Music To Listen To While You Write

Music To Listen To While You Write

What are the best sounds to type to? Our guest blogger has a few ideas on the best music to listen to while you write.


Music To Listen To While You Write

As I write, I am listening to some piano music by Philip Glass, which he composed for the film The Hours. It is pretty, melodic, harmonious. I am struggling with it a little because I’m finding it engaging and want to listen to it more closely. This is generally what we might want of a piece of music, but music to write to is a special category.

As one commenter puts it below another Youtube Glass recording: ‘This is good writing music. The constant repetition and variation in this soundtrack are hypnotic. The music puts you in a productive trance and squeezes out just enough emotion to keep you engaged, but not a surfeit of feeling that will distract you.’

Indeed. I want the background, the accompaniment, of music. I want the beauty, the patterns, the arc. But I don’t want too much drama or emotion. I want wallpaper that is more than wallpaper. Something I can dip in and out of but is far less demanding than a recital or a gig. And, God forbid, I do not want words. How could anyone write any words of their own to a sonic background — of words?

You might be smiling in agreement or violently shaking your head. But the chances that you have strong opinions of your own on this topic too. Writers and other creators are very particular about the soundtrack they work to.

What Do Writers Choose To Listen To?

A recent survey on LinkedIn asking people if they listen to music while they work elicited over 25,000 votes and nearly 1,000 comments. Some 78% responded in the affirmative. And with more of us working from home, the WFH playlist question has become more urgent. Spotify saw a 1400% increase in interest in them after just two months of lockdown.

The comments throw up a wonderfully esoteric range of preferences. They include Mozart’s 27 piano concerti on shuffle, baroque, late Liszt, Japanese animation soundtracks, and even Psycho score composer Bernard Herrmann. There were also votes for natural or biophilic sound, typically wind, water, birds. These have a proven effect on wellbeing and productivity.

As this article by Dale Berning Sawa explores, there’s a whole science to the music we choose for relaxation and concentration. For writers, it depends what you’re like and your goals.

  1. Some writers want energy and beats to get something finished.
  2. Some people might turn to music as an imaginative prompt.
  3. Others may want a kind of inner landscape for their mind to chew on.

The many wonderful musical leads I picked up from Sawa’s piece include the extraordinary acoustic textures of Richard Skelton. And Jurassic Park theme 1000% slower. It’s part of a whole genre of super-slowed down music I never knew existed. I especially enjoyed Minecraft Music Slowed Down with Rain.

The Colours

Some people find silence distracting or even anxious-making. They want a blanket of sound that they can cocoon themselves in, to shut out all extraneous stimuli. I know of one writer who can only write with cotton wool in their ears, plus noise-cancelling headphones.

But for something between silence and music, you might try the coloured stuff. There’s not just white noise, as I discovered, but other colours too, such as Deep Layered Brown Noise — not to be confused with Pink, White and Brown Noise. I didn’t think I’d like this kind of thing, but I found it hard to switch off.

Certainly, you don’t want music that’s too noisy or eventful or unpredictable. But can the music be too boring? Perhaps not, if like this it’s not really even music. This continuous sound has texture and a certain depth, but no pattern or progression. It feels more like heavy rain. Or sitting in an air-conditioned womb, or dozing on a plane. It has no start and no end really. It never changes. It is strangely comforting.

It may be the perfect music to listen to while you write.

And More

By now the musical Youtube rabbit-hole is beckoning me:

  1. Soon I am dabbling in Japanese ambient (like this now-revered album, originally composed to promote a skincare brand.
  2. Erik Satie’s furniture music (the original elevator music, designed as background noise to be played live).
  3. And modular generative synth music like this. I really got into this last one. Essentially it’s not a performance but a ‘patch’, the sound of a machine programmed to talk to itself in an infinite close system. It sounds a bit like New Agey floatation tank music. But there is an edgy reverb which adds a pleasingly dystopian vibe.

Some writers can only write to a single piece of music. I tend to listen obsessively to one soundtrack for a long piece such as a novel. For many months I listened only to a contemporary symphony for drums. But it fell off a BBC site and I’ve never been able to find it since. Persistent choices can work because we associate them with past achievements. Or they may somehow imaginatively connect to the world you’re creating now.

Music You Don’t really Want to Hear

It’s an odd way to approach music. I realised this when I asked my uncle, an accomplished tenor, for his recommendations. He scratched his head as I explained my requirement. ‘What you’re really asking for,’ he said at last in befuddlement, ‘is music you don’t really want to hear.’

