Writing is hard. It’s hard to begin, hard to continue, hard to finish. To write successfully and consistently requires an alchemical combination of discipline and inspiration so personal that reading advice on the subject amounts to watching someone else die to learn how it’s done. And while it often feels enlightening to read about the habits of, say, Steinbeck or Austen, their methods are non-transferable. You’ve got to find your own way. So it is with writing to music. It’s always there in the background, goading you on quietly. Not everyone writes to music; not everyone can. But a good many do, including Wired contributor Steve Silberman who calls the practice one of many rituals writers use “to evoke that elusive flow of inspiration.”
Silberman just wrote a piece for NeuroTribes in which he surveyed ten authors on their favorite music to write by. One of Silberman’s own choices, Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way (above), is one I’m stealing. With its brilliant assemblage of musicians and haunting moodiness it sets the perfect tone for my process. Also, there’s no singing. Like Silberman, I can’t compete with a wise, witty lyricist (he mentions Elvis Costello, I prefer Morrissey). In Silberman’s piece, John Schwartz, a New York Times reporter, listens to nothing. Jane Hirschfield, a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, likes David Byrne, Dylan’s Modern Times, and Gillians Welch’s The Harrow and the Harvest. Wired contributing editor David Wolman makes a playlist of mostly indie-pop songs entitled “Write the Book!” His main criterion for the songs he chooses: DO NOT BE BORING! My default writing music is exemplified by Australian three-piece instrumental rock band Dirty Three (below).
So now it’s your turn, readers. Do you write to music? If so, what is it? What artists/composers/albums help you find your rhythm and why? Can you stand lyrics in the music you write by or no? Leave your selections in the comments. On Monday, we’ll compile them in an article and leave you with a great Open Culture playlist. Whether you find something you can steal or not, it should be a fun exercise.
*See our follow-up post with a list of your favorites here
Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.
Miles Davis “In a Silent Way” is definitely high on the list as well as Duke Ellington’s “Money Jungle” and John Coltrane’s “Crescent” …
Bach, Mozart, Arvo Part, Brian Eno, Scott Walker’s scenic stuff, Boris, anything Glenn Gould ever touched, Philip Glass, La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Giacinto Scelsi, ‘Love on the Beat’ by Serge Gainsbourg (Album), Hank Williams, Jackson C. Frank, Alessandro Scarlatti, Gustav Mahler, Gustav Mahler, Gustav Mahler.
White noise. Or to be more specific, Brown Noise from http://www.simplynoise.com. It gives you a stable, soothing sound that becomes invisible after a while and isolates you completely.
(No affiliation, I just think it’s the best generator around. It’s free, too!)
Any kind of music is just distracting while writing.
I often write to Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, on repeat, as well as Philip Glass’ Music in 12 Parts and assorted other minimalist classics.
While completing my master’s thesis, I added Deep Magic’s Illuminated Offering to the playlist.
Well, this week it’s Mark Knopfler’s Privateering for me.
While drawing or writing, the best thing to listen to ( for me) is of course M Davis above ;) ,and also
“Lonely Woman”by Modern Jazz Quartet: http://youtu.be/5OucWYBeBoo
Glenn Gould’s Bach interpretations: http://youtu.be/kuoS6NQqcao
and anything by Bill Evans :)
BTW – You make a wonderful website – please never stop!
It depends on what has to be written, and how quick it has to be done – but usually one of these:
– The Tron Legacy soundtrack
– Mattias Bärjed’s Call Girl-soundtrack.
– Jean Michel Jarre’s Equinoxe.
– Miles Davis Ascenseur pour l’echafaud soundtrack.
– Lone wolf’s theme from the Shogun Assassin soundtrack, over and over.
– Something by Lalo Schifrin, preferably the music from Dirty Harry.
Other times it is Neu!, Kraftwerk, Vivaldi or Prokofiev that does the trick.
When writing fiction, I listen to The Chronic by Dr. Dre, anything by Wu Tang Clan or Snoop Dog, anything by Curtis Mayfield. More than twenty years ago, I wrote my first novel while listening to Bob Dylan’s album Desire, which informed the tone to such an extent that the book’s title comes from a line in one of the songs.
When writing nonfiction: Philip Glass, Kronos Quartet, Lonna Kelley, Greg Brown, Leonard Cohen, Sonic Youth, The White Stripes.
