Writing and music are two closely related artistic activities. I'm planning to investigate the connection more fully in a follow-up column with some help from Louise Marley and Scott Mackay, two writers who have also been professional musicians. But I also got interested in a very simple question: what do people listen to, if anything, while writing?
Read on for some surprising results.
Neal Asher (The Skinner)
I have read about many writers playing music while they write. Unfortunately (for your column) I'm not one of them. I actually prefer no noise at all while I'm tapping away, and if necessary provide my own sound effects (usually while spinning round on my swivel chair). As for inspiration from a piece of music . . . not really. I suspect my imagination is connected up via my eyes, not my ears.
Elizabeth Bear (Hammered)
I do indeed listen to music while working, to the point of making specific playlists for a given short story or novel, with songs that remind me of particular characters or set a mood I want to emulate. And it's funny you should ask this now, because I just got mugged this week by a short story that was inspired by Billy Joel's "The Downeaster 'Alexa,'" Jethro Tull's "The Whaler's Dues," and Vienna Teng's "Harbor."
I stole a bit of the lyrics from Richard Thompson's "Beeswing" as the title of my short story "The Chains That You Refuse" (published by ChiZine) and I just sold one to Interzone called "House of the Rising Sun." And I've been inspired to write other short stories by artists as diverse as Shriekback and Arlo Guthrie—actually, the story I had published at Strange Horizons this year owes a bit of something to "The City of New Orleans."
I'm probably the poster child for your question, in other words. But I get inspired by everything from news stories to people I see on the bus; music is just one more thing in the soup.
I have really diverse tastes, too—everything from Yo-Yo Ma to the White Stripes, with side trips through blues, jazz, prog rock, heavy metal, emo, classical, ska, reggae, folk, punk, ambient . . . both of my parents are musicians, so I grew up exposed to all sorts of odd things, and it's stuck, although I don't play an instrument myself.
Right now, as an example, I'm listening to the Violent Femmes. A minute ago it was Bob Marley.
As for how I listen, I have my entire CD collection burned to my hard drive for convenience's sake—it's something like 40 gigs of music—and there's a lot of old vinyl and tape I'm still hanging on to, too. I also love Radio Paradise, which I listen to at my day job.
Orson Scott Card (Shadow of the Giant)
I can't write in a sound vacuum; I need music constantly. My tastes are eclectic—everything from Maria Bethania and Simone (Brazilian) to Jane Monheit, Diana Krall, and Michael Buble (jazz/standards), from classic rock (Eagles, Thorogood, Petty) to folk-rock (Mitchell, CSN, Neil Young), from classical (Bach, Stravinsky, Barber, Copland) to Broadway (Kismet, Wicked), with odd performers from other genres along the way. I wrote "Enchantment" under the spell of Bruce Cockburn's "The Charity of Night" and my novel "Lost Boys" was infused with Springsteen's "The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle"—not to mention The Police's "Every Breath You Take." During the months after my son died, when I pushed through and finished a novel anyway, the music that sustained me was John Huntington's album of Christmas carols by Robert Stoddard, "December Tales." There is music in my mind for every book and story that I write.
Suzy McKee Charnas (Stagestruck Vampires)
I write about music a lot in my stories—and not just "Beauty and the Opera." A chapter of Vampire Tapestry is set at the Santa Fe Opera. This lynchpin section of the book, "A Musical Interlude," was in fact inspired by a wonderful production of Tosca at the Santa Fe Opera that I'd manged to see twice. "Listening to Brahms" ends with a conversation, more or less verbatim, overheard at an open rehearsal at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival many years ago now; the remembered conversation percolated out into a story about a year later. So far, all the vital connections that I'm aware of have been to classical music, though I listen to several pop stations while driving around in my car (my current favorites: "Closing Time" and a Mark Knopfler tune that I think is called "Dog Eat Dog").
I have a fancy radio/tape/disc player in my studio, and a shelf of tapes and CDs. But I stopped putting on music while at work when I noticed that as soon as I got into the writing, the music just vanished—it went on playing, but I just didn't hear a note of it or notice when it came to an end. So I work in a quiet room, the quieter the better; maybe that's the only way I can "hear myself think," though I've also done a fair amount of work on a laptop in one local coffee shop or another. There the act of typing (or reading) just tunes everything around me (including music) down to a soft background buzz that makes a nice change from working at home in a silent room.
