Music and the Written Word

music art picAs I wait for editorial notes on THE MOTHMAN’S CURSE, I’ve been working on another middle-grade suspense novel. One essential thing that puts me in the writing mood and keeps me there is music.

I’m always curious to know how many authors listen to music while they write, and how many consider it a distraction. I’m one of those people who can’t write without music—usually LOUD music, which makes no sense because all other types of background noise really zap my concentration. It could be that music drowns out everything else, allowing me to focus. That’s probably true. (Especially when I’m wearing headphones and can’t hear the kids fighting in the next room.) But I also find that music provides atmosphere, helping me visualize the setting and characters more vividly.

Each project gets its own playlist. MOTHMAN had mostly folk music by the likes of Mumford and Sons and The Civil Wars, because those artists fit the tone I was hoping to establish. Thanks to Pandora, I also had the pleasure of discovering new artists along the way, like Crooked Still and Sarah Jarosz. They were added to the playlist, too.

My playlists don’t change dramatically from project to project, since I always include some sort of paranormal or spooky element and I need the music to reflect that. So I don’t have any lists with, say, Dolly Parton or Metallica. But unexpected artists do sneak their way in. The theme music for a previous book that didn’t sell was, and will always be, a song by the Pretenders. That’s the appeal of the creative process: I never know what my very opinionated imagination has planned.

the muse with lyre

How do you keep your muse happy?

With this new project it’s been fun to explore the subtle differences in mood, conflict, and pacing. Trying out different musical genres as I write actually helps me shape the characters and the overall feel of the book. Cinematic music has been working pretty well, works by composers like Hans Zimmer and Alexandre Desplat. Groups like Passion Pit and One Republic have found their way into the rotation too. I try not to argue with how the muse chooses to further her agenda. I just do what she tells me to do.

I’m sure there are amazing studies out there about the positive effects of music on productivity and cognitive ability. I confess my interest is less grandiose. Someday, somehow, if a humble book of mine is ever made into a movie, my heart’s fondest wish is that it will get a kick-butt soundtrack. Who knows? Maybe some future writer will crank up the volume on her laptop speakers when she hears it, feeding her own muse in the great circle of (writing) life.

What do you listen to when you write? Beethoven? Lady Gaga? The soothing sounds of the rain forest? Let us know in the comments!


May Arboretum 027Christine Hayes writes spooky stories for middle grade readers. Her debut novel, THE MOTHMAN’S CURSE, is due out spring 2015 by Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. She is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.


Filed under Advice - Helpful or Otherwise, Character Development, craft~writing, Writing, Writing and Life

15 responses to “Music and the Written Word

  1. I don’t listen to music. Even if I’m listening as I’m walking or driving, and I get an idea for a story or a line revision, I have to turn off the music to really concentrate. (Then I record it on my phone to type up later.) I don’t mind the sound in a coffee shop or restaurant. I can totally block that out. Who knows, maybe I haven’t given music a fair shot. Listening to tunes may be just what I need to give my muse a fresh burst of creativity.
    Nice post, Christina!


    • Christine Hayes

      Penny, thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s so fascinating to hear what works for other writers. Maybe I should try the no music thing for a few days and see what happens!


  2. I love listening to music while I write; I need outside noise to keep the critical voices in my head at bay (and like you, who needs the distraction of arguing kids?). I shy away from current music with lyrics though, because then I sing along which definitely interferes with the writing process. I have a playlist of classical (mostly Beethoven and Bach) and music I don’t know how to classify (Peter Gabriel’s more avant-garde stuff, Loreena McKennitt, Enya, Wally Badarou) that I know so well it flows through me like water. Perfect for moving my fingers along. Thanks for asking! 🙂


  3. Ah, Christine–I’m one of those who just can’t listen to music while writing. If it’s at a very low level and there’s other background noise about (like at a coffee shop), I can manage, but any louder than that and I’m distracted. I was never even able to listen to music while doing homework in high school and college!

    I wonder if my years of training as a dancer has anything to do with this? If I hear a piece of music I love, my instinct is to dance or choreograph to it. So it can totally inspire creativity for me…just not in the writing realm. 🙂


  4. Interesting post! I look forward to seeing what everybody says. 🙂
    Like Penny, I don’t listen to music when I write. I’m from the country, so I do feel most comfortable in silence/darkness (hm, I could also be dead, I suppose). I also frequently have to learn a lot of music, so it’s hard to switch into recreation mode.
    Thanks for the insight, Christine!


    • Christine Hayes

      Adi, sometimes the silence is its own form of background music. You are a singer, yes? (I think I remember reading something about you and a very impressive choral or opera company.) It makes sense that you would need a break from that sometimes!


  5. mziskjr

    I need silence when I write.

    That illustration you used is stunning. Who did it?


    • Christine Hayes

      Silence is good. We don’t get nearly enough of it.

      The art is a free wallpaper from a site called paqoo. I wish I knew the name of the artist. Thanks so much for commenting!


  6. Joshua McCune

    I used to, but now not so much. Not sure why… well, I am sure why… though my fave scene was written to Shinedown’s SOUND OF MADNESS on blasted repeat. That would be my book trailer song. Lol


  7. Hmmm… for some reason my comment never showed up! What I tried to say before is that when I write, I can’t listen to music that has words. Apparently my brain is very open to suggestion when I’m listening to my muse because if I hear ANYTHING it will end up on the page! That’s great for transcribing interview notes… not so great for drafting or revising something of my own. Instead, I listen to instrumental music to help set the mood, with Jim Brickman’s piano and Vanessa Mae’s violin as my go-to favorites (and thank goodness for Pandora!).


    • I actually have several Dolly songs on my WIP playlist. 🙂

      I make a playlist for every new WIP, and usually one for every main character. I cannot, however, listen to any of them while I’m writing. I’m like Laurie; if it’s got lyrics, they end up in my drafts. So, I listen to my WIP playlists in the car or when I’m cleaning house, and it always inspires me and gets me pumped to write. Then, when it’s actually time to write, I listen to background noise or instrumental stuff. Great post, Christine!


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