GraphicCredit: Sebastian Stadler

This is a slightly revised update of a post I originally submitted back in 2014.

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It seems that many writers have a preference for silence when they sit down at their keyboards to work on their novels, short stories etc. There is an obvious logic to this preference, yet it is one that has never worked for me. Whenever I have attempted to write in complete silence, I’ve found that my mind is much more prone to wandering; meaning I am unable to concentrate fully, resulting in me being more easily distracted, which of course means getting less writing done.

I can’t say that I understand why silence doesn’t work for me, but I do know that I am one of those writers who requires the quiet aural stimulation of music playing in the background while I write. Yes, I realise that sounds counter-intuitive; you would think listening to music while writing would be detrimental to one’s ability to concentrate. However, I have actually found that having some quiet musical accompaniment to be very beneficial to me, for several reasons.

Firstly, for reasons I can’t explain, having music playing as I write helps me to block out most external distractions. So, whether it’s loud road works outside the house, school kids playing outside, or my neighbour playing her piano out of tune, I find it easier to ignore these annoyances, thanks to the music I have on in the background. Sometimes I actually remain blissfully unaware of these things.

Secondly, and more importantly, I find that music helps me creatively. I am a writer who typically plans every last detail of a novel before I even start writing it, and I find that music not only helps me to visualise the scenes I want to write, it can greatly influence how those scenes are transferred from my mind to the written page once the writing begins. I strongly suspect I wouldn’t be capable of successfully constructing a narrative without the aid of music. I can’t recount just how many times a piece of music has provided inspiration for scenes I was really struggling to write. I have even found that music can help me gain deeper insights into the personalities of the characters I have created.

Album ArtAs for the type of musical accompaniment I prefer to listen to as I write, it is entirely dependant on the type of story I’m working on. If I am writing high fantasy or certain science fiction sub-genres, like space opera or steampunk for example, I invariably prefer to listen to soundtrack albums. It doesn’t matter if it’s film, television or game scores, just as long as the music is instrumental, without lyrics. For genres like urban fantasy or cyberpunk, I will forgo soundtracks altogether, in favour of creating playlists of appropriate tracks from my vast collection of studio albums.

In recent years there have been two soundtrack albums that I have generally favoured listening to when I first sit down for a spot of creative writing. My current favourite is Hans Zimmer’s excellent Man Of Steel soundtrack. In addition to being the best thing about the film, I feel that this score works equally well as an accompaniment for writing either fantasy or science fiction. The second album is Babylon 5, Volume 2: Messages From Earth, a compilation of incredible music from the TV series by the show’s composer, Christopher Franke. Though perhaps more suitable as background music for writing space opera, I find that it also works just as well for writing high fantasy.

Album ArtLast year while writing my debut novel, The Exercise Of Vital Powers, both albums contributed tracks to the playlist I created to be my musical backdrop. The three hour long playlist also featured tracks from several other soundtracks including Xena: Warrior Princess, Volume 1, Arrow: Season 1, and the bootleg King Arthur [Expanded Score]. Whether or not I could have written the novel without the aid of this playlist, I’ll never know for certain; but I doubt it.

I know I’m not the only writer who prefers listening to music over complete silence while writing. So what about you? Do you have a preference for complete silence, or for music? Feel free to let me know by leaving a comment in the reply box below.

7 thoughts on “When Silence Isn’t Golden, Music Is My Muse

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  1. I also need music to write. I make my own soundtracks for music that matches the different moods and emotional planes and also the characters and setting. I couldn’t write without music!

  2. I usually have music playing when I write. Often it’s CDs or MP3s, so the music is familiar, but sometimes it’s the radio playing at least some songs I’ve never heard before. Mostly blues and folk, but my tastes are pretty eclectic. Music seems to tap into the creative part of my brain. It probably helps me feel the rhythms in what I’m writing. I can’t have spoken-word stuff going in the background, though. I can’t write in cafés and places where people are talking. I wind up listening in on their conversations.

  3. I vastly prefer music to silence while writing, although there are times when the music can be a distraction. I tend to have on, as my library contains a lot of evocative writing tracks. I also have a ‘Writing’ playlist on Media Player which I’ll play on shuffle from time to time. Like you, what I choose to listen to is usually dictated by what I’m currently writing. Movie soundtracks can be perfect; I think it’s because they themselves are telling a story through music, and somehow they inspire storytelling imagery in a way other forms of music can’t.

  4. I know exactly what you mean. I almost always need music to write. I wear noise-cancelling headphones and listen to lyrical music. There’s usually a bunch of playlists I make of anything ranging from indie/folk to pop to EDM to R&B. I’ve read an interesting piece of advice in relation to writing advice from Plot Perfect: the tip was to listen to classical music to get an idea of the highs and lows within the music so that as a writer you can get a feel for the dramatic ups and downs in plot. I thought that was pretty cool 🙂

    • That is an excellent observation about listening to classical music. I think this is why I generally prefer instrumental music when writing; it can really help with developing the mood and tone of a scene.

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