Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 26, 2021

10 Ideas For Inspiring Your Writing with Music

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?

* * * * * *

About Ellen

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.

Find her at http://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Top Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

23 comments on “10 Ideas For Inspiring Your Writing with Music”

  1. Interesting post, and some good ideas. I listen to classical radio all day, and I'd find it hard to write in silence - or distracted by the sounds of the neighbourhood.

    1. I am right there with you regarding neighborhood noise. That can really be jarring. When we lived in Mazatlan we were exposed to the blaring of various radios from open-air taxis and live bands traveling along the beach all afternoon and much of the night. Impossible music to write to, at least for me.

  2. I can only write in two kinds of noise - absolute silence, to the tune of noise-canceling headphones, or the cacophony of a bar or coffeeshop. Bar noise is the best, because I worked in bars in college and I'm used to reading and studying in that environment. But that at-home peaceful quiet of an empty house is pretty awesome too. 🙂

    1. Silence is blissful! I keep threatening to buy some noise-canceling headphones.

      You make a good point regarding working in an enviroment that you are used to. That makes a lot of sense.

  3. Like Jenny, I'm an absolute silence writer, too. Even on the most beautiful summer day, I can't write outdoors for long, as the damn cars and birds and flies are too distracting. (Cue eyeroll.) BUT, Ellen, you've inspired me to make a writing playlist that I can use to get the gears turning, and turn off when necessary.

    1. Ooh! Send us your playlist when you have one.

      I've tried writing outdoors but fall prey to the "Look! There's a squirrel" syndrome. I'm easily distracted.

  4. I used to have a one-hour playlist. Mostly mood music, but a few with lyrics. It became so familiar I didn't "hear" it anymore, but it was part of the writing. Then, more recently when I was writing Remaking Morgan, which revolved around a classical pianist, I asked Alexa to play classical piano. What I discovered was the dog came in to listen, and I've been playing classical music in my office ever since. She seems to enjoy it.

    1. So your playlist became white noise for you. Interesting!
      Do you keep the classical music at a low level while writing?

      How wonderful that your pup enjoys the music, too.

      1. Not exactly white noise, because the moods were still there. I keep the volume moderate--background. After all, dogs have excellent hearing! 🙂

  5. I became a believer in the power of music to influence the content of writing when teaching English class to sophomores in high school. On a day when the minds of my students were rushing to summer vacation, I played three pieces of classical music (unfamiliar to most of them). Two of those pieces--Ravel's "Bolero" and Offenbach's "Gaite Parisienne" had pens pushing on paper! And my students finding they had something to say.

    1. How awesome is that!

      I know a fourth grade teacher who dims the lights, turns on a long stream of tiny orange lights, and plays spooky music during writing time just before Halloween. She calls it Spooky Writing. The students love it and write some interesting stories.

      Did you use Ravel's "Bolero" before or after Blake Edwards' movie '10' ?

  6. Ellen, this is a good one! In my case i like quiet while I'm actually writing, but I have developed a lengthy (over 6 hours) playlist of oldies -- Doors, Stones, Beachboys, and, yes, the Monkees' underrated "I'm Not Your Stepping Stone" -- that I listen to while I'm editing. So it depends on what stage the WIP is at.
    Thanks for a cool essay!

    1. Thank you, James!

      I love the Monkees and have endured lots of teasing because of it, at which I smile. My taste in music is eclectic.

      I find it interesting that you listen to different tunes depending upon the writing stage.

      1. Hi, Ellen. Yes, when I'm actually putting new words on paper I can't use the playlist (I agree with the neuroscientists you mention in the essay), but it seems to help when I'm revising. Maybe I can edit longer, waiting for "one more song." And I've taken my share of teasing for Monkees music, too. Great to find another fan!

  7. Yes, I find I do more of my best work with music playing. Somehow it helps me focus, rather than causing a multi-task issue in my experience. I also use music to fit the approximate decade of my fiction and that really helps. I know some writers say it's better not to listen to songs with lyrics, but that doesn't bother me at all. There is something settling about music for me, and keeps me focused and in the chair. Without music in the background, I pop up out of the chair more often for all sorts of distractions like snacks, drinks, small chores that suddenly need attention etc. So I was happy to see this article. Music might not be good for everyone's concentration, but it is the best thing for me. Thanks for posting it.

    1. We are all so different. You have to use what works best for you.

      A good friend listens to punk rock when he is writing a rant. I like to listen to music with lyrics when I'm painting, but not while writing.

      I'm happy that you've enjoyed the post!

  8. Thank you, Ellen, I have a music score in my ALBINO WOMAN Story. Right now, I'm immersed in listening to poetry readings on You Tube. I intend to write a unique poem between each section of TOXIC TIMES.

    1. Hi Elizabeth! I remember your Albino Woman story from critique group. You are so good with dark and gritty. I look forward to reading your next works.

  9. I listen to music while I write. It serves several purposes: if I'm actually paying attention to the song, it may inspire a scene, it drowns out other noises in the background, and as part of TRT, it provides a neutral noise to drown out tinnitus.


    1. Glad you've brought up the use of background noise to drown out tinnitus. Excellent point. Thank you Denise!

  10. I suppose I am different to most here. I like listening to music, softly, in the background whilst I am writing. It does not affect me but it does infect me, the cadence, style and lyrics play with what I am writing. If I listen to "the cowboy Junkies" (just an example) the tale becomes more folksey, clever, homegrown. "KIng Crimson" and it grows esoteric and fulfilling, the poetry of Pete Sinfield, pumping up my lyricism. The huge crescendos bring words unused for years from me, only to be forgotten again when written, at times Bach and Tchaikovsky illicit similar verbose literacy. Yet the truly best for me (all will have their own choices) to encourage what I wish to write are Mike Oldfield and Tangerine Dream.

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