The Nighttime Novelist...accomplishes more in about 240 pages than a dozen other "how to write" or "craft your novel" books have ever done.

--Helen Gallagher/Blogcritics




Sunday, November 7, 2010

NaNoWriMo Tip #7: A Little Writing Music (Part II)

This one isn't really a "tip," since everyone has his or her own opinion on background music while writing--some, I'm told, even prefer silence (!) while working. But for me, a certain kind of music helps me block out everything going on around me and helps me find the zone more, earbuds are the universal postmodern Do Not Disturb sign, helpful in its own way.

I prefer background music which is unobtrusive (meaning, no big shifts in dynamics to distract me); patterned or repetitive (recurring motifs that make it easier for me to get into the trance); and mostly wordless (though there are some exceptions--Radiohead comes to mind).

So here's my list of ten albums which do all of the above...mostly ambient, chamber music, and film or video game scores. I'll include links to samples, and if you end up liking anything, you might check it out for yourself.

Hope you enjoy!

Ten Albums for Writing

1--Brian Eno, Music for Airports: The album that really created the ambient genre. Eno's got a huge discography, but this one, for me, is still the best. [sample]

2--Vangelis, Blade Runner OST: There are actually a whole bunch of Blade Runner soundtracks, mostly bootleg versions constructed by fans and shared over the internet. The best is the so-called "Esper Edition," which also includes some cool effects and snippets of dialogue from the film. Which can be tuned out, provided you've seen the film a hundred times. Which I have. [sample]

3--Radiohead, Kid A: Their most electronic album, though it's got a few heavy rockers, too...providing this great momentum which pulls you (and the writing) along with it. And it's beautiful. [sample]

4--Christopher O'Riley, Hold Me To This: Christopher O'Riley Plays Radiohead: As far as the great Radiohead piano cover debate goes (did you know there was one?) I think I prefer O'Riley to Brad Mehldau. And this album is one of my go-to writing albums, though some of his versions are quite frenetic. [sample]

5--Ravel, String Quartet in F Major: If you've seen The Royal Tenenbaums, then part of this string quarter'll be instantly familiar. All four movements are wonderful. [sample]

6--E*Vax, Parking Lot Music: Like trip-hop music performed by a Commodore 64. [sample]

7--Rachel's, Music for Egon Shiele: Rachel's is a minimalist classical band from...actually, I have no idea how to describe them. Just take a listen. [sample]

8--Nathan McCree, Tomb Raider I-III OSTs The only downside: when the falling boulder music comes on, I begin frantically pressing X. [sample]

9--Neil Young, Dead Man OST: A gorgeous acoustic-electric score for a great, underrated movie. [sample]

10--Jon Brion's OSTs: I mean all of them: Magnolia, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche, NY. There's not a bad one. [sample]

Honorable mention goes to my iPod.

By the way, I'd love for you to recommend some of the music you write to in the comments section...I'm always interested in how others work, not to mention, always on the lookout for new music.


  1. I'm always trying to find music with a tone and lyrical content that somehow feeds into the story I'm working on. I work better, in fact, to music with words. Sometimes I think about the kind of music my characters would listen to and connect with, and put that on.

    I end up listening to a WHOLE lot of Neko Case...most of my stories have a corresponding Neko Case song. Also, Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs" and Jakob Dylan's "Women and Country" contributed to two short stories of mine. I've never attempted a novel--maybe that would require a different kind of music.

    Thanks for the post! :) I'm curious what others might say...

  2. I'd love to know which songs went with which stories! You'll have to make me a mix tape. :D

    I write to words sometimes, if it fits the story I'm working on. And on your other comment, there are plenty of times I wish I could get across in a story what a songwriter's doing in a song.

    Case in point:

    Spooky, cool, beautiful. Long live Neko.

  3. I do more critical than creative writing, but regardless of mode, here's what I like:

    The Decemberists--all (but especially The Crane Wife and Hazards of Love)

    The National--Alligator

    Arcade Fire--Funeral

    Ryan Adams--especially Demolition

    I prefer music with heavy lyrical content--albums that tell stories. That kind of momentum from song to song helps me stay plugged into whatever I'm working on, motivates me toward the next sentence, and the next one. Writing is, for me, especially tedious and anxiety-laden. I edit/revise as I go, which means I might be stuck on the same paragraph for a LONG time. I need my background music to be focused, cohesive, and basically predictable long-term, which is why I can't deal with shuffle--to distracting and/or frustrating. And, generally, I'll listen to the same one or two records over and over as I write for the duration of a project, whether that's days, weeks, or months. But, if I'm getting over-frustrated, I'll shift to something else to help me get into new headspace. Most (but not all) of my projects have a corresponding soundtrack that sticks with me. I usually try to sneak a word or phrase from the music into the writing, which is especially challenging in critical work, but a delightful little game for me. I often wonder if my readers ever pick up on the tiny trail of musical hints I leave scattered throughout...

  4. All great albums! And cool to hear how the process for critical work's similar...and how music sets, or can upset, the headspace. (I can't imagine anyone writing with the shuffle on. That'd be like trying to write in the food court of a mall, at least for me.)

    Thanks for the comment, Allison!

    PS--2/3rds of Arcade Fire represented already, so I'll just say Neon Bible and get it out of the way. Probably my favorite, and the most occult.

    PPS--Wonder if anyone catches your homages...

  5. Hello again!

    I do not write stories or poetry, but working on the diss is certainly a large undertaking. I've been listening to Neil Young, mostly on Pandora. I also love Bob Marley when writing. He seems to make the stress go away completely or at least fade for a short while. Either way I love him. Cat Stevens also has been on my list for listening to while writing. Ingrid Michaelson and Tori Amos is good when applying for jobs. :)

    Hope you are well!

  6. Hey Emily...thanks for commenting!

    I dig all your selections, even though I've never tried writing to them. Well, except for Cat Stevens--I used to write to the Harold & Maude soundtrack--and I mentioned Neil Young's Dead Man soundtrack. (I bet something like After the Gold Rush would work well, too.)

    I never would've thought about Bob Marley, but he makes perfect sense; I can see how he'd keep dissertation stress at bay. :)

    Hope you're doing great...good luck working on the diss!