Being a Better Writer: Music to Write To

Welcome back readers!

Yeah, I know. That introduction has been said hundreds of times with Being a Better Writer … but that doesn’t make it any less true. Besides, I don’t have much else to say. While I’m writing this at my desk it’s in advance, because when this post goes up I’ll be out and away, so even if there were news to be had, I wouldn’t be able to comment about it.

Anyway, while I’m out and about, this post can still go on. So enough with my ramblings! Let’s talk writing. Or more specifically, music and writing.

I’ll admit, this is kind of an odd post, though it’s been one of the more requested topics I used to get back in the day. I just … didn’t quite know what to make of it, and there were always more important, immediately applicable posts to talk about.

However … recently I was thinking back on some of those old, odder requests and thought “You know, I could cover that. It’d be a bit strange, but I think I know what I could do for it.”

So today, we’re going to talk about a very odd writing subject: Music. Not writing about it, but what to write to. Because like a lot of other things with writing, it’s not quite as straightforward as it at first appears.

And then? Well then, we’re going to have some fun. So hit the jump, and let’s talk music,

If you talk with authors, you’ll find that many of them have quite the extensive music collection. Music is, for many, if not a muse, than a sort of lubricating agent for smooth thought processes. Many a book has been written while the author plugged away in front of a CD player, record set, or for the more modern among us, MP3 or streaming service. I’m writing this article to music right now, as we speak.

But what kind of music? While might seem simple to just answer with “any kind” in truth things aren’t quite that simple. They are pretty straightforward, but there does happen to be a limit. If you ask writers, especially ones that publish, what they listen to while working, you’ll find a single common thread around all their answers. Most every single one of them will list music that is instrumental in nature.

In other words, no lyrics. There’s a legitimate reason for this: Our brains are hardwired from birth to speak and utilize language. Hence, when we listen to music with lyrics, parts of our brain that can identify the lyrics activate. We listen to those words—whether consciously or subconsciously—and devote a part of our brainpower to processing them.

Thus, doing that while attempting to write something becomes a bit like the old “pat your head and rub your belly at the same time” trick. Combined with occasional change-ups asking you to switch the directions of the rotation or the speed of the patting. Not impossible, but certainly difficult.

Writing while listening to anything with lyrics is like that. Not impossible, but certainly difficult, and most authors learn quite quickly that their performance suffers while listening to music with lyrics as their mind tries to focus itself away from writing words on paper, and onto the words being sung into their ears. Even if they are able to still technically write while listening to lyrics, many authors have found that the moment the lyrics go away, their writing speed increases dramatically, like a cloud lifting from over their mind.

It really is a cloud. Music containing lyrics pulls our focus away, splitting our attention, whether we want to admit it or not. Even if we’re not writing the lyrics, we’re putting additional strain on our minds as our brain is forced to hear the lyrics, interpret them, and then disconnect those words from the words we’re pulling out to craft our story with.

It’s just not a good mix. And yes, I know that there are those that will say “But I can write listening to music with lyrics …” because I’ve met them. Trust me and forgo it. I didn’t say it was impossible to do. I just said it hurt. I can write while listening to music with lyrics plays in the background too … but I’ve noticed that my output sinks to about a quarter of what it would normally be, and quite often the writing itself still suffers—especially with dialogue.

So you can do it. But you shouldn’t. Better to go without, really, than force your brain to try and juggle all those inputs.

But look, outside of that, there’s really not much of a limit to what you can listen to. As long as there aren’t lyrics pulling your brain’s attention away, you can really get away with just about anything. Granted, you might find that one genre or another of music really works for you, as some authors do. Some recommend very atmospheric music with a light touch, the sort of music that’s there but only “intrudes” if you think about it. Others go classic and swear by classic pieces. Some even have a selection of albums or music that “fits” certain emotions, moods, or events that they then select based on the emotion, mood, or event that they’re writing.

Others—like myself—range all over the place, listening to just about anything as long as there aren’t lyrics. Sometimes I want music that matches the mood of the scene, or sometimes that matches my mood. It’s all over the place.

Really the only large rule that’s established is “no lyrics.” Which I know may be distressing to some of you, but you can at least give it a shot for a few days and see what the difference is. After all, if it’s effectively a rule-of-thumb across authors, it might be worth listening to, right?