Similarly, several LinkedIn comments from professional musicians said they were incapable of doing other work with music on. They engaged with it far too strongly for it ever to be just background. I suppose it is sort of anti-musical, this writing soundtrack business.

But what I want is something subtle, with some pattern and repetition. Something I won’t hear all the time but won’t ignore completely either. As another commenter puts it, ‘Ideally something contemplative with the occasional surprise distraction of “oooh that was cool”.’

My own playlist is pretty esoteric. I’ve tried and tested it over a few hundred thousand words. I have to say that classical music works well for me. I have happily worked my way through the symphonies of Beethoven and Bach. But there are times when even a heartless unmusical heathen like me cannot but be swept away by what I’m hearing.

My Top 5 Writing Soundtracks

Here is a highly idiosyncratic selection of some of my favourite writing soundtracks:

  1. Carnage Visors – This early Cure soundscape was composed to accompany an abstract film that the band played on some of their early tours. The name ‘carnage visors’ is said to be a dark inversion of the idea of rose-tinted spectacles. A nice retro slice of hauntingly easy-listen electronica.
  2. John CarpenterFilm soundtracks are a great writing background. I often think back to a film I’ve enjoyed, then look up the soundtrack online. One I come back to again and again is Escape from New York. I like this version, which just plays the main theme over and over with slight variations. Carpenter has released other albums too, like the synthwave soundscapes of Lost Themes.
  3. Derek BaileyPlink, Plonk and Scratch is the apt subtitle of Trevor Barre’s witty history of the London Free Music movement. One of the best-known figures was Derek Bailey. This is guitar music, Jim, but not as we know it. As Wikipedia puts it: ‘Bailey’s distinctive style can be challenging. Its most noticeable feature is its extreme discontinuity, often from note to note.’ Strangely addictive.
  4. Brian Eno – Ambient 1: Music for Airports – Obviously this whole article could just really be about Brian Eno. His experimental ‘non-musical’ albums offer a lifetime’s writing background. I often listen to this, one of the first-ever self-styled ambient albums. It’s made up of four compositions created by layering tape loops of differing lengths. It was meant to be played on a loop as a sound installation — in airports. Ambient music, said Eno, is meant to be ‘as ignorable as it is interesting’. It should ‘induce calm and a space to think’.
  5. Gurdjieff – De Hauptmann piano music – Part Svengali, part charlatan, GI Gurdjieff has always fascinated me. After years of reading I still don’t have much of a clue about his philosophy. But central to it was music, which he gave a special spiritual significance. His piano music — composed with long-time disciple and pianist Thomas de Hartmann — was designed to accompany ancient temple dances. The dances combine movement and breathing in such a way as to raise people out of habitual patterns of thinking and awaken to themselves. This particular soundtrack is my secret writing weapon. I have listened to it exclusively for months on end, and written three full-length manuscripts to it. There is a Keith Jarrett version called Sacred Hymns, if you can access it. On Youtube you can even find some original recordings. You briefly hear the man himself and the applause of his entourage.

The Final Word

I hope this post inspires you to find suitable music to listen to while you write your stories.

TIP: If you want help writing a book, buy The Novel Writing Exercises Workbook.

Dan Brotzel by Dan Brotzel. Dan is the author of Hotel du Jack, a collection of short stories, co-author of a comic novel-in-emails about an eccentric writers’ group Work in Progress (Unbound), and a solo novel, The Wolf in the Woods.

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Posted on: 3rd March 2021

2 thoughts on “Music To Listen To While You Write”

  1. With a long lifetime’s love of music, and only a recent discovery of the joys of writing novels, I brought a lot of musical baggage to the choice of music to write to. My preferences for the Classic/Romantic era composers, including opera, lightened with a dash of operetta and musical comedy, and similar lighter stuff; turned out to be inappropriate. As you say, anything too catchy or dramatic (and add in my case opera and operetta, as I have an irrepressible urge to sing along to vocal works). So, after experimentation, I settled on Baroque music playing pianissimo in the background.
    Any of the modern experimental sort of thing, including most of the examples you give, are not my cup of rooibos at all. However I have enjoyed (or perhaps wasted) some time sampling them. YouTube is a rabbit-hole down which it is too easy to tumble.
    When I choose music to listen to when I’m driving alone, my choice is driven by different criteria. My car has half-way-decent stereo speakers, so I can enjoy the noisier, rumpty-tumptier bits of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Verdi, for example, played full blast. And if I’m in the mood to sing or whistle along as I go, I’m inconveniencing nobody. And it keeps me awake on a long trip. Horses for courses.

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