Julie E. Czerneda (Survival)
Yes, I listen to music while writing. And, well, usually the same piece of music, set to repeat, for an entire book. Soundtracks mostly, without vocals, or vocals that don't intrude on my thinking. I wrote Beholder's Eye to the Godzilla soundtrack. In The Company of Others to Gladiator's. For the last three years, I've been listening to Howard Shore's wonderful score for the various Lord of the Rings films. I never tire of it. When I need a jolt to start the day, or I'm editing, I'll jump to something from the eclectic mix of things I happen to have on my machine: The Matrix soundtrack, Zorro. Cats. Aladdin. Mortal Kombat. Old monster movie themes. Rock and roll. I think there's reggae in there. But 90% of the time I listen to the same thing, the more complex and emotional the better.
As for inspiration? Hmmm. I use the music I play more as a "get in the zone" tool. I only play certain pieces when I'm writing fiction, so when I hear them, I know that's the job at hand. Helps me focus. Live music is something else again. Ideas explode in my head the moment the fanfare begins. It's quite frustrating at times, not to mention inconvenient, trying to make notes without anyone else noticing. The first time, I was listening to the university orchestra playing Polish marches. I think I missed half of it, trying get down the brainstorms. At least now I expect it to happen, so I bring paper and pencil. The PDA light tended to bother those around me.
When I'm near the end of a novel, during that span where the words are falling out of my head faster than I can type, I often discover I only thought I'd been listening to the signature piece for that book. I haven't turned the music on for the day. But at the very end? I've an excellent set of speakers, complete with a big subwoofer by my feet. After typing the last word, I cue "Magic Carpet Ride" by Steppenwolf, and crank it. It serves the moment well. And lets the family know I'm back!
Cory Doctorow (Eastern Standard Tribe)
I have about 8,000 songs in my iTunes library. I've rated each track from 1-5 stars. I have an automatic playlist that consists of 4- or 5-star music that I haven't heard in 30 days or more, so that I hear all of my favorite music at least once a month. Whenever I sit down in front of my computer to do anything, including write, I turn on that playlist.
I listen to uptempo stuff almost exclusively, and almost exclusively to music with lyrics. Right now, it's the Beasties' "Oh Word?" and before that it was Eddie Cantor's "When My Ship Comes In." Also on today's playlist is All Girl Summer Fun Band's "Video Game Heart," Schoolhouse Rock's "Do the Circulation," Desi Arnez's "I Love Lucy Theme (Vocal)," some Japanese techno covers of Disney theme songs, various tracks from the Kleptones' "Night at the Hiphopera," the Marx Brothers' "Tale of a Shirt," Sam Cooke's "It Won't Be Very Long," the Aquabats' "Pizza Day," Supercat's "ABC," Tom Waits's "Walking Spanish," Violent Femmes' "Black Girls," and Woody Guthrie's "Jesus Christ." Also there are a bunch of electronica remixes of the argument from a famous copyright case, MGM v. Grokster (which is going to the Supreme Court) in which the argument of the lawyers for the P2P companies has been set to music.
I wrote a story called "Beat Me Daddy (Eight to the Bar)" that swiped its title from an Andrews Sisters song.
Charles Coleman Finlay (The Prodigal Troll)
I have a hard enough time focusing on . . . oh, look, a penny! Where was I? Oh, yeah. I have a hard enough time focusing on my writing with all the other distractions of daily life these days. So I don't listen much to music while writing anymore, unless its something turned down low, so familiar that it's invisible, like the Brandenburg concertos 4-6, or Mozart's string quartets 14 and 15, or Best of New Order, or REM's Reconstruction of the Fables. But then, when those are on, I'm not really listening, you know.
Music inspires different parts of my work, but only because it's hard for me to imagine worlds without music, and knowing what kinds of music my characters like helps define them. But that's often in the background and sometimes it doesn't even make it to the page.
Pat Forde ("In Spirit")
Certainly at the inspiration stage of writing, music can influence me. Particular songs have conjured a character or group of characters—for some reason that happened listening to "American Dream" by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. . . . A few times it's been a setting, a glimpse of a fantastical world summoned by the unfamiliar, exotic sounds of an Asian instrument, or by a keening voice evoking ancient eras. . . . And once an entire storyline, unfolding over the course of a single piece of music—that happened listening to Rush's "Xanadu," back when I was seventeen!
