music for writing 25 Comments

music for writing


Do you like to write with music playing, either in the background or blasting in your earphones? Or do you prefer silence?

I almost always need music to write. It’s become a need, mainly because I’m always writing in a busy space – home (with many housemates), cafes (with angry baristas) or libraries (with yelpy weirdos) – but also because it channels my thoughts.

John Cleese says this about creativity: ‘The most dangerous thing when writing is to be interrupted.’ He recommends creating boundaries of space (in conjunction with boundaries of time) so that you create an oasis in which to write. Cleese likens creativity to a tortoise. Only when it feels safe will it poke its head out, and the slightest disturbance can scare it back inside its enclosure.

I think that for me, having the appropriate music (turned up to eleven) gives me a space by blocking out all aural interruptions. And subsequently any visual distractions (like in a public place) become redundant as they have no aural context.

For a while, way back when, I was able to write to any music – even the radio was fine. As long as it played without me having to do anything, I was okay. I’d have Bob Dylan carping or Leonard Cohen rumbling or Iron and Wine trolololololing all around the room, and I would write.

But all of a sudden, and I can’t remember the moment, but all of a sudden I could no longer write to music that contained lyrics. And so started an excursion into instrumental music that continues to this day. I became acquainted with artists like George Winston and Ulrich Schnauss. I collected Dirty Three and Sigur Rós records like they were basketball cards. I dived headfirst into the post-rock scene – Múm, Explosions in the Sky, Because of Ghosts and Mogwai. Even the Fuck Buttons, with their furious yet metrical tribal rhythms, can be used as that shot in the arm, that adrenaline boost. And sometimes tracks as simple as ‘Perpetuum Mobile’ by the Penguin Café Orchestra or ‘Nothing Ever Happened’ by Deerhunter are enough to rouse a creative spurt.

Ultimately, my favourite music for writing is anything/everything by Stars of the Lid (and their side project The Dead Texan). Most people don’t like it – it’s slow and minimalist and sensual – but they are my crutch. I can put the five hours of music I have of theirs on shuffle and absent myself from the real world

So, we want to ask: what works for you? Let us know in the comments section below which bands/solo artists/composers encourage you during your artistic process. Yes, any dialogue about this will obviously be wholly subjective, but who cares? Fight for ‘your’ music. Be proud of your iTunes playlists. Wage war on behalf of your preferences, whether it is The Beastie Boys’ entire oeuvre or Rapture of the Deep: Humpback Whale Singing (Compass Recordings 2001).

  • Jenna

    I don’t listen to music when I write, but if there are people around (and there often are. I have three housemates) I usually listen to white noise. Well, actually, what I listen to is called ‘brown noise’ (white noise at a lower frequency. The white noise hurt my ears. It was too crackly to have up loud). It sounds like waves/wind, that sort of thing. I’m far too easily distracted to listen to actual music.

    • Sam

      Where do you get “brown noise” from?

      • phill has a noise generator. (:

      • Jenna

        Phill is correct. You can get it from here ( It’s only a 30 second download, but you don’t really need it to be any longer unless you have really really really crap music software that doesn’t allow looping.

  • phill

    Might I also recommend ‘God is an Astronaut’ and Chris Mansell to your instrumental collection (Mansell is the guy who scores a lot of movies, including the Moon soundtrack which is absolutely one of the best to write to of all time–not to mention a stellar movie).

    • Sam

      I have a lot of ‘God is an Astronaut’ stuff, as well as plenty of other post-rockish music (thanks to a muso best friend). If i listed everything i listened to in this post, i might sound a bit show-offish (and that’s not my style, at all).

      I like Clint Mansell’s soundtrack to Requiem for a Dream, in nightmarish sort of way. I’ll have to pick up the Moon soundtrack. What a great film.

  • Nikita Vanderbyl

    I’m also a huge fan of the Moon soundtrack and movie.

    If I did write to music, which is becoming increasingly necessary (when you have a partner who studies video games) I would listen to Pink Floyd, particularly ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’ parts 1 -12. But their Atom Heart Mother album is also groovy.

    Thanks for the list Sam, I’m going to check those out. :)

    • phill

      Finally! Everyone I thrust it upon thinks it’s spooky and/or boring. Great to hear someone else enjoys it. (:

      Oh, and another one a friend of mine recommended: The Ghostly Corporation’s Music for Creatives. You can pick it up here.

      • phill

        Or, since VW seems to automagically make a link’s URL point to their site (weird?), just go to 😀

  • Soph

    What I listen to while I write really changes, depending on what I’m wanting to write. The mood of the music has to match the mood I’m trying to put into my words. I’ve done a bit of reading about how the energy of the music effects the energy in your body, so it’s no wonder I’ve started to notice it coming out on the page, I guess.

