Working music

There are two types of writer: those who find it difficult to write with music on, and those who find it difficult to write without it. From the former group, the most common complaint is that music is a distraction: that it disrupts their ability to concentrate on the rhythm of the prose, that they need silence – SILENCE – to be able imagine their scene and build it, one word to the next. The second group, who don’t live in remote, wind-swept cottages in the middle of nowhere and for whom actual silence is possibly the most distracting thing imaginable notwithstanding an irascible pirate baby with tourettes and a pneumatic drill, most often use music to help the focus. I’m in the latter camp.

I’m an urban dweller and my writing day largely takes place in public spaces like cafés. And, since I’m not rich enough to requisition an entire café for my own personal use, such places tend to be used by other people: office workers bitching about their jobs or boyfriends; business people conducting extramural meetings; parents spending quality time with student offspring away from the wreckage of last night’s party; friends, families, whatever. Generally, people talking pish.  It all needs to be blocked out. And that’s where a well stocked  phone (or link to spotify) and a set of noise-cancelling ear buds comes in.

Now, different individuals have different levels of tolerance for what kind of music works best for them. Some can use anything, some can only use instrumental stuff. Personally I can go either way. Instrumental (classical, jazz, film soundtrack) is ideal, but there are some vocal albums that work for me too. The key thing is that the music itself is dynamically level  with no spikes or hooks to snatch the attention that should be on the words I’m attempting to nail to the page.

Stuff that’s worked for me  includes: Brahms and Mahler symphonies, Beethoven sonatas, Arvo Part’s choral music, Beck’s “Sea Change”, This Will Destroy You’s postrock masterpiece “Field Studies”, the soundtrack to “Taxi Driver” and most recently the dissonant electronica of Happy Particles and Remember Remember. It’s all good blocking music, it all puts me in the zone and lets me get on with my work while the world does whatever it does around me.

I’m not one those writers, though, who select a soundtrack to help influence the mood of what they’re writing and even credit their playlist in the finished book. That’s surely going above and beyond, and I’d probably spend more time researching the right music to match my personal brand of melancholia…

*re-reads previous paragraph*

Ah, right.

4 thoughts on “Working music

  1. I write entire short stories to one album on repeat: I’ve done this with the Flaming Lips, Polly Scattergood, Mercury Rev, Blonde Redhead and Radiohead’s Kid A amongst others. For my story published in The First Classical Book of Horror Stories I listed to Erik Satie as it was about him. And for one short story I played the same song repeatedly (The Cramps – The Strangeness In Me). It kind of creates a blurred soundscape that’s easy to locked myself within. Anything particularly raucous or lyrically in your face tends not to work.

    1. It would do my head in to listen to one song on repeat. Totally and absolutely. Even when it got to the stage that I’d lost count of how many plays and was hardly even aware of it. 😀

      But you know, I’ve not tried it, have I?

      I hearby extend a challenge to myself to listen to one song on repeat with a blank story file open, and see what comes out the other side.

      All that needs to be decided is what song. Any suggestions? Anyone? Preferably an artist I don’t know. Go for it.

  2. A couple of my friends once spent two weeks driving across Eastern Europe with only a cassette tape of Yah Wobble’s ‘Visions of You’ which they played on constant repeat. Just when one of them thought it was getting too much and were about to turn it off they couldn’t help but turn it up instead. (it’ll probably come as no surprise that both friends were part of the Ponthe Oldenguine experience).

    As for songs: Blonde Redhead’s ‘Misery Is A Butterfly’? Polly Scattergood’s ‘Poem Song’?

    1. >(it’ll probably come as no surprise that both friends were part of the Ponthe Oldenguine experience)

      None whatsoever!

      >As for songs: Blonde Redhead’s ‘Misery Is A Butterfly’? Polly Scattergood’s ‘Poem Song’?

      Okay – I don’t know either of those tracks. WHat I’ll do is I’ll give myself two hours, start with a blank page and one of those songs and…see what transpires. Should be interesting if nothing else.

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