Music for Writers

Do you write?  Do you listen to music while you do it?

I do.  In fact, I’ve learned over the years that silence is the most distracting thing in the universe.  Once it’s just me and my thoughts, my thoughts win.  It’s like a category 5 storm of random things crashing around in my skull.  But if I have sound playing in the background, the winds die down and I can focus on my work.  But it has to be just music (perhaps with the occasional commercial), not video.  When I hear things that I know also have a visual component, my eyes are drawn to the visual.  I need to see what images go with the sounds I am hearing.  As my eyes pull away from the page or laptop screen, writing stops.

But what music works best?

For me, the best writing music falls into three categories…

  1. Music that I know by heart.
    This music works well because I don’t have to actually listen to it.  I know every work, every note so well that my brain just latches on and follows along.  I’ll subconsciously tap my feet or bob my head.  Sometimes I’ll even begin typing to the rhythm of the songs.
  2. Music that I don’t know at all.
    Because it isn’t music that I love, I’m able to just sort of block it.  I know it’s there and it still achieves the goal of calming down my brain, but I don’t care enough to learn the lyrics or feel the beats.  It’s just on.
  3. Classical music.
    I’m sure there are studies out there that will show you that brainwaves become more calm and allow for more creativity while listening to classical.  But for me it falls almost into category 2, only I do know quite a bit of it.  It’s just that there are no lyrics to sing along with.  At best, there might be some humming, but not often.

The worst music for me are song by bands I know, or ones I’ve heard before, I sort of like but don’t know well enough for them to be automatic.  This is why applications like Pandora or Slacker or Last.fm just don’t work for me as writing tools on anything but the classical music stations.  Too many times a song will pop up in the play list that drags me out of the zone and forced me to consciously listen, and the writing stops.

So, this month, as I make my way toward 50,000 words, I’ll, more often than not, be listening to classical music.

4 comments

  1. Tesh says:

    I’m of a very similar mind. I listen to about equal parts video game soundtracks, “New Age” stuff (Enya, John Schmidt, Chris Spheeris, that sort of thing) and classical music.

    Music with lyrics tends to wreck the flow, though, so I stick to pure music where I can.

  2. Tesh says:

    Tangentially, I got a pair of Final Fantasy CDs yesterday, and they have a singer performing “Suteki da ne” from FFX in English. I’m used to the Japanese version, and treat the vocals as more music precisely because I don’t understand Japanese. Now that I can hear the lyrics in my mother tongue, it’s far more distracting… and unfortunately, they aren’t all that good. It’s especially dissonant because I know the music and attach it to the Japanese performer, but this just sounds like… karaoke with a full orchestra. Bleh.

    • Jason says:

      That’s pretty funny.

      In that same vein, I find that when writing if I’m going to listen to broadway/opera type music, it has to be in a foreign language or else I start actually paying attention.

  3. […] I find the English versions less appealing.  Sometimes, a little knowledge has a big effect.  (And, as Jason points out, they don’t work as background music any more; since I subconsciously process the English lyrics, it divides my […]

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