Contemporary Swedish music is by far my favourite! http://fst.se/radio/main.php
I’m all about the instrumental music — there’s already enough voices competing for attention in your head when you’re writing. But it can’t be too bubbly/poppy, nor so fast or complex that it draws attention away from the work at hand.
A few that got me through grad school:
Tortoise — TNT, and if needed, Millions Now Living Will Never Die. The latter seems to be the hip kids album of choice, but TNT is the one that does the trick for me almost every time (and is composer John McEntire’s favorite). Seems like you can hear something new in it on every listen.
Global Communications — 76:14. The title is the length of the album. It’s kind of an old ambient classic by Mark Pritchard and Tom Middleton (Pritchard’s since done some reggae work as Troubleman), and as a classic, some of it sounds a bit dated. But most of it sounds weirdly fresh and unique, like found sound in various international languages.
Boards of Canada — The Campfire Headphase. It always struck me as a good compliment to TNT, and puts me in the same kind of contemplative headspace as driving an open highway late at night.
The Irresistible Force — It’s Tomorrow Already: A British DJ (Mixmaster Morris) who did three experiments in the 1990’s under this moniker. I guess you could call them experiments; he plays with found sound in a way to create kind of sonic narratives. Much of that found sound consists of talking, which could become obtrusive for writing, but it’s not too much and somehow this is one record that for me where the (little) talking never interfered.
Bonobo — Sweetness, Dial M for Monkey, and It Came from the Sea. These tend to work better for me when I have a clear idea of what I’m just to get on the page, and I need to just crank through it. There’s lots of interesting change-ups, a few surprising moments/melodies, and it’s a bit more up-tempo.
Finally, you can never go wrong with some good old mid-20th century library music, especially the Italian composers — Piero Piccioni and Armando Travaioli are two I like.
Ancients – Star Showers on the Euphrates works anytime. Instrumental postrock. For late nights I go with anything by Neurosis. Repetitive riffs and pounding drums.
Based on the contributions to my blog’s Book Notes author playlist series, writers largely fall into two camps:
“I cannot listen to music while I write”
“I listen to music without lyrics while I write”
I am of the second group, listening to classical music (lately a lot of Arvo Part) or instrumental rock (the new Godspeed You! Black Emperor album) while writing.
I love these ideas. However, I cannot write with music on in the background. It gets me so distracted. I’m just one of those people who can’t read or write to music. I just get sucked into it. (I do, however love to create and clean to it!)
It is true though, that it does help others to focus and even to inspire them as they work. So, I appreciate these ideas to potentially use in my classroom.
I’ve recently discovered a music app for the ipad called Scape.
It’s by Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers, and is ideal for creating slowly evolving ‘sound scapes’ to play in the background.
Just enough to soften the city noises and the humming of the household machinery.
Third Stone From The Sun by Jimi Hendrix. Take a brisk Sunday morning say about 7 or 8 AM, cup of coffee, jacket and listen. Few things compare.
Mozart – requiem
Michael jackson – Dangerous album
For some time now I have been using different channels from jazzrradio.com whenever I need to do some serious writting, not just a simple, quick post.
I used that for my first novel, and I’m using that to write my second novel. I found it must be something I cannot sing to, or cling to, or follow easily, and it’s way better if there are no lyrics, or if I simply can’t understand them.
Mozart is a great option two, bbut I tend to get acrried away and lose focus…
Great great site, btw.
Belong – October Language.
Jazz, electronic or classical, minimal lyrics. One tried-and-true favorite is David Holmes’ “Let’s Get Killed.”
Anything by the italian progressive rock band “Goblin”, specially the soundtrack for “Suspiria”
Tori Amos’ “Little Earthquakes” has long been a fave. The powerful lyrics and masterful piano playing energize me. Somehow, I can both write and sing along. When words fail me, I can get lost in some ‘air piano’ playing at the edge of my laptop. :)
Japan and David Sylvian, Masami Tsuchiya, Riuichi Sakamoto – always put me in the mood for writing.
I listen to Glenn Gould playing Bach. Often the Goldberg Variations, but other stuff as well. There are other types of music I’ll turn to as well, but Gould and Bach are what I keep coming back to.
Easy Peasy, my answer is Amiina – Kurr, I’ve written the best stuff of my life while listening to that album♥
what a great article topic…
i can’t write to anything with words. i end up listening and then can’t find my own voice…i often listen to enya for when i need to feel relaxed and malib for when i still need to feel like i’m part of the living people…especially, say when i’m working on a friday night, like right now….