I also listen to music when "skeletoning" out a story, and when doing background research. Film soundtracks, generally—and I prefer orchestral soundtracks. (Songs with lyrics are too distracting for me, even during the "outlining" stages of a story.)
But once I begin the first full-out draft, I simply can't listen to music. For me, those first "feel through" drafts comprise the most creative stage of the writing process: getting down streams of prose, resequencing or fleshing out paragraphs, dovetailing in dialogue, description, feeling for emerging thematic elements. . . . Essentially, I'm listening to the music of the story as it evolves in my mind and on paper before me. At this stage, real music prevents me from hearing the undertones of sentences, the driving rhythms of scenes and chapters.
So the stereo's off until the final polishing stages of a story, when I'm down to fine-tuning a tale. Then soundtracks are spinning again.
A recommended CD for writers (and soundtrack lovers):
My all-time favorite listen-while-I-work CD is Pure Cinema Chillout, a collection of more off-the-beaten-soundtrack tracks, as it were. It's actually two CDs, and the collection includes magnificently whimsical scores from Amelié, American Beauty, Barry Lyndon, The Big Blue, Billy Elliot, Chocolat, Cinema Paradiso, Edward Scissorhands, Elizabeth, The English Patient, Jean de Florette, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, A Room With a View, The Shawshank Redemption, Traffic, and Queen Margot!
Another collection (of more standard fare) is Movie Classics: Music from Famous Films, which includes selections from Amadeus, A Clockwork Orange, Excalibur, Kolya, Out of Africa, and Shine, among others. Occasionally I'll listen to specific film soundtracks: Selections from Passion: Music for the Last Temptation of Christ by Peter Gabriel, or the Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack. . . . All wonderful for those initial skeletoning or final polishing stages of fiction writing.
Nalo Hopkinson (The Salt Roads)
I can't. I am very distractable, and trying to listen to music when I need to concentrate on something else would be like trying to write a poem while a dog was gnawing my leg off at the ankle. Though I do love music, so it's not the greatest metaphor.
[Do you get inspiration from music?] All the time. Ballads and folk songs. Calypsos. I've also dreamt very short songs, complete with tune and lyrics.
Kameron Hurley ("Genderbending at the Madhattered")
I do listen to music while writing—in fact, I base most of my music choices on the sort of project I'm working on or thinking of working on. I've put together entire playlists unique to specific novels, and I have a growing collection of movie scores to choose from when I start new work. . . . Often, I'll start a piece with older stuff and then go in search of more suitable pieces as the story progresses and I get a handle on the feel of it. The latest novel I'm working on is set to a playlist mix from Pirates of the Caribbean and Master and Commander. It's the right mood for the work, and I spend a lot of time listening to those albums and daydreaming/planning through book scenes during my morning train commute. That's not to say that I have to have the music on hand in order to write (otherwise I'd miss a lot of writing time)—it just means that what I feel to be my best and most productive writing is often done with music in the background.
They aren't all musical scores. I wrote one of my favorite stories, "Burning the Pages of the World," to a playlist composed of the soundtrack from Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet and Tricky's album BlowBack. Finding good music helps a lot with getting the right tone to the story, and listening to that music at high volume can help drown out other distractions and keep me focused on the world/story I'm working in.
James Patrick Kelly (Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories)
No, I'm afraid that when my imaginary friends come over to play, we must have complete and reverent silence for our little games.
On the other hand, music informs a lot of my work. Some of my favorite stories have been inspired by songs or sometimes just bits of lyric. "Standing In Line With Mr. Jimmy" jumps immediately to mind, but then the whole conceit of "Mr. Boy" is based on a mishearing of the lyric from the Kinks' "Long Distance:" "You disappoint me, Mr. Boyd." "Itsy Bitsy Spider" is filled with Beatles references, and "The Prisoner of Chillon" owes a huge debt to Django Reinhardt.
Karin Lowachee (Cagebird)
I do tend to listen to music, although I can just as easily write in silence and would do that too (especially if I'm on a roll and the CD runs out). A lot of the time I listen for mood; meaning, the type of music would contribute to the mood of a scene and somehow the words tend to flow easier and more accurately.
