You Can’t Spell Muse without Music…Wait…

This blog won’t be entirely about writing, but it’s all I’ve been doing lately. So here we go again: Yesterday it was writing and time of day. This time it’s writing and audio. Do you write with music? If so, what? Some people say they can’t write to anything with lyrics, others have a specific genre (classical seems to be the most common answer, from what I assume to be fancy gentleman that must don formal Writing Wigs before settling in for the day’s work).

I spend easily half the day listening to music. That’s because both my day job and hobbies revolve around writing, and the two are tied intrinsically in my head. I can’t write without music. Which is odd, because I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of music. I love it, I need it, but I don’t pay any attention to it. I couldn’t tell you the names of half of my favorite albums, much less songs, much less name the members of the bands. I just know that when I want something atmospheric, I type a seemingly random string of words, like a password or a spell – Do Make Say Think, Todosantos, Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Lower Dens – and I am rewarded with interesting sounds that distract me from my own exceedingly loud keystrokes. I beat the shit out of my keyboards (that’s why my column’s named ‘word puncher,’ incidentally), and I’ve conditioned myself to always be listening to music instead of, say, my wife complaining about the machine gun noises coming from my office equipment.

For some reason, musical choice is a much less covered ‘writer’s poll’ question. A lot of talk about time of day, about environment, about reading preferences – nothing about music. So let’s do this in two parts: First, do you listen to music at all? Second, if so, what do you listen to? I’m all for at least trying on other’s routines and seeing if part of it helps you. Switching to writing in the morning, much to my surprise and the surprise of everybody I maul savagely for talking to me before 10AM, has helped. Maybe a musical shake-up will, too.

For example, this study insists that silence helps creativity – even though most of us avoid it at all costs. The last few days, I’ve tried writing at least these little blog posts with the headphones off, and it’s having a strange effect. Silence is like an echo chamber for my thoughts. I hear the sentences bounce around in my head for a bit longer than if I had typed them with music playing. On the one hand, that’s great for editing – it helps me make fewer passes, because I catch the mistakes quicker. On the other hand, it’s not so great for first drafts – they come slower, as I get caught up on wording before I’ve even gotten the full thought laid down.

So your turn: A vote for silence? For atmospheric tunes? Or do you cast your ballot for something else? Screaming death metal, perhaps — because nothing helps you focus like loudly condemning society to hellfire for frowning on your lifestyle choices.

25 thoughts on “You Can’t Spell Muse without Music…Wait…

  1. Danny C.

    1) Yes, though not as often as you do. Maybe an hour or two of music per night while I go through blogs I read daily.

    2) Just about anything except country and songs with lyrics that aren’t in English. But I get distracted whenever I listen to music while writing, mainly because I’m constantly switching between songs. It’s not unlike putting your mp3 player on shuffle while driving, but constantly skipping the songs you don’t want to hear. Strangely enough, this only bothers me with music. I find that if I write while watching a basketball game or something, I can pay attention to both and still write. Maybe all the timeouts and gaps between possessions turn writing into some sort of pomodoro-meets-tabata interval session. That’s my entirely unscientific two cents.

    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      It’s weird how many people can’t do lyrics. I guess I get that a little if it’s the first time I’ve listened to an album, but after that, words are just more sounds these music-bots are making for my enjoyment.

      1. Matt Armstrong

        There was a comic book artist/writer I used to read in the 90s named “Dale Keown”. And one thing I found interesting was his use of music as an anchor. He would write and draw based on a feeling, and music would invoke that feeling. So say he was writing and drawing a gritty action scene for his comic, he would, for instance listen to heavy metal. That music would invoke a feeling in him, and when he finished with his work for the day he would stop the song right when he stopped. Then when he resumed worked the next day he would play the song from where he stopped it and immediately invoke those same feelings and emotion in himself.

        To me I found this a genius way to use music, in conjunction with writing.