Baroque by Bach, Handel, Telemann, Corelli.
John Cage, 4’33
@Michael West, can you recommend a recording?
The Doors – Live in Detroit 1970
This bootleg has lyrics, but the whirling chaos produced as the band plays an hour beyond their slated time swallows up any distraction; the overall effect becomes one of atmosphere — it’s perfect to burn the midnight oil to.
I listen to many kinds of music, but for writing I stick to classical. Special favorites include Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, Bach violin sonatas and partitas, Mozart piano concerti, and various works by Sibelius and Shostakovich. Sometimes I listen to Carnatic music, but only instrumentals. I can’t bear to listen to any kind of vocal music when I write, even though my preference any other time is usually for singing.
coltrane coltrane, and a little coltrane
I do my writing often listening to Anouar Brahem: le Pas du chat noir or Michael Hedges: Aerial boundaries
instrumental and easy on the ear but by no means background music – clear, articulated and creative just like writing should be.
Visual Art – drawing&painting : Chris Whitley: soft and dangerous shores.
Well, I’m no writer, but when I’m studying, I tend to not like music with singing either.
I always go for some good down tempo jazz classics, like Miles “Kind of Blue” and Coltrane’s “Blue Train” – I mean, you don’t want fast tempo bebop when you’re reading, right?
I also like to listen to some hardcore rock’n roll BEFORE studying.
For that, some AC/DC always fits perfectly!
Strange as this sounds I like a blast of noise to work to. Something like David S. Ware, Charles Mingus’ ‘The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’, or Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s ‘Prepare Thyself to Deal with a Miracle’.
David Bowie’s albums from Station to Station – Scary Monsters.
Anything by Bach, Mahler Symphonies, Faure’s piano pieces.
The In a Silent Way complete sessions are some of my favorite study music. I also listen to a lot of EARTH, especially their later albums (from “Hex” on). Once in a while I listen to some Brian Eno, but that tends to make me sleepy.
I agree with Markus, Eliza Peterson, and especially Michael West (4:33) above.
Having been a composer before I was a writer, I find music a maddening distraction from playing Tetris with syllables. If things get too quiet, I just keep talking to myself loudly enough to keep the tinnitus from distracting as well.
But when I’m cooking or cleaning, I’ll take anything – lately it’s been James Bond. All of it, all of them, and especially Adele’s Skyfall. Yum. I can do me some dishes.
I can’t remember how it aligned itself, but indian classical ragas work great. Ravi Shanka. Ali Akbar Khan. I’ve slowly amassed a nice collection on vinyl. Whether its writing or reading, somehow this music is like nitro, boosting my output and connecting my synapses at an exceedingly noticeable rate.
I like writing to evocative instrumental music–William Ackerman, Michael Hedges, (like Pasi above) Native American flute of R. Carlos Nakai. Often put on Deuter “station” on Pandora. Writing dramatic work I, like Joseph, play Steve Reich, and also Terry Reilly. There’s a heartbreaking score called Titanic by Gavin Bryars, which has also unlocked words for me. Writing music for me works best when it is a bit loose, but not without structure. Thank you for all these great new ideas!
The box set of Brian Eno instrumentals, quietly.
Lately it’s been Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, although I admit I tend to get distracted by its poetry. It gets a little frustrating when you’re writing prose (all the more if it sucks and you are aware of it). But I can wholeheartedly recommend Bill Evans’s album You Must Believe in Spring. Anything by Evans, really.
Tangerine Dream, Mogwai or Tortoise is good for me.
Last year I discovered the Danish group Efterklang’s EP “Under Giant Trees”. It takes me to an other level. I don’t understand why and I don’t care. All I know is that it brings me to an other world deep inside of me…It makes me tell what I really want to tell.
Great question! I do write to music but it really depends on the genre I’m writing. When I was working on my first novel, an urban fantasy/paranormal story, I listened to to dark classical music. I want to say baroque period music but really it was Wynton Marsalis baroque music for trumpets that I reached for first. The next it was Johann Pachelbel’s Canon D . I also had this Maestra Rachel Worby’s Wheeling symphony CD that I listened to while I wrote but again the darker the music the better. I’m listening to Canon D right now and it is bringing tears to my eyes. I forgot that feeling. The worst music for me to write is today’s contemporary R n B “love” songs. They are so uninspiring that I have to turn off the radio when I want to write.
