Music and Writing

It appears that many writers create their stories whilst playing some kind of music in the background, at least judging from some of the Facebook statuses I’ve read recently. Naturally, this led me to wonder whether the connection between music and writing is stronger and deeper than just the ‘I need something playing in the background while I’m busy writing’ kind of thing. Here’s my take on the subject, pulled from the depths of a Sunday morning kind of mind.

I write in complete silence – which is odd, considering that I used to run a record label and was, to all intents and purposes, surrounded by music. As you can probably imagine, I was inundated with CDs (for review and with demos from bands hoping to get signed), so I would be constantly listening to material. Now, it’s the exact opposite: I have to have silence in order to create and to review books.

I guess it’s partly because I am more than slightly disillusioned with the music industry – I had high hopes for the label and, due to a combination of factors, those hopes didn’t pan out. I’ve realised I didn’t do enough research into the market, plus I launched everything just as the recession hit (so people were reluctant to part with what money they did have). So it was partly my fault and a series of events that were beyond my control. There were other reasons as well, which I won’t go into here. Therefore, I am surmising that listening to music is something of a reminder, at least whilst I’m working, of all the hard graft I put into FracturedSpacesRecords for so little return.

I DO still listen to music, of course – but it’s only when I am in the mood for it. And that usually happens only after I’ve finished writing, reviewing or planning world domination. Otherwise it’s just incidental noises – the sound of the house settling, the dog snoring or occasionally farting, the rare cat fight or the traffic outside on the street. (It also used to include the downstairs next-door neighbours having fiercely blazing rows, very often followed by loud sex – they have since been evicted and the quiet is very welcome).

I have listened to music whilst writing in the past, but it was a very rare occurrence. And what I listened to most people would be very pushed to call music, in the traditional sense at least. I prefer unstructured and moody music, rather than anything which would usually be defined as a ‘choon’. So what DO I listen to? Dark ambient, harsh noise, avant-garde doodlings, minimalist, bleepy stuff, the occasional blisteringly violent and indecipherable black/death metal band, as well as sludgecore, grindcore and stoner meanderings. And yes, before you ask, I love the stuff. (I do listen to more coherent stuff – I am not completely without any interest in normal music.)

Some of it helps enormously to create mood and atmosphere. Dark ambient, in particular, can induce creepiness and fear, especially when listened to on headphones or you’ve gone into ‘the zone’. Harsh noise, as another example, does exactly as it says on the tin: it’s noisy, violent, aggressive, anti-social and great for upsetting neighbours. Bloody scenes of murder most foul are curiously enhanced when listening to it whilst scribbling away.

However, I find that deep absence of sound (apart from all those incidental creaks and pops and snortings and fartings) to be more unsettling and more conducive to ‘getting’ the fear than any amount of soundscapes. In essence, one can impose a requisite mood or feeling upon it, and all without digging through the thousands of CDs in boxes or looking upon the miles of jewel-case spines displayed on the shelves. Even as I type this, I can hear the rain constantly sussurating on the roof of the conservatory just behind me. The sound brings its own atmosphere of gloom and sadness with it – one can easily paint pictures of loss and regret just by listening to it.

It can very easily be posited that silence (or what passes for silence these days) is itself a form of music. It, too, can create mood and ambience. It can be written on, it can be moulded. It can say everything, and say nothing. One can write a thousand words to it, or one can write a thousand stories. It can be a friend in the dark hours, or it can be an enemy. Above all, though, it can give us power.

I’d be very interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on the subject. What kind of music do you like listening to while deep in the act of writing? Does the connection go deeper than the mere superficial ‘I like listening to music’ explanation? Are writers, as creative types and artists, better able to divine the nuances of the creative force in the musical form than others? Or is it as simple as just needing to fill the silences up? Let me know….

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10 Responses to “Music and Writing”

  1. Nice post, Simon.

    I sometimes use music, sometimes I don’t – I seem equally comfortable in silence or with sound, it all depends on my mood.

