Music to Write By (By Which to Write?)

November 14, 2007

I’m asked a lot about my writing routine, about how I get myself to sit down everyday and work, about how much I try to write in a day, about how I overcome the intial inertia of sitting before a blank computer screen, even about the program I use and the type of screen I like.  But more often than not, the people asking these questions ignore what is for me a crucial element of my writing day:  What music do I listen to while I work?

This may sound like a trivial matter.  I assure you, it’s not.  Often in movies or television shows, writers are shown in their studies, typing away to strains of Mozart or Bach or Beethoven.  I have a very good friend who works at the university near where I live.  He’s a music historian and early on in our friendship he encouraged me to add some lesser known classical compositions to my collection of work music.  He thought I’d like them and, more to the point, he thought they would be conducive to the creative process.  I’m sure that many writers would have embraced his suggestions as welcome additions to their work music rotation.  The truth is I like all the pieces he recommended.  I just can’t listen to them when I’m working.

No doubt a writer’s musical choices are part of a larger set of issues that relate to his or her creative process and work habits.  As I prepare to write a story or novel, I tend to outline broadly, but leave the details for when I’m actually writing.  I do a lot of my creative work on the fly, as it were.  And that, I think, is why I find it hard to listen to classical when I work.  I find the music is too structured, too planned.  It lacks the spontaneity I need from my work music.  I also find that, working in words, I generally don’t do well with music that has lyrics, though I’ve gotten better about that as I’ve progressed through my career.  Rock doesn’t work really well for me either, though I’m not sure why that is.  Again, I think it has something to do with the fact that most rock songs are too structured.  I love rock, but not as writing music.

So what do I listen to when I write?  Jazz and bluegrass.   What do they have in common — where is the intersection between Miles and ‘Trane on the one hand and Bela and Flux on the other?  Both forms have vast bodies of instrumental music — important if I’m avoiding lyrics.  But even more importantly, both forms are strongly improvisational — much of the music just happens in the moment.  And as a result I find that the music feeds my creative energy.  This is going to sound strange, but on days when the writing is flowing well, I actually sense that I’m playing riffs right along with the musicians on my stereo.  I’m a musician myself — I’m not very good anymore, but I was for a time there, and I did a fair amount of instrumental soloing.  I swear it’s the same feeling.  My riffs now are in prose rather than in notes, but other than that it’s very much the same.

Jazz and bluegrass.  Yup.  Who do I listen to?  Well, that’s a topic for another day.  Here’s one hint, though….

Today’s music:  Tony Rice (58957:  The Bluegrass Guitar Collection)

One last note:  Beginning today, my daily posts will also be available at


One Response to “Music to Write By (By Which to Write?)”

  1. Writing and music are a pair for me. Really, any passion of mine is intricately linked with music. I also edit videos (of gameplay footage from the video games I play) and no matter what, I always see a video in the making when I listen to a song. Or, I see a plot, a character, a battle, a setting, et cetera, while listening to music.

    I actually have my iTunes playlists sorted and named for a number of things:
    1. the character the songs best describe/feel like
    2. the story ” ” ” “/” ”
    3. the video ” ” ” “/” ”
    4. the world ” ” ” “/” ”

    It really helps my writing, especially since I enjoy writing in a local coffee house (named Bombadill’s, believe it or not; it’s a wonderful place 🙂 ) and it can be quite noisy, so I just put on some headphones, and enter the “zone”.

    It’s great to see that music is also an important part of another writer’s routine. I’ve found that this seems to almost always be the case.

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