    I used to be bothered by lyrics, but now I seem to be able to switch off. I’m not sure what changed there…

    So, currently, my favourites for something upbeat are the likes of The Bamboos, Jamie Lidell and Fat Freddys Drop; but if I want to write something more sombre I might go for Sigur Ros, Mumford and Sons or Laura Marling. Of course, that list will change completely within the year, I’m sure.

  • Benjamin Solah

    I create playlists for larger projects, and add songs that fit the moods of the overall piece or scenes within it. A novel I’m working on set in a dystopian Melbourne has a lot of Tool in it with the lyrics “learn to swim, learn to swim” playing over and over in my head.

    I like the idea of post-rock and instrumentals but haven’t really found the stuff I’m looking for (usually dark and heavy)

  • Alex

    I almost always listen to music. I always have. Lyrics really don’t bother me. In fact mostly I listen to stuff I like and what I like is wonderful lyrics.

    On another note I find music incredibly important for inspiration. There are a number of occasions when I’ve been really struggling with a story or character. Then I chance upon a song. Everything falls into place and the holes are filled. Like magic.

    Just hours ago I was having a crippling case of that terrible writer’s self doubt. My remedy is simple and fool proof. I play Supertramp’s album “Breakfast in America” really loudly and I sing (equally loudly and out of tune). Works every time.

    So yes, music and writing go hand in hand for me. In all kinds of ways.

  • Johannes Jakob

    I do the same thing as Benjamin, making project-specific playlists. Maybe Liars’ Drum’s Not Dead would be a good fit for what you’re after? It feels kinda dark and biological to me.

    Other evocative but not intrusive bands I like include Hood, 13 & God, DJ Shadow and Shearwater.

    My problem, and I gather that other people have the same thing, is that I base my music taste largely on lyrics. So that’s what I listen to, with the music kind of enhancing the lyrics, rather than the other way around. I understand but don’t empathise with people who dislike bands with awesome lyrics because the singer can’t sing very well. I end up listening for words rather than sound, so I need to get some pretty heavy writing-flow going before I can listen to my favourite music simultaneously.

    I’ve wanted to do a series of posts on bands with good lyrics for a while, but it feels pretty self-indulgent so I haven’t.

    • Alex

      While I find it quite easy to tune out of the music and into the writing, its easy to be pulled back to the real world if a particular song comes on. This, in part, stems from the habit I have of lip synching along which, in turn, stems from a desire to know ALL the words which then comes back to the amazing lyrics. There are things I can’t write to because the desire to sing along is too distracting. I suppose the key is knowing something so well my brain can listen while doing other things.

      My musical tastes don’t seem to fit into this thread at all. At the extreme of this discussion- I do write to musical comedy.

      And what are blogs for if not self-indulgence?

  • RBS

    I always write to classical, particularly the romantics. In my first year of Writing and Cultural Studies at UTS, James Bradley asked the class to write to music. He played us Philip Glass’s ‘Metamorphosis I’ (and if you want to hear his ‘strange coincidence/Philip Glass’ anecdote, it’s somewhere on is blog.) Perhaps it’s just the undulating patterns Glass uses in most of his work, or his hypnotic use of contrary motion, but it really encouraged my concentration, and a very smooth flow of words from the mind to the page.

  • STM

    Dortothy Porter wrote a great piece for the Music edition of Meanjin in which she admitted that she was bored beyond belief at a writers’ retreat because they didn’t let her play music. She used to crank up The Rolling Stones et al to write her poetry. If I’m going to do something with lyrics, it does have to be way way loud, so I can almost drown out their meaning. I’ve been working on a longish piece of writing and it has it’s own theme song at the moment; [not just because he’s in Sydney, making dogs sing, but because it was in Leichardt Library] Lou Reed’s Waves of Fear from The Blue Mask. It’s a rubbish record, but in listening to Reed, it’s almost an attempt to get the voice of the piece right from the crashing angry guitars and Reed’s sort of pissed off I could give a shit about making this album nasal whinge. I’m careful not to adopt Reed’s persona, but I guess a little of that leaks in. I’ve written to film soundtracks before but you end up writing according to their dramatic cues and I wouldn’t recommend it. I’ll stick to crap music and Reed’s “I’ve really got a lucky life; my writing, my music and my wife”.

    • RBS

      Dorothy seemed to enjoy such a variety of genres! I’m currently trying to ‘translate’ a poem of hers to music for a cultural studies assignment (which is, unfortunately, far more conceptual than it is aural), and have been listening to a lot of things she apparrently loved. She was asked to make a list of pieces for Margaret Throsby’s programme. I don’t know if it’s possible to find a podcast of it, but the list was so broad: from the Overture to the Barber of Seville, to Mr. Glass – fantastic mix. She really seemed to love voice. Almost all of the selections she made weren’t purely instrumental. I wonder what it is that draws someone to the vocal… I agree about film scores. I find it has the same distracting effect as the lyric, which is fascinating, because it means that our minds are automatically drawn to the emotional narrative of, say, ‘Runaway Bride’, and in listening to the score, we’re not wholly hearing just sound – we’re hearing a metaphor for something… perhaps that’s why a lot of people I talk to listen to Bach when they’re working. Baroque music isn’t always as charged with meaning (particularly Bach, his Suites for cello, and his ridiculously mathematical fugues and preludes) as the programmatic music of even the Romantic era, but then, writing to something Modern like Peter Sculthorpe’s Kakadu or Port Essington isn’t so distracting, and they’re both portraits of a place/event. Oh the wonders of music!

