Writing to Music

I listen to music when I write. It’s a must. Partly it helps to set the tone of the scene(s) that I am working on. I often pick a song that I think matches well with the tone I am trying to convey and then put it on loop until it becomes endless background noise.

But mostly I listen to music as a way to shut my brain up so that I can work.

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One of my first design teachers advocated a “no distraction” work environment. She advised us not to listen to music or have the tv on in the background, that it would take us away from the problems we were trying to solve. Often I see memes and motivational pics that preach the same message: that writing should be done in a white room with no internet, no distractions, save the tap of your fingers and the clink of your glass of whisky. And if that works for you, then great.

Me?

I’d go stark-raving mad in that environment. A big chunk of my waking life is spent using techniques to calm that part of my mind that is fidgeting and whispering. “Am I doing this right? Do I have enough time? Am I hungry? What if I’m hungry? What if someone is trying to call? Should I check my phone? What time is it? Did I leave the gas on?”. Bring that section of my brain into a white room and it’s like giving the little fucker a megaphone. The whispers become SHOUTS until it’s impossible to focus.

I learned very early on (elementary school, even) that music was the best way to shut up that voice, allowing me to focus productively and enjoyably. Especially when writing, when I could tailor what I was listening to to the feeling I was trying to evoke or convey.

Leap forward 20 years and I am still doing it. Right now I am listening to “Mr. Handagote“, off the Machinarium soundtrack, on loop while I write this blog. It’s one of my go-to pieces for when I am doing “neutral” writing, that is, it doesn’t have a specific emotion attached. Having it on endless loop means I stop listening to it actively, but not subconsciously; and it’s that particular filter that lets me concentrate.

Personally I find soundtracks the best to listen to while working, whether writing or design or even emails. They’re meant to be enjoyed while you’re doing, or taking in, something else. There’s no distracting lyrics that require my attention. And there’s a lot of them to be found, enough to suit any mood or taste or scene.

Occasionally my reliance on music to write to can backfire. From time to time I will get stuck on a project without knowing why until I realize I need to find something new to work to. Other times a piece of music will get so ingrained with the story I write to it that it’s hard to enjoy on its own again (I am looking at you, Tron Legacy, aka the soundtrack I used very heavily for Space Crazies). Very occasionally I will find myself in a rut, unable to move on with a plot until I find the “right” piece of music to move forward again.

But these are rare occurrences and I have solutions for when they arise. All in all, I think a few hiccups a long the way is a very small price to pay for the hours and hours and hours of concentration that I’ve gotten instead.

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Soundtrack recommendations off the top of my head in no particular order:

  • Floex, who composes music for the Amanita Design series of games (including Machinarium, Samorost, Botanicula);
  • The Myst and Riven soundtracks, which I have been using as background music since the late 90s and still listen to regularly;
  • Tron Legacy, if you need something a bit bassier (just don’t blame me if you start writing about space zombies);
  • Tony Anderson writes music that has that cinematic style and scope without the movie;
  • Audiomachine is similar but focuses on the dramatic music used in trailers.

Really any favourite movie or game will likely have an OST (original soundtrack, not to be confused with the albums that are pop songs “inspired by the movie”) and youtube has MANY entire soundtracks that you can listen to before you decide to buy, so it depends on your tastes, but those are composers and music in particular that I keep coming back to, no matter what I’m writing.

Just to wrap up the blag this week I’m going to attach an episode of Every Frame A Painting on why soundtracks of the last decade or so have been sounding a bit… samey: The Marvel Symphonic Universe

Do you use music to help you write? What is your favourite to listen to?

Start a discussion!

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