Music for Writers

Music is powerful. And it touches something deep in our core.

At the same time, music is an extremely individual taste. Of course, our preferences may change through the course of our life, and we might be influenced to try a new style of music and actually decide to like it. However, for the most part, telling people to “like-this-not-that” will be about as effective as asking them to change their preference in what constitutes a “beautiful” woman or a “perfect” man in their search for a potential significant other. We know what we like, and it doesn’t really matter what others think.

I was raised on classical music and was trained as a classical pianist for ten years. My parents rolled their eyes and plugged their ears at the Beatles (and for a while, I believed them). Then I drifted into the Tijuana Brass as I played trumpet in junior high, and eventually wound up with an eclectic range of tastes including blues, classic rock, jazz, 20th century, nouveau flamenco, and mellow acoustic whisperings like Iron And Wine. But as my life unfolded, I left most of the classical behind, except for the rare occasions where it seems to fit as a nice background. One classical album has stuck with me… when my wife and I were newlyweds, one of the few records (yes, record, as in 33 1/3 rpm vinyl LP) was Artur Rubenstein’s lively interpretation of Chopin’s Polonaises. We still play that sometimes as rompin’ stompin’ housework music. And we love it because 35 years later, it still evokes sweet memories of our first days together.

Music, like language, exists in genres and registers that are situation-specific. My wife and I have music on all day, but precisely what music depends on whether we are working out, dancing, having a light lunch, reading in bed, enjoying a romantic candlelit dinner, blocking out the neighbors 1 a.m. karaoke party, blitzing the house to get it clean for guests, or…. writing.

Music and writing. The writer’s relationship with music is important at three levels: background, inspiration and setting.

As far as background music while writing, that will depend upon the individual writer. I imagine some writers don’t want music on at all. Others might listen to their favorite pop tunes. But for me, lyrics are distracting. The singer’s words block the flow of my own. When I write, I tend to listen to powerful instrumental guitar, mostly electric, with a certain tonal quality that blocks other distractions without hindering my thought process as I write. The volume has to be just right.

As far as what music inspires a writer, that is again a very personal matter. I often enjoy music I hear randomly when I’m out and about. But I’m not going to run out and download every one of those song on iTunes, nor would many of them inspire my writing in the least. And what might take me to the heights of inspiration might very well bore you, and what relaxes me would probably drive you up the wall.

But music as setting in our writing is perhaps the most important for writers to consider. Whatever we may listen to personally needs to be left behind when we write. Musical taste and the response to music are part of the development of a character, and not all characters will be a mirror image of the writer. Music is also a part of setting: time, place, mood and ethnicity. It shows social level and speaks volumes about the specific situation. The reader can know more about the scene from the mention of a single song than from paragraphs of text. And since music is such a powerful force in most readers’ lives, any music that is mentioned in our writing will have an impact, often a stronger and more lasting impact than our gifted prose. Music takes the reader back to the time when they first heard the song. It creates emotions and calls up memories. I described this phenomenon in a little more detail in my blog post An Old Man’s iPod, which, to my delight (and total shock!) was Freshly Pressed. Again, I think that simply proved my point, because the response was directed more at the music and musically-induced emotions than my writing per se.

So as writers, we each need to ask ourselves: What (music) inspires me? What (music) blocks out other distractions while I write? And what (music) will grab my readers and pull them into my book by the lapels?

So do you write? Novels, term papers, take-home quizzes or love letters? If so, what music, if any, do you listen to?

Sing to me…



This post was inspired by Porter Anderson’s guest post “Why Writers Should Get Over Pop Music” on Jane Friedman’s excellent blog. My comment there turned into this blog.


About Bill Davis

Writer, speaker and translation and language learning consultant. I write technical articles, poetry and humor, and I am working on my first novel which is set on the island of Palawan in the Philippines.
This entry was posted in Miscellaneous, Music, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Music for Writers

  1. Suzy says:

    One of the more interesting bits of advice I’ve heard at a writers conference is to download a particular playlist onto your ipod as your ‘go to’ background music for whatever project you’re working on at the time. The idea is that you trick your brain into a groove of: Ready, Set, Write! Sort of a jumpstart for your writer’s engine. Doubling up on the sense memory idea. Theoretically, you should be able to write anytime, anywhere, even in noisy airports or smelly buses. You pop on the headphones and sentences begin to form themselves into the Great American Novel.

  2. Bill Davis says:

    That’s a great idea, Suzy! I think it’s good as an audio aspect to the “work zone” that we all need to set up. Also, if the playlist is specific to the work in progress, it can put subtle aspect of scene, setting and mood into the writer’s mind.

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