Piazzolla, Martha Argerich, Luis Salinas, those are my choices lately. Instrumental, quiet, but also interesting and intelligent music in case I’m not fully concentrated.
Chopin Piano concertos or the haunting music of Enya. Also listening to Spanish songstress Chambao can ignite some wonderful feelings and memories.
It depends on my mood
Bach-Sleepers Wake,Yasmin Levy-Naci En Alamo. these are the most played songs when I write.
Depends on the tone of what I’m writing and my mood, I guess. Sometimes it’s Enya other times it’s Nirvana, Staind or We are the Fallen. Even JPop artists like Kalafina and Utada Hikaru make the list. When I’m feeling pretty ethnic, Oumou Sangare’s albums stay on repeat.
Anything on Jonathan Schwartz’s radio program! (American standards, Frank Sinatra, etc)
I’m fond of Amon Tobin, whose work is largely instrumental. I enjoy most of his work, but lately The Foley Room has been my favorite.
Recently and belatedly, I’ve discovered the Beastie Boys’ 2007 Grammy-winning instrumental album, The Mix-Up. Better late than never!
Strong bass, but soft music. No lyrics, or only short phrases (lyrics distract me). More rythm than melody. Slow cello.
it depends on what I’m writing. i try to find something that suits the mood. electric Miles Davis (Agharta, for example) is often a favorite. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry works for some things. live Grateful Dead from roughly 1972-1978. spacey instrumentals in general, stuff that encourages free and loose flow of thought without demanding too much foreground attention. later records by Earth (Hex, Bees, Angels/Demons). something with a feeling of propulsion, tho doesn’t have to be a steady beat. or sometimes just the rain is nice, when we have any.
Metal Fingers – Special Herbs and Spices 0-9
Surprised more haven’t mentioned Beethoven, specifically 7th Symphony 2nd movement. When the writing has to be dynamic, this piece I play on auto-repeat.
I know his work can be strongly melodic, like 5th symp. 1st mvmt. But, for me, the rest of his symphonies, including piano concertos, are very active, without being particularly distracting.
Classical. Bach. Lara Saint John. Debussy.
I really can’t explain why, but Enigma’ s album “Le Roi est mort, vive le Roi!” Just does something to my brain, especially “Beyond the Invisible” and “TNT for the Brain”. For some reason, it quiets my mind – it shuts off that secondary voice and allows me to focus. I don’t know that I would normally listen to it under regular circumstances, though.
Sometimes, certain songs will trigger images for me. Notably for me is “Violet Hill” by Coldplay and “All We Have Is Now” by The Flaming Lips.
It depends on the mood I’m in and what I’m trying to write, especially if it’s in a different era.
I love opera and classical music, lots of stuff from the 60s and 70s. Those are all good for writing. How about Etta James, Elton John, The Mamas and the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, The Moody Blues, Johnny Cash, Johnny Mathis…
Lots of Spanish and Arabic music as well.
If I were to write something more contemporary, I might put on rap or R&B. If I’m in a silly mood and feel like dancing in my chair while I write, Harry Belafonte, disco, or 80s stuff.
But that Enigma album… Sometimes I can’t write without it. It’s like my own personal binky.
Chopin Nocturnes. Thank you from Barcelona!
Atelecine, Lustmord, Coil, Demdike Stare… These are a few that we use to help saturate the air with the “occult” vibe that we like to work with.
Lots of the classical composers have been covered, but I feel I should also mention Erik Satie. His work is sometimes haunting, especially Gymnopedies.
Personally the perfect mood for me is a somewhat melancholic with a dash of hope and romanticism.
– Bill evans trio work
– bach cello suites
– kind of blue
– tord gustavsen trio
– anour brahem
– beethoven symphonies and piano concert 3
– chopin nocturnes
Nice idea though – lookinf forward to seeing the list
i’ve been a obsessed with dub…it started with reggae, then after being turned on to dub, it is the only music that helps me focus and write.
try augustus pablo, lee ‘scratch’ perry, king tubby.
for more contemporary reggae/dub sound, try SOJA, or groundation….http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDeMatJhkgQ
seriously chill. incredibly fluid and filled with eros.
ZIP – pseudonym for dj Thomas Franzmann, a German contemporary composer.