Of course, some of you might really be wondering what you’re supposed to listen to instead, if you aren’t going to listen to something without lyrics. Some of you might even be shocked to discover that there exists music without lyrics.

Well, there’s a lot of it. Some of it is even legally free. And well, since we’re having a bit of fun, here’s a collection of albums and groups that both I myself and a bunch of other authors I know have spoken about writing some of your favorite books to.

Note: None of these album covers link to anywhere. Music is one of those areas where there are a ton of places to find it, and everyone has their own picks. I personally recommend, at least for DRM-free MP3s, Amazon or Bandcamp, but if you have other sources or prefer streaming you should be able to find these readily enough.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim by Jeremy Soule

Opening with the score from a video game? Don’t be surprised, actually, as you’re going to find a lot of game music on this list. Skyrim‘s score is one that I’ve heard personally declared as a common listen by a number of famous authors, including at least one that’s a household name.

I’m not going to drop the name, because that would be extraneous to the point, which is really just that a lot of authors have mentioned the Skyrim score as one of their favorite writing companions, for one reason or another. Some just love the tunes, while others have cited the nice atmospheric qualities of the music being soothing while they work and plan.

Personally, because yes this is one in my album collection, I find it a mix of both. There are striking tunes, but also long, soothing pieces that evoke the feel of the natural elements. The full score spans several discs if you get it in hardcopy, though most don’t these days and opt for more digital methods. It’s a very common score too, so if you have Spotify or some other streaming service, you’ve already got access to it, making it pretty easy for most to pull up and write to. If you’re looking for something instrumental to try or maybe looking to set the mood for your latest fantasy writing jam, Skyrim is a solid choice.

Tron Legacy by Daft Punk

I almost feel like I don’t even need to explain this one. It’s regarded as one of the best film scores in recent memory, frequently shows up on lists of the best film scores of all time, and it was made by Daft Punk. It’s one of those scores where if you recognize any of the elements involved and know a bit about them, you’ve probably already got this sitting in your library.

But on the odd case you don’t … This is a fantastic score, and I’d be challenged to think of a single book of mine that didn’t have at least one chapter written in it while this was playing over my speakers. I’m not alone in my extolling the virtues of this score either, as like Skyrim above, Tron Legacy is a commonly brought up score I’ve heard mentioned by other authors when discussing their favorite music to write to.

It’s a great soundtrack, and fits almost any writing situation perfectly. I highly recommend tracking it down and giving it a listen while working on your latest title.

Halo ODST (but really any of them work) by Martin O’ Donnell and Michael Salvatori

Again, this is another score—or rather series of scores—that get recommended quite a bit among authors as a great “starting point.”

But what more can I say about these? I’ve picked my favorite of the bunch here with ODST‘s jazz-drenched Noir score, but there are multiple other classics to pick from. And yes, they are classics. Halo‘s scores are some of the most iconic and recognizable to come from the industry, right up there with the Tetris theme, and it’s not uncommon to load up a classical station from somewhere around the world (where radio is still a thing, anyway) and hear the familiar choir of the main theme begin playing.

But whether it’s instantly recognizable themes or smooth background melodies, Halo is one of those scores that graces a large number of author playlists. Again, I recommend ODST as my personal favorite, but there are a number of titles in the series to pick from these days, and even the spin-offs attended by other artists tend to have some pretty strong tunes to offer. But if you’re choosing from the mainline titles, it’s hard to go wrong.

OC Remix

Let’s have one more widely recognized and recommended music source before diving into a few more uncommon picks from my own stable. And yes, I say source because OC Remix, AKA Overclocked Remix, the internet’s biggest source of professionally rearranged and reimagined video game music, is indeed a source.

Dozens of albums. Thousands of songs spanning over two decades of work and multiple decades more of history. Overclocked Remix is a community of musicians, some new, some experienced and recognizable folks in industry positions, who reimagine and reinterpret video game music in ways both surprising and familiar.

OC Remix is one of the first things that always comes up when I see authors asked about music they listen to while writing. Without fail. I myself wonder if the community at OCR knows exactly how many bestselling books (yes, I won’t name drop, but I will confirm that some of these folks author massive worldwide bestsellers) were written by authors listening to their tunes while typing away at keyboards. It sounds funny to say, but OCR could easily count itself as the grease that keeps a lot of author’s mental wheels rolling along smoothly.

