Thursday, May 21, 2009

Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. ~Berthold Auerbach

I spend a great deal of time by myself working and since I’m not in a cube farm and I don’t have any co-workers to annoy (unless you count the two dogs, two cats and two children and really I take a great deal of joy in annoying them!) I’ve come to rely on music to make the long hours more pleasurable. Well, that and a very expensive candle habit I’ve developed (my new fav is lemon-eucalyptus). When I’m working on my work writing and diving into endless operations manuals and picky formatting I listen to something really driving and pulsing like Velvet Revolver, ACDC and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Being the bright girl that I am it only took me one and a half manuscripts to figure out that listening to music while writing things less boring than restroom cleaning schedules and cash management procedures really enhanced my writing time.

For my current WIP I’m using omniscient narration, which means I really need to be inside the heads of every character - not just the hero/heroine. This story is about a magical florist who marries a gay man to allow him to make his own medical decisions as he’s dying. So, I live intown and have my share of neighbors I’ve interviewed and am pretty close to, but I’m not a dying gay man. Developing a playlist for Craig that I listen to each and every time I’m trying to write for him gives me an instant connection with what that character is feeling. So, here’s Craig’s playlist, just to give you an idea:

  • Somewhere Only We Know (Keane)
  • Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand (Primitive Radio Gods)
  • All These Things That I’ve Done (The Killers)
  • After All (Dar Williams)
  • Fountain of Youth (Grant Lee Phillips)
  • Mercy (Duffy)
  • King of the Road (Roger Miller)
  • Lay All Your Love On Me (Mama Mia Soundtrack)
  • Mercy of the Fallen (Dar Williams)
  • Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me (Roger Daltry)
  • Comfortably Numb (Dar Williams)
  • Bye, Bye, Blackbird (Joe Cocker)

The movement of the playlist I’ve set up for this character follows the trajectory of his own character arc so by the time I hit the last few songs of the playlist I’m feeling really sad – which is pretty much how the character feels. I’m able to instantly put myself into character just by using the music as a cue. I have a similar list for each character and sometimes I just play them all together one after another.

How do I find songs? After several years of working this way I kinda know the minute I hear something on the radio or within my own music collection that I need to note it. I connect with music, though, so I get that weird Emily Dickinson moment where the top of my head buzzes.

Anyone else have a way of using music to enhance writing?


Debbie Kaufman said...

I cheat at this! I have an incredibly musical friend and I ask him for music according to what I want. Recently, he made me a CD of harp guitar music. Really helps my focus.

Sally Kilpatrick said...

I hadn't thought of making a playlist for my characters--what a great idea.

I do use music a lot, especially since I like to write in a cafe where it's usually quiet but I'm sometimes interrupted by loud conversations I never really wanted to hear. In those moments, I turn to instrumental music. I like soundtrackes because they have drama but no words to distract me. As of late, I've been on a classical kick, probably thanks to too much NPR.

Anyway, some of my faves are The Last of the Mohicans, Amadeus, and anything instrumental by Harry Connick, Jr.

Michelle said...

If I don't want to hear words I like Deep Forest and Secret Garden. I have a playlist called Quiet Writing that lasts about two hours. I even have playlists called Raunchy Sex Scene and Tender Love Scene. :)

Nicki Salcedo said...

Michelle, we really are opposites in every way! I'm one of the few who rarely listens to music. I don't listen when I write (but Stephen King claims he always does this,) and I don't listen when I drive. My husband thinks this is unnatural. But after reading your post I realize that music is too evocative for me. I like to listen and pay attention. When music is in the background it is clamoring for my attention. Too distracting when I write.

Now I really love musicals and music in movies. I own random soundtracks like Shawshank Redemption. Music certainly informs the story. Maybe, after I write what I'm working on, I'll go back chapter by chapter and pick a song for the mood. Might be a good exercise to help me with revisions.

Thanks, Michelle. Happy Writing. From your best frienemy!

The Writers Canvas said...

Absolutely! I have a different playlist for each book, and sometimes different genre songs work for different characters.
My last manuscript had Irish themes, so I listened to lots of Irish folk, rock, etc. Current WIP has some sad themes, so I'm leaning on Sarah McGlaughlin (sp?)plenty.

