What’s Your Writing Soundtrack (And Should You Even Have One)?

by Evan Yeong

The first time I can remember thinking about music and its relationship with writing was when I finished Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson (the sequel to her award-winning Speak). In the acknowledgements she included bands like Incubus, Staind, and Linkin Park, as well as composers like Beethoven and singer-songwriters like Tori Amos. As a fan of her musical choices, I think back to the connection I felt with her, and the delight at recognizing how many of the songs were thematically reflected in her work.

Fast-forward to several years later and I’m trying to motivate myself to write one of the many blogs I’ve abandoned over the past one and a half decades, headphones on, trying to block out the outside world so that I can focus. But what if my attempts to concentrate were actually making it more difficult?

In 2017 writing teacher Amy Isaman attended a neuroscience lecture where she learned that listening to music while writing “creates stress.” She explains further that music causes our brain to multitask, which makes it harder to focus on what it is we should be doing. (In your case, possibly writing the next big Harlequin romance!)

Thinking back on my years hunched over my laptop, earbuds locked in place, a distinct memory comes to mind. Typing away for about ten minutes, music blasting, before either ripping the headphones out of my ears or turning the volume down until it was just barely audible, essentially just faint background noise at that point. It’s no wonder then that Isaman goes on to share that “low-level ambient noise can improve creativity.”

As one final note from her well-researched piece, the writing teacher also mentions that music with lyrics is what most hinders creativity. Your brain tries its best to follow along and understand the words being sung. From digging around the internet, lists like “10 Film Scores to Listen to While Writing” and many other writers asked about what they listen to support this.

But what about Laurie Halse Anderson, who used rock music to inspire her work? And what about you personally? I don’t think the power of music to set the tone or mood should ever be discounted. One of your goals as an author is to bring the reader into a place where they can feel the emotions of the scene, and having the right song can really help to establish that for you (and hopefully for them!).

Isaman’s advice, which I’m passing on to you, is that if you’re going to listen to music while writing make sure it doesn’t have lyrics (and that it isn’t too loud!). My personal two cents would be to find what works for you. For a good number of years I did something that didn’t work for me (blasting music) before transitioning to something that did (music played very faintly). If I’d stopped and thought about it at an earlier point in time, maybe I would have started writing with the volume turned down to a smidge above zero!

You might be someone who can’t concentrate when it’s dead silent, or someone who needs the noise to be just shy at a dull roar to block everything out! For some ambient nature sounds are the perfect fit, and for others foreign music may allow them to listen to the genre they want, but without feeling like they need to follow along with the lyrics.

If you listen to music while you write, please let us know what it is that you’re listening to! Is there a specific genre, or genres? Does your choice of music differ depending on whether you’re writing something like a Heartwarming or more like a DARE? What is the perfect soundtrack for a heartbreaking goodbye, or a long-awaited reunion? As one question that may be useful to many of us, do you have a go-to Spotify playlist for when it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to typing? If there is I’d love to know!

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Comments

  1. Chrissie

    I listen to piano music, but no songs I know the words to or I’d sing them in my head. Instrumental is imperative to concentration, but sometimes I like the soundtracks of really good movies. I especailly like anything by John Barry. But I have to be careful there or I’ll see the movie playing in my head. Lol. Try YouTube artists like Tim Janis or Relaxdaily. Both are just pretty background music.

  2. Tia Colborne

    No music! I can’t do it. I’m a dance teacher and a choreographer so music pulls my mind to a different kind of creation. I listen to music at work for 6-8 hours when I teach. I teach 3 days a week. I usually don’t even play music in the car or at home. Music = work to me. I love my job, but like any job you need downtime. My mind is so lively when I write that I don’t need any extra stimulation!

  3. I go back and forth, honestly. My books and manuscripts all have a soundtrack created on Spotify. I can listen for mood as I edit. However, I tend to listen to classical or instrumental when I write. The music helps me tune out the distractions around me and just write.

  4. I have writing music and thinking music. My writing music is whatever I listen to when I need to drown out environmental noise. It tends to be droning electronic music or a few tracks from the Solaris soundtrack that I put on loop. If I need something more energetic, I’ll go with the Social Network soundtrack. I’ve definitely found that I can’t listen to anything with lyrics or dramatic highs and lows while I’m writing.

    When I’m thinking, I usually go for a walk and listen to a playlist that captures the general tone of whatever I’m working on, which helps me visualize the scenes. And it’s interesting because when I do that repeatedly, then set the manuscript aside for a little while, the moment I hear that music again, the story and characters come back to me pretty vividly.

  5. Michelle

    Oh, yikes, absolutely no music when writing. My mind is already so active with characters dialogue, setting, and emotion that when I throw music on top of that with someone else’s emotion and rhythm, it’s way too overwhelming.
    I do, however, listen to music before writing or during breaks if I find I’m not very focused. For my current WIP, to get into heroine A’s headspace I’m listening to a lot of Alice Merton and for heroine B, it’s Lizzo. I think that speaks volumes on their personalities. Lol. Just as a general motivator to sit down and right, though, it’s currently Imagine Dragon.

    • Evan Yeong

      I really love having different characters associated with different artists! It sounds like an incredibly efficient way to get into a hero or heroine’s headspace.

    • I have tossed around the idea of different soundtracks for different characters. Maybe I need to spend more time fleshing out my other characters (I usually have one that’s stronger). But I do listen to the soundtracks while I’m writing. For me, it keeps my head in the game. But listening while I’m writing, not planning or thinking, probably negates individuals tied to a specific kind of music.

  6. Lakisha Friday

    I love to listen to music while I write. As a matter of fact it helps me to come up with a story and characters and they will be doing in the story. Some people can’t concentrate with noise of any kind. They need absolute silence. You do what helps you out for you not cause someone else is having a hard time focusing on their book.

  7. I have a sound track for my main characters. So it depends on what I’m writing. I’ve got a WWII book I’m working on that takes place in N Africa. The soundtrack has some of the Big Band stuff from the US, and some of the big name Arab singers from the era (complete with record scratch sounds) and the popular Parisian singers (Piaf and others). It helps set the scene for me. And since I tend to run multiple stories at a time (my brain won’t sit still), the different tracks help me switch between stories and characters.
    I blast it in my ear buds, partly to drown out the chaos of 5 kids 3 dogs and three cats, and partly because I’m a violinist, I’ve been playing in amateur (community/volunteer) orchestras for 38 years and I can tune out anything and only focus on what I want to focus on.

    I am personally extremely eclectic in my interests and tastes. Not surprisingly all my favourite characters are as well. I always seem to have one half of my duos who is a favourite. I’m working on getting better at fleshing out the other half. But I don’t want to create another sound track! Lol