Writing to Music

A lot of writers write with music playing in the background. Rachel Caine even goes so far as to list the music she listened to as something akin to a soundtrack to the book. I like to write to music as well, but I’m very picky in my choice of music.

In general terms, I avoid music that has words. I find that an interesting comparison to the Rachel Caine music lists, because most of her writing music is modern pop. I don’t have anything against pop music. I like to listen to it when I drive or cook or clean house, but I cannot listen to it while I write. Or more accurately, I should say that I cannot write while listening to pop music.

Eh? What did you say?

I’ve got this little thing called Auditory Processing Disorder. You can look it up and read about all its different flavors, but the simplest explanation is that it’s like dyslexia for hearing. It makes it difficult for me to turn the sounds I hear into words. There’s nothing wrong with my physical hearing – far from it. No, this is all about the language center of my brain, and when hearing gets involved, it gets screwy.

One of the effects is that if someone else is talking or singing, then my brain latches onto that language and won’t consider anything else. I can’t hear someone else talking at the same time. I can’t read while they’re talking. I can barely even talk when they’re talking. And my specific problem here, I can’t write while they’re talking.

So, no words in my music. At least, no words I can recognize. I have no problem listening to a lot of Enya’s music, because even though she sings through much of it, I can’t make out a thing she’s saying. As far as my language center goes, it’s so far from language, her words simply become part of the instrumentation.

A bit of this, a bit of that…

So instead, I listen to instrumental music, and it tends to fall into three categories. First, I do listen to some of the classics. I’m a big fan of Beethoven, but Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and Copland do it for me just as well. No Brahms!

I also listen to a lot of modern instrumental stuff. Back in the 70’s and 80’s this was called New Age. It’s evolved and morphed into a bunch of other non-vocal genre’s like ambiance, techno, electronica, and so on. I listen to everything from Oldfield’s Tubular Bells to E.S. Posthumous’ latest work.

And Soundtracks!

But for writing fiction, my favorite category of music is movie soundtracks. I’ve told people this, and they look at me funny. “But don’t they just make you think of the movie?” is a common question. Well, yes, no, and yes.

So, yes, they do make me think of the movie, at least a little. Particularly recognizable sections will sometimes trigger a bit of imagery in my head, i.e. flying through the canyon on the Death Star or running through the halls of Moria in Middle Earth. Fortunately, these are trivial distractions that rarely take my mind away from the work at hand.
But no, they don’t really make me think of the movie much at all, but that has more to do with them being good soundtracks than my Chihuahua-like focus. In my opinion, a good soundtrack is designed to complement the movie. It doesn’t draw attention to itself. It doesn’t do a cool guitar riff because that’s what we do in the third stanza. It is designed to be in the background of the main action, and its main contribution is to help carry the action forward towards its climax. Which leads me to…

So of course, yes, the music makes me think of the movie in that the soundtrack music carries so much of the emotional context of a scene in a movie. That is what makes soundtracks so great for writing. I’m writing something with a great sense of loss. Oooo, how about the soundtrack from Memoirs of a Geisha? Now I’m doing a wild action sequence. How about the music from Speed? Now it’s time for the epic scope… Gladiator? Braveheart?

In a way, I suppose I’m blending together all these great soundtrack composers to be the background track of the fiction I’m writing. God help me if I was ever asked to pick a composer to do a soundtrack for a movie adaptation. I want Williams for the opening, Silvestri for the build, Horner for the middle, Williams again for the climax, and Hans Zimmer for the denouement and credits… except, you know, they should agree on the common thematic elements, pacing, and instrumentation.

So do you have specific music for specific tasks? Beetles for the shower? Led Zepplin for the lawn?