If the music is wrong, the writing doesn't work. But when it works, it's like freebasing the muse!!


Michelle said...

I love that Elaine! Freebasing the Muse. Totally true.

Anna Steffl said...

And I thought my head was buzzing because I drink too much coffee!

Ah, Michelle, you are so full of surprises.

I tried listening to Pandora while writing, but it was way too distracting. Do I like this song? Who is this?

My standby is Brahms. I'll spare you my passion about why I love him so much. It's safe, but totally wrong, to love dead people that much.

Sandy Elzie said...

Hi Michelle,

Interesting. I've never thought about different music, different moods, etc.

I ususally work with no music, no noise, or it's light (instrumental) rock. Something to fill the silent void, but not have words that I might start singing to or concentrating on. Also, quiet, very softly playing or I'd sing to the ones I know. Soft I can ignore.


Tami Brothers said...

Hey Michelle,

I'm like Nicki and Sandy. I don't usually have music playing because it's too distracting for me. I find myself listening to the words and humming along to the instruments. Don't get me wrong. I LOVE music and always listen to it when I'm driving or first thing in the morning. Now if I'm reading, then everything else is just background. The world could be coming to an end and I'd be that person saying, "Just one more page. I'll run in a second..."

Thanks for this list. I haven't heard of most of them, so I'm going to look them up on YouTube and see if I can find some of them...

Have a great weekend.


Dianna Love said...

Thanks for sharing your playlist, Michelle. I haven't created playlist for characters - but like your idea. I know what music main characters in each story likes and I love listening to their music when I'm getting into their heads, but I only listen to soft jazz when i write for the same reason as Nicki not listening at all. I get very involved in the music. If I play light jazz it's very low, just enough to give the room a living feel.

Michelle said...

Maybe since I've always listened to music I have a greater than average tuning it into background ability. I've always sort of suspected I have a touch of ADD and music seems to let me dig in deeper to what I'm doing. I don't even hear it on an auditory level after a while. I just sort of feel it - if that makes any sense. Maybe we need a playlist exchange!

The Writers Canvas said...

Hey Michelle,

Glad you like my freebasing the muse idea! LOL!

I wanted to share a post I wrote on this topic too, especially for those family members who are patient with our music:


Susan May said...

Interesting. I love music but can only play the radio. I don't list to music while I write but I think I'll try coming up with a play list for my story. It just might be what I need to keep the fingers moving.

Marilyn Baron said...

Okay, now I know I am old. I never heard of half of the songs you mentioned. But I love music and listen to it all the time in the car.

I did listen to music during the time I wrote two of my books but not for the others. I had no trouble concentrating with the music on. In fact it helped pick up the pace. I think I'll try it again.


Linsey Lanier said...

I love this post. And your WIP sounds intriguing, Michelle.

I can't listen to music and do anything else at the same time (except maybe clean house, which doesn't happen very often), LOL. Like Nicki, Sandy, and Dianna, it's just too much, too distracting.

But certain types of music do stir up emotions that work well for some scenes. Like Kenny J's sultry sax while my hero and heroine are dancing in the living room of an old house.

Sometimes, I can find inspiration for a story line in the lyrics. I remember doing that while my husband was playing some Neil Diamond. That was some time ago. Now I can't remember what the idea was, but I bet it would come back to me if I listened to the song again.

Oh, and I love harp music, too. Very soothing.

Interesting thoughts.


Cyrano said...

Sorry I'm so late in commenting. Uggg, I hate being a late commenter, but it couldn't be helped.
I loved your post! How cool is it that you actually form a playlist for your WIP. I loved the song list too. I started looking up the ones I didn't know and found some treasures.
I do good writing to music sometimes and other times I need absolute quiet. Not sure why, but that just me.
Hope you get this message after the fact.
Have a brilliant writing day,

Maxine Davis said...


I really enjoyed your post.

Tamara, I have you beat! I really thought I had posted, but I looked and, by golly, I had not even read yesterdays. The Maggie deadline has got to get here. I keep thinking I'm finished, and then . . .

Haven't tried music and writing, but I think I will. Well, I did once, but I ended up stopping the writing and just enjoying the music. Oh well.