Being a Better Writer: Opening Pandora’s Music Box

This is a post I didn’t actually think I’d ever write.

Hyperbole? Not really, actually. As you may have gathered from the title, today I’m going to be talking about music, which is a common enough topic that I’ve been asked about by many a young writer. They want to know if someone can listen to music while writing, what I listen to, etc.

And for the longest time, I’ve just said “Yes” and left it at that. I listen to music when I write, you can too.

But the other day, as I was working while listening to some new music, I started thinking about how many had asked me this question, and the nature of my response. And I started to wonder if there perhaps wasn’t more to say than a simple affirmation that I did. Because, while true that I do listen to music while I write—constantly, in fact—there’s a bit more to it than simply turning on the radio and diving right into whatever I’m working on. Because if it were that simple for everyone … well, the question wouldn’t be coming up, would it? Would be writers would simply turn something on and go, no need to ask anyone else at all.

So today, I’m going to talk a little bit more about listening to music while writing. Because the more I thought about it, the more I realized that over the years I’ve developed a code of rules that determine quite a bit of my writing process. Or perhaps “guidelines” is a better phrase. Irregardless, the point is, I just don’t sit down and hit “play” before I start working. Not normally. There are restrictions I follow, little self-learned requirements I keep to. And now, I’m going to share them with you.

Why listen to music?
Fair question, I suppose. After all, I’ve met many a person who simply doesn’t understand why anyone would feel the need to work to music. Personally, I don’t understand how anyone could not, but let’s give this one a talk anyway.

Music is great because it helps put the body in a flow, a sense of rhythm. Music is something our bodies react to on a basic level. Be it the rhythm, the chords, or just the fullisade of sounds, music shapes the way our bodies react. Scientifically, studies have shown that listening to, for example, classical music, helps focus and organize the mind, leading to a reduction of stress, superior memory skills, and other small benefits.

But there are more than just mental benefits as well. Music has been shown to actually produce a physical reaction in our bodies as well. Chemical balances shift, muscles tense or relax … There are a whole load of physical reactions to listening to music as well as mental (and if you don’t believe me, Google it).

Basically, we humans create music because we’re wired for it. When you turn on the radio or press play on your MP3 player, you’re actually experiencing an entire rush of physical and mental responses.

And the thing is, many of these responses are positive (but not all, and we’ll talk more about that later). Superior cognitive ability, lowered stress levels, etc. So, if you’re the type that likes listening to music all the time, by all means, keep listening to it while you write. You’ll not only reap the benefits, but you’ll need them. After all, writing is stress-inducing, difficult work. There’s a lot to remember, a lot to think about, and a lot to do. If music can help our words flow easier, help our minds make the jumps we need … then we should be listening.

So, end result? Science has shown that (most) music is good for you to listen to, bringing positive effects such as lightening moods and reducing stress. So if you’re going to sit in front of a keyboard for eight straight hours … that seems like a pretty simple thing you can do to improve your experience.

What should I listen to?
But now we come to a very important—perhaps the most important—caveat: What should you be listening to? Remember above, where I mentioned that not all music causes positive reactions? Well, it’s true. Just as science has shown that listening to, for example, classical music improves cognitive functions and capabilities … but they’ve also found that some “music” has the opposite effect, instead worsening the situation.

What does this mean? Well, it means you just can’t listen to anything you want. And some super-specific genre nuts are going to be quite let down if they want to (or attempt to) listen to music while writing … because it’s not going to help. It will likely make things worse.

For example, and I know this comment is going to get all kinds of rage or readers claiming “Yeah, but not me!” about it, but don’t listen to music with lyrics while writing. Or podcasts, for that matter.

Yeah, I know for many readers out there, that seems to be a completely unnecessary pruning that annihilates 99% of— if not all—your library, but it’s true. You don’t want to be writing while lyrics are screaming, singing, or rapping away in the background.

Why? Because our brain is wired to hone in on the spoken word, even subconsciously, and focus on it. Even if we think we’re not paying attention, we are.

But worse, there’s more to this. All forms of music share a story. With most music, that’s an emotional one, a chorus of notes and chords with no narrative that ask you to fill in the blanks (hence another reason why it can be so helpful when writing, we feel the urge to create some narrative for those blanks). Throw lyrics into the mix, however, and suddenly the narrative is already there. Worse, it’s being spoken/shouted at you, and your mind can’t help but pay attention.

Now, I’m sure right now there are still some of you nodding your head and thinking “Sure, sure, but that doesn’t apply to me. I’m different!” And I know this because I’ve seen that exact reaction before, right in front of my face, at panels.

Guess what? You’re not. I’ve had some time now to examine those that claim otherwise, and you know what I’ve found? Writers who listen to music with lyrics (and podcasts) tend to produce a lot less. By a truly staggering amount. Writers who routinely talk about listening to music with lyrics of any kind, when talking about their productivity, are far less productive. As in they may do in a week what I accomplish in half a day.

Why? It’s because their attention is split. Part of their mind is paying attention to the words in the song, following that story, rather than focusing on the words they’re supposed to be putting on a page. It’s like trying to count something while someone stands behind you shouting out random numbers. Sure, you can do it. But it’s going to be frustratingly stressful.