Anyway, you’ll most likely see at least one album below from this community that I personally recommend, but this particular source I have put a link for in the heading and on the image. In part because it’s such a vast site, but also because all this music is free of charge. Though there is an OCR store where you can support the hosting or even purchase albums sold by artists that produce music for the site, so you can still support things as you’d like.

But yes, thousands of songs to listen and write to, all free. It’s incredible what the OCR community has produced and accomplished over the years, and if you’ve never taken a look at what they have to offer, I highly recommend it.

The Planets Suite by Gustav Holst

This is a bit of a catch-all cheat, as while I love The Planets Suite, what I’m really advocation and recommending here is a general catch all for “Classical music” as a whole.

Yeah, I know, some of you might be thinking “Classical? You mean AC/DC right?” No. Despite what Boomers will tell you, music did in fact exist before their favorite bands. It was sweeping, it was grand, and it was lyric-less.

Jokes aside, I’d guess that a decent number authors could at the drop of a hat name a favorite classical piece or composer that they write to from time to time. Again, this is partially supported by my having heard numerous authors do exactly that when asked, so it’s not much of a guess.

Thing is, there’s a lot of classical music out there, and like OCR above, there’s almost no point to recommending “just one,” though I did here because I really happen to like The Planets Suite. But if you’ve never given classical a listen, I’d recommend giving it a try. There’s a wide breadth and depth of style and genre on display to be heard, and you can start with Youtube and well-executed search.

Give classical a go. You might be surprised how well it suits your writing needs.

Subnautica: Below Zero by Ben Prunty

At this point, we’re moving into a few personal recommendations, scores and albums that I’ve written to that might be lesser known to most, but have still taken a common place on the rotation of “music that I write to.” Subnautica: Below Zero is certainly one of those scores. Cool, ambient, and ethereal, I’ve found that a lot of this score is the perfect music to zone out to while working on one book or another.

This is a more atmospheric score, but it certainly delivers melodies and tunes that are instantly recognizable even as they sort of float to the background of your mind. Or sink, given the title’s subject matter. Not that you need to have experienced Subnautica to know that this is a nice soundtrack to let run while you work. Recommended.

Chronology: A Jazz Tribute to Chrono Trigger by various artists

Above I said that I would share at least one album from OCR to recommend for all your writing while listening needs, and this was the one I had in mind when I said that. In addition, I’m linking it with the title, since unlike other albums you can’t just walk into a store and purchase this one (for one, it’s not for sale).

Chronology is exactly what is says in its title: A smooth, relaxing jazz composition album that is perfect for writing to, to the point that I can very clearly claim that any book I wrote after this album came out was written at least in part with this playing in the background. It’s been that much of a staple.

Maybe dedicated jazz listeners would have more to say about this album, but as far as I’m concerned it’s been a great writing companion, and I definitely recommend you give it a look and a listen.

Spark the Electric Jester by various artists including Funk Fiction

Okay, all these albums have been nice so far, but what about something that bumps? What if you want to be bobbing your head and tapping your toes while you’re writing. What if you want to be grooving in your seat, feeling the bassline roll through you like an unstoppable storm of sick beats?

Then you need a score like Spark the Electric Jester, composed by, among other people, artists with names like “Funk Fiction.” Go on, tell me that name doesn’t say you’re about to be blown away by jamming beats. Just try it. You can’t.

And after you listen to Spark, you won’t. Spark is probably the most obscure thing I’m recommending today, and that’s saying something. But it deservers a larger audience. Spark is full of grooving beats, basslines so smooth you could slide from one end to the other without even trying, and melodies that will have you humming and bobbing along as you type away. Like Chronology this album has been a regular on my writing rotation since I got it, and in fairness while I like smooth beats, this album is pretty top-tier among the offerings I’ve found.

Seriously, look it up and give it a listen. If your head doesn’t bob or your toes don’t tap, you might want to get your hearing checked. Upbeat and catchy to the point of being contagious, Spark is, at least to me, a perfect writing companion.

How to Train Your Dragon by John Powell (and other movie scores)

As with classical above, this is a bit of a recommendation for a personal favorite and a catch-all summation of some other fantastic movie soundtracks that remain, to this day, great companions to the work of writing.

