

I hope this has been of help or of interest. I’d love to hear any comments or suggestions of what to listen to as you write, my ears are always open…


Picture credits:

(Monkeys in My Head by Mark Bryan)










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