  • Julia

    for study purposes..miles davis or something french…lyrics are long as they are in a language you can’t understand…

  • Madeleine Crofts

    I love listening to songs with lyrics when writing. Particularly lyrics I find inspiring, if I’m writing Fiction. People like Angus and Julia Stone, Bright Eyes, Sufjan Steves, Tinpan Orange.

    Or my boyfriend makes me amazing playlists and they can help too. I don’t think I absorb too much of the lyrics when I write, I just like them to be around while I write.

    • Jenna Sten

      Aw, your boyfriend makes you playlists.

  • Cathy Tran

    Angus and Julia Stone are great. I always listen to music when I write, or do anything really. Silence creeps me out a bit.

    Because I worked at a coffee store I’ve learned to tune out the machine and I’ve grown to like the music some stores play. It’s how I discovered Kings of Convenience and Minus the Bear. Ministry of Sound’s Uncovered album really works for me too, nice chill stuff.

    I agree with Julia, if I’m studying the music must be something I can’t understand or without lyrics. Thanks for all the suggestions everyone!

  • Fez

    Hmm. I used to think that, like Cleese suggested, it was necessary to ‘create a space’ (aural or otherwise) within which to write. But these days I find myself more and more relying on aleatoric stimuli to become inspired. Once I was on a tram coming down from drunkenness and my iPod, on shuffle, played Beach House. It was not long before my Moleskine was filled with scribbles employing motifs that I felt were akin to Beach House’s music — astral, shiny, drifting, darkly magical. Another time I was in my room, shrouded in silence except for the patter of rain that by then I’d become accustomed to, and a little sliver of noise — a scratching that emanated from the ceiling (the cause/s of which I’m yet to identify) — came and catalysed an avalanche of ideas (about attics, games of hide and seek, leafless tree branches).

    I don’t know. I’m all for setting aside certain ‘areas’ of one’s life or adopting certain practices by which one ‘gets in the groove’ to write. But these could equally prove to be counter-productive, causing one to develop a dependency on them.

    Anyway. Short answer is: yes and no; music, noise, or silence. I don’t really discriminate.

    (Also, this comment just attests to my inability to answer simple questions simply. Grice help me.)

  • Daniel Hogan

    I nearly always listen to music when writing. Especially if I’m somewhere silent. Silence just sounds like tinnitus to me. Sometimes, I find listening to certain music while writing helps me ‘stay in character’ so to speak. I have no preference for lyrical or instrumental or noise, although I probably listen to more instrumental stuff. I really enjoy the soundscape stuff that Nick Cave and Warren Ellis do. Bibio, Lone, Olivia Tremor Control, Sufjan Stevens, Why?, Gonjasufi, Black Moth Super Rainbow and The Mint Chicks seem to be the most popular things for me to listen to when writing.

  • Sam

    I like this, taken from Franz Kafka’s journals:

    Learn To Be Quiet
    by Franz Kafka

    You need not do anything.
    Remain sitting at your table and listen.
    You need not even listen, just wait.
    You need not even wait,
    just learn to be quiet, still and solitary.
    And the world will freely offer itself to you unmasked.
    It has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

    I find that wherever I am, if I can hear background noise it means I’m not concentrating. So there’s not really a lot of purpose in playing music when I write. If I really need to avoid distractions, I go ou to my folks’ place in suburbia, where them and everyone in the immediate area is in bed by ten pm and write there. I quite like silence.

  • Michael LaRocca

    I can read a short story I wrote 30 years ago and tell you the music that was playing during its creation. Quite a variety there. Some were inspired by lyrics, so those are easy. Others used instrumentals that would surprise my readers. (All three of them.)

    Nowadays if I use music, it’s to set a mood. Usually instrumental, or else lyrics that won’t disturb. I don’t draw inspiration from the music the way I used to. I can’t tell you what was playing in the background during my novels, the various and sundry chapters, etc.

    I’ve written in Muslim noodle shops, riding buses in China, stopping the bicycle to scribble in the ever-present notepad while ignoring the traffic noises of urban Thailand… Music would just be one more sound to ignore. It may be playing, or maybe not. I’m so inside myself that I wouldn’t know.

    However, in addition to a very thought-provoking blog post, you HAVE made me curious about anyone who’d call themselves the Fuck Buttons.

    Write on.

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