Really though, what more could I say about the score to How to Train Your Dragon that most don’t already know? This soundtrack soars, and in the best possible way: On a dragon’s wings. HtTYD was an excellent movie, but as with all movies so much of that was wrapped up in every part the whole being well-crafted, and the music is no exception.

This one’s held a place in my pantheon of sound since the movie came out, though it’s far from the only one. As with Tron above, movie scores remain an excellent source of instrumental music to write to, and with decades of Hollywood efforts now filling music archives (and MP3 stores/streaming services) around the world, there’s definitely something in these deep collections to keep your mind at east while you write. Whether it’s the haunting tunes of Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, John Williams’ immediately recognizable Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark, Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings, or even Giacchino’s take on Star Trek, movie scores have a lot to offer a writer.

Hardspace: Shipbreaker by Traz Damji and other artists

One of the real nice things that sets game music apart from a lot of other music is its versatility. Movie scores, while fantastic and with much to offer, do seem to follow trends for the most part cemented around a few standout identities in the field. But game music tends to be more freeform and loose with “Well, this is what’s popular right now.” Case in point is Hardspace: Shipbreaker‘s score, which has been described as “Americana beats to chill to.”

Americana is a style of music that originated in the US south in the mid 19th to early 20th century (1850s to 1900s, respectively). It saw a resurgence in the mid 80s in a few places … and from there was chosen as the style of choice for a Sci-Fi game about scrapping ships.

Not that I’m complaining. Shipbreaker‘s score is perfect to just work to, which I think is what the composers were going for (as well as that obvious connection of the space frontier to the American frontier). But I recommend it not only because of its unique sound and style, but also because again, this happens to be perfect music to write to, whether for mood, setting the scene, or just to listen to.

Frank Klepacki & The Tiberian Sons: Celebreating 25 Years of Command and Conquer

Those of you that know me knew I wouldn’t be able to let this slip by in some fashion. Command & Conquer is famous for many things, among them being the original RTS from the team that invented the genre (they made Dune II, the first real RTS, Blizzard copied that with Warcraft, and then Westwood set the stage for everything that would come after with Command & Conquer). But one thing the series is also known for is its incredible sense of sound and music style, driven by Frank Klepacki.

And wouldn’t you know it, these tunes happen to be great to jam to while writing.

Like Halo, there’s a wide array to choose from, but if you just want to try one, this recommendation is a solid grab-bag. The Tiberian Sons do live metal-based covers of a lot of songs, and take their name from the Command & Conquer series. So, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the series (along with all its musical accolades), Frank Klepacki teamed up with the Sons to release an album that’s effectively an electric-guitar tribute to some of the series greatest hits.

If the metal is too much for you, you can always just check out the remastered versions of the classic scores and see exactly why they’ve held a place on so many playlists for decades. I’ve written plenty of chapters from Colony to Starforge while jamming away to Mechanical Man, Just Do It Up, and Rain in the Night. The tribute album is a great grab-bag, but it’s far from all the music of the series has to offer, so check it out if your interest is piqued.

I could go on. No, really, I could. My player informs me that I have over 600 albums in my collection. A collection decades in forming, the majority of which I listen to while writing.

My point is that I could continue to share music I’ve used while writing all day and barely scratch the surface. Most authors likely could.

This isn’t trying to brag, but rather trying to set an expectation: Music to write to is plentiful … once you know where to look. This post? It’s meant to suggest some options and then inspire those who look at it to build their own list. To function as a stepping stone, in other words. To find what can serve as your muse, your background companion, your mental grease … however you want to state it.

There’s a lot of music out there that’s great for writing to. You just have to find it.

Just don’t forget to watch out for the lyrics. Your brain already has enough words to worry about.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: Music to Write To

  1. I also like the Music from Sword Art Online, much of the Instrumental Music from RWBY, and other anime shows.

    I can get away with language in the music sometimes depending on the scene and pace of what I am writing, but only for languages I am horrid at. Which is just about everything outside of English. Latin and Japanese I both suck at, so they are somewhat safe – though if my brain is overclocking on working through a difficult scene, even those can be a distraction. (The Latin is Gregorian Chant, very relaxing in the write settings.)

    If I try to write dialog At All while lyrics are playing, I have found that despite my best intentions, the lyrics will bleed into the dialog. And when I read it back later, I will be facepalming so hard that I didn’t see it as I was writing it.

    Thanks as always for sharing your insights, Max!


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