So, if there’s one absolute rule I’d recommend, it’s no lyrics. Ever. Don’t think you’re exempt (or if you do, put it to the test for a few weeks and try going without).

But past that, there are other considerations to contemplate on. Genre of music, or theme, can also matter quite a bit to what you’re working on. For example, a lot of writers report building specific playlists for certain events, ie a list of music they find suits fights for a battle scene, a set of music for a romantic scene, etc. And to a degree, I agree with this practice. After all, it doesn’t really help writing a scene where a character is slowly sneaking somewhere or having a heartfelt conversation with someone if the music you’re using to set the mood is Yakkety Sax or Death Metal.

So don’t just find music without lyrics, find music that feels right for what you’re writing. Build a collection of different styles and genres, if you need it. Find music that helps you keep your focus, not distracts from it.

Where can I find music?
That all said … how do you find music like what you need? After all, most radio isn’t going to help, since radio generally caters to very specific styles of tunes (mostly those with lyrics). So simply turning on the radio isn’t going to help (not that many of this generation listen to radio anyway).

But by the same token, unless you’re part of the rising generation that listens to more than just whatever “everyone else” listened to, you’re probably not going to have a great collection of music at the ready.

Nor should you pirate some. I’ve said my piece on piracy before, but if you decide to go pirate your music, may the same happen to whatever books you release.

So then, if you can’t pirate (may the karma hang over you otherwise like an avenging superstorm upon your life), where can you get music without lyrics?

Well, you can always buy some. This one will require a bit of work on your part, clearly, as you’ll need to be able to afford what you buy, and you’ll also need to know what you’re buying, so you may need to do research, but thanks to the internet and the breakdown of standard music labels it is actually not that costly to assemble a good-sized music library these days. If you’re looking for a good place to start, I’d recommend browsing soundtrack scores and classical music.

Of course, there are easier alternatives. Plenty of authors out there swear by music streaming services like Pandora or Spotify, and both of those make it quite easy to set up a selection of music to listen to. With Spotify authors can even swap and share playlists that they’ve put together while working, meaning you can reap the rewards of someone else’s hard work curating a list that may work for you, while with Pandora computers do the heavy lifting, asking only for a recommendation to kick a “channel” off, followed by a bit of “Thumbs up/Thumbs down” curating to keep it playing the things you want.

There are other options as well. Youtube, for instance, has a lot of custom music playlists you can find, though it’s perhaps best for finding something you already know you want to listen to. Bear in mind, it’s not the best, especially these days with all the takedowns being thrown around by large companies, but if you know exactly what you’re looking for, you can generally find authentic, legitimate uploads of great music. Similar can be said for Soundcloud, which plays host to both up-and-coming aspiring musicians and established artists who enjoy letting their music be sampled for free.

Crud, you can even head over to Overclocked Remix, which I would be remiss to mention given how many authors listen to music from there. With an archive of over three-thousand songs, all free to legally download and listen to, there’s a lot to find.

How to Listen?
Okay, so you’ve found some good, productive music (or a source), and you’re ready to write. Now what?

Well, there’s one last thing to consider. How are you going to listen to your music. And no, I’m not talking at what volume or whether or not you should use headphones (though yeah, think about that). I’m talking about how you’re going to set things up.

You’re going to want automation. Ever notice that some people who listen to music will look up after every song and mess with something, either because the next song isn’t one that they want to listen to, or the volume is off, or something?

You don’t want to do that. You want an uninterrupted stream of music that won’t interrupt you.

Build a playlist. Put it on repeat. Make it big. Assemble several albums in one giant list. Whatever it takes to make it so that you can hit play and then not worry about it for at least a half-hour. The music is there to be a background, not a constant niggling detail that keeps you switching windows and hitting buttons.

In the end, however …
Know this: You don’t need to listen to music. It’s optional. Everything I’ve written above? It’s to answer the question of “What about music?” and hopefully add a bit more context to help some starter writers get past the first few missteps. But after everything, there’s no requirement to listen to anything. In that vein, to finalize everything, all I can say is what I’ve found helpful or learned from others … which I’ve now shared with you above.

It took me time to find what worked well for me, what genres I preferred and whether or not I needed certain styles of music that could help or hinder a certain scene. Experiment a little. Note what happens.

But above all … don’t let it be too much of a distraction. The goal of the music is to help you write and write well, without distractions. To help you focus. If you find music is not helping in that regard, well …

Dump it. Find something else (either music-wise or otherwise) to help you focus, fixate, and write.

But if you’re the kind who really wants something playing in the background, like me, as you write, then give the points above some consideration, and see what happens.

2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Opening Pandora’s Music Box

  1. Agree with this 100%. I always listen to a pre-made playlist when I write, one playlist for each project I’m working on. The songs are based on mood and even for certain scenes, I’ll have one song just on repeat that captures the essence of what I’m going for. Music helps remind me of what I’m doing and to stay off Facebook.


  2. […] So my music collection consists of about 500 albums. Not pirated. No joke. I own a lot of music, most of it instrumental. Why? Well, I’m an author, and I need to listen to something while I work. Rather than burn out an album or two, I find its better to have a huge variety. A couple of readers have asked me about favorites from my collection, and the topic has been the subject of a BaBW post once before. […]


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