In the writing of Burndive, as I listed in the acknowledgments, I listened a lot to an alternative band from L.A. called 30 Seconds To Mars. They're very atmospheric, loud, and intense, and their lyrics on that album tend to be metaphoric. It fit my angry character quite well and some of the lyrics coincided with some of the themes or imagery I was writing about (I bought the CD when I was well into the writing of the novel, so it was a fun coincidence how well the music fit the book for me).
For Cagebird I listened a lot to David Usher, a Canadian musician. His Little Songs album is basically the entire mood for that novel. It's a gem of a CD.
I don't recall getting a specific story idea from a piece of music.
Scott Mackay (Omnifix)
As for listening to music, yes, I will, on different occasions, listen to music when I write. Sometimes I'll just turn on the radio, usually the classical station, and listen to whatever's playing. This rarely produces extra-musical ideas in terms of the specifics of a piece of fiction, but it does create a more emotional environment in which to write. Conversely, music sometimes distracts me, and I have to turn it off. This happens more when I'm polishing my fiction, getting down to the nitty-gritty where I really have to concentrate on the craft of the thing. In a first draft, you can let yourself go, and music sometimes helps that.
Sometimes I'll listen to a specific type of music for a specific fictional project. For instance, while writing my upcoming novel, Tides (Prometheus/Pyr November 2005), I listened to Renaissance music. While Tides is definitely a science fiction novel in terms of its overall themes, it has a Renaissance milieu, and I found listening to motets and madrigals helpful in establishing the emotional tenor of that milieu. Some music I specifically have to research. A crime novel I'm working on now, Champion of the Little Guy, takes place in the 1930s and so I've listened to a lot of the music from that period. As for my 2004 release, Omnifix (Penguin/Roc March 2004), it takes place five hundred years in the future, and so sometimes while I was writing it, I listened to industrial/ambient music, stuff with a lot of synthesizer and electronic sounds, edgy far-future stuff.
[I'll have more from Scott Mackay in the next column.]
Louise Marley (The Child Goddess)
I'm one of those who can't listen to music and write—it's one or the other. I normally write in silence, or in the midst of white noise, as in a coffee bar or even in an airport.
[More from Louise Marley in the next column.]
Maureen F. McHugh ("Nekropolis")
I used to listen to music while writing and used to occasionally write scenes to a particular piece of music. (The music was often far from profound—I wrote a scene in my third novel, Mission Child, to "Not an Addict" by K's Choice.) But I don't listen to music when I write anymore. I don't think I have enough attention span.
Rudy Rucker (Frek and the Elixir)
No, I don't, I find it distracting. I focus a lot on the sound of my prose, trying to mimic sounds of speech rhythms, and music would get in the way.
I wrote an early story, "Faraway Eyes," in some way inspired by the Stones song of the same title. Mick himself and a song by Zappa appear in my novel Spacetime Donuts. Sometimes I kind of hear music while I'm writing, if it's going well.
Peter Watts (Behemoth)
I actually don't listen to music when writing much any more. I used to, all the time—although much as I love Jethro Tull, et al, I tended to steer away from lyric-heavy music because the words distracted. I do seem to remember that a certain album by Dead Can Dance (Spleen and Ideal," I think) is almost entirely responsible for the mood inherent in my short story "Nimbus"—I put that sucker on every time I booted Word for a while. And I'd use Yes as background—the classic stuff, not the New-Age cheesefests they put out in later years—because although those albums did contain lyrics, none of them made any damned sense so I could more or less filter them out. Also, some classical music made it into the mix: Mozart's Requiem, Handel's Water Music, The Sorcerer's Apprentice. And need I mention the soundtrack from 2001?
"Possession," by Sarah McLachlan, inspired parts of Starfish to the point where I can hear it playing over the opening credits in the imaginary movie version of that book.
But for the past few years at least, I've written mainly in silence, for better concentration. Maybe my ideas have become more arcane, or need more work. Or maybe I'm just getting old.
Liz Williams (Banner of Souls)
I tend not to listen to music while writing, but I used to—I wrote a novel while listening obsessively to Lisa Loeb's album Firecracker.
I generally don't get inspired by music, but I use it in order to relax and I do consider it vital to the writing process. Just not while I'm actually writing.
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