by Ellen Buikema
“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”– Plato
Music, the art of sound through the use of rhythm, harmonies, and melodies, is food for the soul—divine, effective, mathematical – the science of sound. Its language is universal.
A tuneful writing exercise
Music has the ability to spark our imaginations. Here’s how to channel that muse into inspiration for your writing. Turn on a tune that you love and listen carefully.
- Where does the music take you?
- What memory does the music send you to?
- How does the music make you feel?
- Now use that song to envision a character or setting.
- Then take a few minutes and write what the song inspired in you.
Music to get us motivated
For those weeks full of Mondays when nothing is going right, turn on a get-moving playlist to drag yourself to your writing space.
I’m a fan of “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. This song always brings a smile to my face and makes me feel peppier. One writer and filmmaker recommends “In One Ear” by Cage the Elephant, a very high energy, edgy sound. Here are 52 motivational songs to get you pumped.
Score your novel
Many writers choose music based on the mood of the scene they’re developing. While listening to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” conjure writing scenes of slicing through the waves via tall ships or helicopters soaring through clouds on the way to battle. I’ve tried this but it doesn’t work for me. I always hear Elmer Fudd singing, “Kill the wabbit …” when I listen to this piece of the opera Die Walküre. I guess I watched too many Warner Brothers Cartoons growing up.
For romance, light classical music works well. “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls, used in the movie City of Angels, is a fine example. Here are 24 lovely examples in a one hour set to help with the mood.
Soundtracks swell as they maneuver your protagonist through a crime scene. Check out this crime thriller background music.
Australian science fiction author A.C. Flory uses music that fits the mood of what she’s writing. Every once in a while she shares the music she’s found that fits the mood of the piece perfectly. Here’s a recent example.
Music can transport you just about anywhere. I can remember slow dancing (okay, it was that eighth grade hug-and-waddle) to “Knights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues. If I need to return to the emotions of that time all I have to do is hear the tune and it all comes flying back to me. Not that I really want to revisit adolescence and all that teen angst. Ew. But if I need to make my way there, music is a fast ride back.
Songs from long ago or far away
If your setting is in a foreign land, music from that nation will help you get a feel for your characters and scenes. Let’s say that you are writing a scene that takes place in the American Southwest. An easy way to travel there is to listen to Native American music, deep and hauntingly calm.
If your setting is Spain, the Spanish guitar may lend inspiration. I chose Andrés Segovia for an example as I have seen him in concert and he was marvelous.
For scenes in the Australian outback listen to the drone of the didgeridoo. Lewis Burns, an ambassador of the Aboriginal Tradition, uses circular breathing for continuous sound. I can’t imagine how difficult this is to do.
Should we write while listening to music?
Neuroscientist will answer a resounding “No.” According to these scientists when we try to multitask, like write while listening to a song, or texting a friend and listening to a family member, our brain burns glucose at a faster rate and releases cortisol because our brain tries to give equal attention to all the incoming stimuli. They posit that writing while listening to music induces stress. That said, this does not seem to be the case.
Classical music played at a low volume may increase concentration. Low level ambient sound may improve creativity.
A friend grew up near an opera house in New York City. She did her homework while listening to the loud music emanating from the stage and orchestra pit. She prefers to write while listening to classical music set at a high volume. Experiences differ.
Music with or without lyrics
Instrumentals like jazz and classical can allow the world to slip away. Music with lyrics seems to be the problem child as songs with lyrics cause some writers distraction. There is always the possibility of the lyrics finding their way into dialogue.
An odd music related aside
According to one study published in 2012, people who ate at low-lit restaurants where soft music was played consumed 18% less food than those who ate in other restaurants. Not so good for the restaurant, but I wonder if writing in a low-lit writing cave while listening to soft sounds will cause less snacking.
Whatever you decide, the music you play while writing must inspire you and your book.
Do you listen to music while you write? Which comes first, the tune or the tale? How does music affect your work? Do you use music local to the story to help you get in the mood for writing those scenes?
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Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are, The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA fantasy.