  2. Ben Graupmann

    Check out Andy McKee and Antoine Dufour for good acoustic guitar and George Winston for excellent piano.

    For something I’m certain you will hate, from what I gather from your FB posts, check out Blackmill. His genre is called “chillstep,” and it’s a form of dubstep I guess but it’s incredibly relaxing.

  3. Will Millar

    I’ve got kind of a weird ritual when it comes to tackling the big chunk of work I do at night. Usually I walk the dogs for about an hour and blast something noisey and fast, like Converge, Slayer or Pig Destroyer. Then, when I come inside to work I’ll switch over to slower, doomier stuff like Electric Wizard or Acid King. Most of the time I’ll keep the volume level just high enough to rattle my fillings. However, I also do an hour’s worth 1st thing in the morning with no music at all. I try not to get to analytical about which works better in terms of either volume or quality of output – I think the night stuff is more enjoyable and if you’re going to spend 1/6th of every day of your life doing something that you don’t always necessarily get paid for, that’s the least you owe yourself.

  4. Kyle McNulty

    Silence is better for rolling around phrasings in your head yes, but like you said it takes longer so its kind of a wash on preference. However, if you want to bang a bulk amount of writing out in record time there is a CD thats free to download called “Dark Side of Phobos.” Its the original Doom game’s soundtrack redone by different artists and one track in particular titled “Intermission” by TO has this weird effect where if I listen to it in a constant loop I start typing faster and faster like my hands are approaching terminal velocity until I snap out of it. I’d recommend it.

  5. Nick Faubert

    Music and writing can be a tricky thing for me. If my ADD is in high gear, there’s not a whole lot I can do about it, but music *MIGHT* be able to help me focus if the conditions are right.

    I’ll usually try and match the music I’m listening to and what I’m trying to write; If I’m writing a serious piece, I try and avoid goofy stuff. Video game soundtracks are generally my preferred source. Generally they don’t have lyrics, though I usually stay away from the low-key atmospheric stuff. I could toss on Final Fantasy VI’s soundtrack and work with that in the background.

  6. Adi Abdurab

    When you describe your writing experience as one full of war crimes on a keyboard, do you mean you type hard out of some habit or do you find it helps you write?

  7. Adi Abdurab

    Also, I’m the head writer for, a 3D animated series coming out this fall in Pakistan.

    When I write, I like to get started with some music, but when I have that moment – I call it the tuxedo moment, when all of my molecules align themselves and I start typing precisely what needs to be written (like the premise of the movie Tuxedo) – I turn the music off and type feverishly. When that wave dies, I put the music back on.

    I prefer music appropriate to the content I’m writing. For comedy I prefer having either classics (Pakistani classics i.e) or some comedy albums (Stephen Fry, Carlin, Chapelle, Demetri Maritin etc), if I’m writing action, I use heavy metal, and so on and so forth.

  8. Metacognition

    I treat music as if it’s theme music for whatever I’m writing, so if I’m listening to music while I’m writing, it doesn’t matter what it is as long as it fits for what I’m working on.
    If I’m writing about something that has a technological bend to it, I’ll listen to techno and prodigy and the like. If I’m writing a fantasy epic, I’ll listen to stuff like the Lord of the Rings soundtrack or something that gives me that kind of feeling. If I’m writing humor, I’ll have stuff like Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog and Jonathan Coulton on.
    To me, it doesn’t matter what’s playing, as long as it fits the mood, so I have multiple playlists set up specifically for those situations. It helps me find a rhythm to my writing and continues to draw me along. Besides, who wouldn’t want to have their own theme music?

  9. SteveySteve

    I can’t write effectively with any kind of distractions, as I lack the mental capacity to deal with more than one thing at a time. Interestingly, though, the book I’m working on at the minute sprang entirely from a little tune I was singing to myself in my quiet, boring office. So I guess that’s both a point for music and silence. And singing to yourself like a lonely weirdo.

