Evan R. On Writing With Music: A Caveat

By April 10, 2017Writing about Writing

Reilly W. recently wrote a great post on writing with music. She explains how music is integral to her writing process, and shares a playlist of songs she likes writing to. She also has created a collaborative playlist of great writing music that any UCWbLer can contribute to.

Emily P. has also written on the subject, taking Reilly’s lead in crafting an individual playlist of her own writing music and contributing further to the collaborative playlist.


A Caveat

Today, I would like to join this conversation. I love to write, and I love listening to, writing, and playing music of all kinds. I would like to share a small playlist of my own writing music and to contribute to the growing collaborative playlist. I would like, as well, to suggest and briefly defend a form of counter-opinion, a caveat, if you will; while listening to music can often energize the creative process, the process of writing while listening to music can be detrimental to the work and developing craft of a writer, particularly—and perhaps counter-intuitively—in spheres of creative writing.

I should note that Reilly and Emily both point out that listening to music could be distracting. Emily, in particular, seeks out music without lyrics to avoid distractions. However, the danger that I observe in the practice of writing to a soundtrack lies less in distraction and more in end results. It’s quite possible, in my opinion, for a writer to focus intently on a selection of music that will be detrimental to their piece and to their craft outside the realm of distraction. In my observation, there are two main ways that this detriment might manifest. I have coined them False Passages and Striping.  Furthermore, I would contend that this detriment is due entirely to music’s sonic qualities, and thus applies to any and all music regardless of genre or lyrics.


False Passages

First, the most common pitfall that writing to music tends to lead to is the creation of False Passages. Put simply, the writer thinks they are putting more effect into their words than they actually are. A fiction writer describes her protagonist’s search of the derelict bus station while listening to dark, fast-paced techno. The music evokes suspense in her, and she puts this emotion into words. As she reads over her work, her playlist still pumping away in her headphones, her passages drip with dramatic tension. A free-lance magazine writer drafts the conclusion to his 5,000-word piece on declining Fine Arts budgets in CPS elementary schools while blaring his favorite late-nineties indie anthem. His ideas coalesce; he feels the connections between art and life, between each member of society no matter how tenuous. He breaks for lunch satisfied that he has instilled in his reader an appreciation for the grandiosity of the topic at hand. The problem in both of these scenarios, of course, is that the reader isn’t listening—they’re reading. The reader follows the young detective’s search of the bus station, but without the pulsing beat, they don’t feel the tension. They read a series of half-wrought details and they get bored. An editor pens through the CPS Budget story. They reach the conclusion, furrow their brow, and in red ink mark “vague,” or “reaching,” or, worse still, a large, sharp question mark in the margin.



Another unfortunate side effect of writing to music that I’ve witnessed is Striping. A novelist is crafting a memoir, depicting those few odd summers they spent on their great-aunt’s farm in wooded, rural Michigan. She’s had plenty of experience writing narrative. She’s enrolled in workshops, shared drafts between friends in coffee shops, and sat enraptured through campus readings of her favorite authors. She’s no stranger to rendering the kind of detail that engages the reader. So, the reader follows along intently, not only visualizing the action of the story, but responding to the emotions that these details invest towards, as well.  But wait—in this paragraph, the reader gets the sense that recalling the farm makes the author feel calm and joyful. In the next few lines, the author writes about the architecture of the old barn with cold indifference. A description of a line of trees is recalled with the fond longing for a lost love. Soon after, a metaphor comparing her great-aunt’s homemade flapjacks to the morning sun comes across as frustrated and aggressive. The explanation for this dizzying series of rapid chance in tone? The author writes while listening to a playlist of thematically inconsistent songs, and as the various songs subtly poke at the author’s emotions in different ways, the reader experiences noticeable variations in the mood of the piece. Thus, striping. I admit this sounds a bit preposterous—I likely wouldn’t believe that such a blunder could occur if I hadn’t witnessed this effect first-hand in my own writing and in the writing of others.


Where is Music’s Place in all of this?

So what do we do with this information? Well, one answer is to avoid writing to music altogether. But if you are a writer who feels that music is essential to your creative process, consider one of these alternatives: instead of listening to music through headphones, play music through speakers, preferably at a low enough volume so that the ambient noise of the room is audible. Avoiding seclusion will allow your prose to breathe. Consider listening to music until you come up with an idea you want to chase down in writing—then, pause the music, write your ideas, and continue the music only once you feel that you’ve exhausted your burst of creative energy. In some circumstances, it might even be valuable to loop the same song over and over. If nothing else, this will likely avoid inconsistencies in tone.

Overall, each writer is unique and will invariably have a unique writing process. If you write to music, by all means, continue to do so. I would only offer this: don’t use music as a crutch. If you’re attempting to create an effective piece of writing with purpose, all you have to work with is words on a page. Despite the emotional and mental complexities of crafting these words, these words are the sole ambassador of your meaning to your readers.  Use them wisely.

I’ve created an individual playlist and contributed to the collaborative playlist. For the record, I wrote this piece while listening primarily to Panda Bear.