Music for Writing

“I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.”

— Tom Waits

Today, I’m taking a step away from rewrites and edits on my novel for a moment to think about the process. Thankfully, it’s a fun part of the process (to me): the soundtrack for writing.

If you’ve read much on this site, you already know how important music is in… everything. I’ve written entirely too much about headphones. I’m planning a novel completely set in the 90s music scene that I experienced. Obviously, I can’t imagine living without a soundtrack, and I definitely can’t imagine writing without one. The reason I’m making this a whole thing is because I want to consider the importance of intentionality.

When I wrote my first book, we weren’t blessed with a plethora of streaming services, but I had Pandora tuned to perfection. Instead of compiling an epic playlist or rolling the dice on pre-made stations, I had built a station based off Philip Glass, Brian Eno, and similar music that could perfectly fade into the background for marathon writing sessions. After the first few chapters, I even tried to mix it up, but I realized that the music directly affected the rhythm of my words and even my vocabulary. For the sake of a consistent voice, I was stuck with minimalist music for three hundred pages, or about a year with edits and rewrites.

Fast-forward a decade, and I had forgotten the importance of curating the soundtrack until I was brainstorming with my friend, Chris, early in the process of starting my first novel. He reminded me I needed to create a playlist as part of the world building we were working on. Obviously, I wouldn’t make it through the multi-year process of a novel without one. I immediately started working on that playlist when I got home. It evolved for a while, and it became a mixture of my imaginary score for a movie made of my novel and diegetic music (songs that my characters would listen to as part of the fictional world). If you care, you can see the results here: Apple Music playlist.

It was a good playlist, but nothing was as enjoyable as building a playlist for my “Punk Rock Preacher” novel that’s coming next. I created the playlist the day after I had started a [very loose] outline. I thoughtfully picked about eight hours of music that would have been listened to and played in the world that I was coopting for my novel. That one is also available (probably years before the novel) as an Apple Music playlist.

So, as we’ve previously discussed, I’m always learning and no expert, but I do have some advice after one-and-a-half books:

  1. Be intentional. You’re not just picking music for the sheer joy of music (though, that’s a good part of life). The songs you pick will affect the mood and atmosphere of your writing in real ways, so you might as well take the opportunity to use it effectively. Stephen King said he used to write everything while blasting (original) Metallica, and I think it shows in the pacing and drive of his books. If you don’t want your books to be that driving, and you like adverbs, you might not want Metallica. Video game soundtracks, by the way, can be great for writing, if you don’t already have something in mind.
  2. Make it enjoyable. I know I literally just said this wasn’t just for your enjoyment, but writing can suck; a good soundtrack can make it better. In the case of my next novel, just hearing the playlist makes me want to write. Furthermore, if you’re like me, you might realize that you’re stuck with whatever you pick to keep the tone of your writing for 70,000+ words. I like Philip Glass, but I still questioned the sanity of hearing that for over a year.
  3. Let it evolve. Again, I just said I was stuck with Philip Glass for a year, but even then I threw in some new minimalist albums and inspirations over the months. I couldn’t add in Beastie Boys or anything, but I could at least keep it growing over time (thanks to Pandora, at the time). My current novel playlist has evolved a little over the past year as I hear songs in the rest of my life that I think might inspire me.
  4. Know your limitations as far as lyrics or distraction. I used to only listen to instrumental because the lyrics would get in my head and mess with my words as I typed. Now, I’m more comfortable with lyrics, but it still has to be songs I know enough that they can be in the background without literally adding phrases into my manuscript. Then again, Stephen King listened to Metallica without an issue, so this is about knowing your own brain.
  5. Make the listening as enjoyable as possible. This isn’t about the actual music you pick, but the hardware (and possibly streaming quality). If you’ve just quit your job, and you’re going the starving artist route to write a novel, you obviously should not drop thousands on hi-fi equipment. However, spending money you can afford on a decent pair of headphones (or actual speakers if you have your own office) and possibly a DAC/amp can take your music to new levels you never imagined compared to the earbuds that came free with your phone. I will reference my own article one more time, if you want some ideas.

Well, those were all of my thoughts. You are welcome to ignore them or use them as an excuse to buy some headphones and use an afternoon crafting a perfect playlist for your next novel. I’m just happy to spend almost an hour without rewriting the same chapters again (and I got to listen to a great, non-novel playlist while writing this).