      1. SteveySteve

        Made up. I actually ended up including it in the book. It became a sort of theme tune of a character that he sings to himself- he’s a grave digger and he has a little song about death that’s kind of his trademark. Normally I hate “songs” in fantasy, but it seemed… I dunno… appropriate, I guess.

  10. Andrea

    I’ve written with and without music. For the most part, I feel I must absolutely have music–for the emotional stuff. I don’t know how most people divide their playlists up, but mine are pretty simple: sorrowful, uplifting, whimsical, energetic, etc. If I’m going to sit down and write a tearjerker you can bet I’m going to put my “sorrow” playlist on repeat and allow the bittersweet strains of violins and pianos make me get blurry vision while I type. Climatic, tense scene? Epic playlist, full of mostly movie scores and Hans Zimmer. You get the point.

    The only time I really find myself writing in silence is if I have an idea so burning and hot that I have to get it down that very second and not dick around with music (which can take some time since I’m incredibly picky with what I’m listening to when I write. If the stuff I’m listening to doesn’t perfectly and exactly capture the scene in my head, then it’s not going to fly.) Then usually when that happens, I’ll get the most pressing part out of the way, stop abruptly and realize it’s silent, and resume my usual writing activities.

    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      I sometimes do it thematically, too. At least by era – I find it impossible to write about the ’60s while listening to say, Maneater on repeat, sobbing at the pure angelic beauty of John Hall’s voice.

  11. Kyle

    Silence reminds me that my ears ring. For me things flow smoother when there is background music. Nothing too catchy, like pop music, it becomes too distracting with it’s compulsating grooves. Industrial noise, like background noise, is fun. Lyrics distract. Game soundtrack music, like the half life 2 soundtrack, is very fun to listen to. For me, anyways, it seems to meld partly with the stories in the head.

  12. Luke

    I usually have a routine of
    1. Put music on
    2. Try to write.
    3. Blame music for lack of writing and turn it off
    4. Try to write.
    5. Blame silence for lack of writing
    6. Return to top.

    And repeat endlessly.

  13. Rick C

    If I ever do listen to music, I listen to instrumentals. When I was finishing up undergrad, I really liked listening to 8-bit music, before that going the classical route because I didn’t know the names of decent no-lyrics artists. I know for me, when I’m first-drafting, if I listen to the music I would normally listen to in say, my car, then I would end up focusing on the music instead of concentrating of building a story.

    That being said, I also think that music lends itself better to editing. For me, it seems not as intensive as sitting down and writing something. Maybe that just means I’m a shitty editor.

    Anyway, sweet column, man. I’ve gotten the “word-puncher” comment from my wife too. It just feels good when you pound something out that you’ve had in your head for who knows how long, or have been trying, in vain, for the last two hours to figure out WHAT THE FUCK you were trying to say was. Solidarity, bro.

  14. br_at_

    cool topic!

    a reversed perspective…

    i work on music projects, sometimes this requires silence, but not always…
    there are times when it’s just a longer, repetitive task that doesn’t actually require detailed listening or imagining sound… like when i’m extracting and formatting sheet music from a score…

    listening to other music could be a bad distraction…
    … so i usually listen to audiobooks.

    lately, my favorites are old time sci-fi or oscar wilde.

  15. Mark Luechtefeld

    I just wanted to say that for some reason I’m really stoked that Brockway listens to Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

    But for the sake of actually addressing the initial question, I don’t write often or well, but when I do, I usually try for as close to complete silence as possible. Like outer space levels of silence.

  16. AR

    I think it depends on how much you pay attention to lyrics and/or music itself. I love music in general and one of the reasons is, I focus in and pay a lot of attention to the details and textures and structures and intricacies…however if I’m trying to write, it’s distracting, so I can’t have any music or anything playing while I do it. I get pulled out of the scene/mood/flow unless I don’t pay attention to the music at all, and then, why have it on while I’m writing?


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