    When I was writing “In The Rain With The Dead”, I used music for character. The demon (Magellan) is a nasty piece of work and I listened to a lot of Eminem for him (to get the anger and aggression – can’t listen to much of the Stan Man nowadays though), whilst for Jim & Nadia, it was a lot of stuff I liked – INXS, Blondie, David Grey, the stuff I would listen to on a day-to-day basis.

    Interesting topic!

    • It’s interesting to see how people respond to different kinds of music – I have often wondered if taste is as intangible as it appears to be, that it is more than the sum of what we were exposed to as we were growing up… that there is, in fact, a ohysical or genetic component to the shape that our tastes take.,,, this is an endlesly fascinating subject I think….

  2. I used to play a lot of German new-age, techno, art rock while writing. Mostly Tangerine Dream: Turn of the Tides, Melrose, Lilly on the Beach, Goblin Club. I had a playlist that ran six hours. It helped get me into the zone and keep me there by replacing life’s ambient noise with ambient rock.

    A few years back, after FE Books commissioned my band to record a CD of music inspired by the VEINS CYCLE books, I stopped playing music while writing. I’m not sure there’s a connection. I think that the reason I no longer listen to music while writing is because these days my office looks out over a wooded valley, and the ambient sound are more pleasing than distracting.

    Now I hear from other people telling me they’re playing VEINS: the SOUNDTRACK while working on their own writing.

    The cycle continues.

  3. This sounds so familiar, I wonder if we didn’t cross paths somewhere in the music world at some point. I too ran a label for years, and helped start a second. When it’s time to write, if I listen to anything, it has to not have lyrics that can stick in my head or become a distraction, so it will frequently be dark ambient, death industrial or something like that. But I find the silence to ultimately be more productive. I think it gives the imagination more room to breath. I’d rather avoid the influence. So while I do sometimes write to music it is less frequent than I would expect and usually less productive than when I simply sit with the ambient sounds of life.

    • Hi Scott,

      I’ve actually reviewed a couple of Gruntsplatter CDs, one for a forum and one for the late Heathen Harvest… In fact, I’ve probably written something to either the “Chronicling the Famine” or “The Death Fires” albumes at some point, both of which I love… might dig them out again, just to relive the fear…

  4. Thanks very much Simon. I just went back and found a review for “The Aberrant Laboratory” (which appears to have been written by you) and added an excerpt to my press page on the site. That review stood out to me, it was one of the few that seemed to zero in on the underlying point and I really appreciated it.

    • Ah yes…. I remember now, I have “The Aberrant Laboratory” too somewhere…. I have so many CDs I often forget what I’ve got and what I haven’t…

      This was something that I tried very much to do – get into the mind of the creator to figure out the driving forces and ideas behind the CD in question… mostly I succeeded, I think… I have also taklen that idea over to my book reviews, too…

  5. I need silence to write … it’s an age thing.

  6. I could NEVER have music on while I write. Because I LOVE music so much I would immediately stop writing and start singing instead. I can’t even listen to classical – I just start making up lyrics in my head and then I start singing.

    I’m a disaster at concerts – I have to fight not to sing along because I know how annoying it is – people pay to listen to the performance not me.

    So no music while writing. But it is wonderful while washing up.

  7. Like Mark, sometimes I use music, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes with lyrics and sometimes not.

    Some CDs or bands keep getting used as well- Jan Garbarek’s ‘Twelve Moons’ has been the soundtrack to a lot of writing projects, as has Dark Sanctuary’s ‘Exaudi Vocem Mean Part 1’ and ‘L’Etre Las- L’Envers Du Miroir’. Dead Can Dance’s ‘Aion’ or ‘The Serpent’s Egg’ are also pretty handy. And nearly anything at all by New Model Army will do.

    It is hard sometimes not to sing along with the lyrical stuff… but when I’m in the zone I manage and the music just revs me up to keep working and maintain the pace.

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