Ornithology from Charlie Parker and Original Nuttah from UK Apachi and ShyFX
Alice Coltrane, “Avalon” by Roxy Music, Keith Jarrett, Lee Morgan, “Wonderwall Music” by George Harrison, Martin Denny, “Sketches of Spain” by Miles Davis…
Jean Luc Ponty
What I listen to depends on what I’m writing or what stage the writing is at. Sometimes it’s 6os rock and roll, sometimes it’s opera or classical tunes by Mozart or Bach, even a little Verdi, and sometimes (though not often) it’s a little Blues. I don’t mind singing as it adds to the mood and tone, I don’t listen much to the lyrics. I’m not big on jazz as I find the rhythm and tempo changes to be too distracting.
I get most of inspiration not from songs filled with vocals and metaphors but from melodies – and here the choice is big: from McCartney’s “Oceans Kingdom” and Ludovico Einaudi’s “Divenire” to unknown composers at online podcasts.
As singing seems to disctract me, I prefer songs in languages which I do not understand – so that I didn’t have to imagine what’s happening in a song’s plot while listening to it. I guess, African music is great – Ladysmith Black Mambazo or Insingizi.
As long as I do not know Icelandic, the band named Arstidir is quite good, too.
i like this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=co5gy_2uOEY&feature=related
A Love Supreme by Coltrane or Ascenseur pour l’echafaud by Miles Davis hands down!
Vinicius de Moraes e Toquinho
Specific music to write by? I never really gave it much thought. I just cue up iTunes and put it on shuffle. Songs range from the 1950s to Recently Released. In other words, I like to be surprised. :-)
I have been listening to Two Steps From Hell. Here is one of their songs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwX84DOz2XQ
I don’t write music…but to do so is to be inspired and to be inspired is to be not of this world! To write a song is like a droplet in the ocean & all the different forms of music, spanning time…the ocean itself. I may not know all but man, anytime is a right time for music! As Marley put it very well indeed…”One thing good about music…when it hits you feel no pain.” As for now, It feels good to drift off to the lovely notes and music of Keith Jarrett’s ‘Sun Bear Concerts in Japan.’
As for me, I do not know, which music will exactly help you to write. I tried to analyze this question and understood that there’s no exact answer.
But I know which music won’t help you:
1. Emotionally overwhelming music – it takes too much of your attention.
2. Depressive music – it doesn’t seem to help make things better.
3. Dance music is also not recommended because it makes you constantly think of dancing and fun.
But still, some folks say, that I’m not right and items listed above work fine for them.
This is why I’ve created http://c-h-i-ll.com/ – a website where you can listen to different playlists to set up the right atmospere.
No restrictions or limits: just keep searching and you will find the way to help yourself with writing.
As I am writing an action-packed fantasy I love listening to Run Boy Run – Instrumental by: Woodkid I prefer instrumental songs that get you in tone with what you’re writing about. I think that there are no rules to what songs help you write as long as you like it and it helps you put words on a page.
Since I have ADHD, to write I need something that stimulates me, like The Cure, Patti Smith… and VERY loud :S
I feel more comfortable in composing songs with out vocals. I’m not professional at it, just for fun & mind relaxing, I like to write lyrics & compose songs for my friends & family events. It feels like heaven when you are at silence zone area with a soft & rhythmic music, a pen & guitar, miles away from the busy streets… Or some time use white noise to create virtual environment ( White noise is virtual sounds like sound of rain, background sound of a coffee shop… ), For this I use onlinewhitenoise.com . This also help to improve productivity & mind peace.
Hero by Family of the Year is a good song for writing.
Best for me when I have a deadline is Moondog – “The Viking of Sixth Avenue” it’s classical music with native american beats and a little jazz thrown in. I generally don’t like albums with lyrics, but if it’s immersive enough like Beck’s “Morning Phase” who cares. My top six are at http://www.bestmusictowriteto.com/top-6-albums-write/
Anything from Death Cab for Cutie really. It’s low key, but lyrical. Other bands/artists like it are:
-The Album Leaf
-The Temper Trap
I also like the Planets by Holst, The Civil Wars, He is We, MGMT, Roberto Cacciapagila, and Agnes Obel.
The Rolling Stones are also good, but I especially like writing to Beast of Burden, Gimme Shelter, Sympathy for The Devil, I can’t get No Satisfaction, Sister Morphine and Dead Flowers.
Also check out the Cold War Kids. They’re pretty good.
Hope this helps.
Claude Bolling specially with Jean-Pierre Rampal