11th May 2012

Music to write to

A few months ago, I wrote a guest post for We Love This Book, as part of their Music to Read by series (which you can read here.)  At the time of writing that post, I kept thinking of music I wrote to, rather than music I read to, because, as a rule, I prefer to read in silence.  When I write though, I switch between silence and music.  Having the tv on when I write is a definite no-no; I find it too distracting and the cocophany of sounds, movement and pictures crash into my head, taking me away from the writer’s world.

David Bowie

I’ve always loved music – my parents were kind of rocky hippies.  I was brought up on Roxy Music, David Bowie, 10cc, The Who, Genesis, Supertramp… I could go on, the list is endless.  There was always music playing.  I’d sit for hours with LP sheets, learning the words to all the songs and would sit cross legged on the floor in my own world, singing my head off!  So the relationship between music and words, and the ability it has to reflect and absorb mood and atmosphere, is one that has always been with me.

What I’ve recently noticed is that I tend to choose silence when working on children’s books, music when working on my adult novel.  It’s almost as if the world of creating children’s stories is developed in a different part of my mind, one where I need to immerse myself in memory and idea, and the sense of what being a child is all about.  In order to encapsulate the ‘child’s voice’, I need to hear the child speak, imagine his or her reactions.  ‘Grown up’ music would detract from this.

The opposite is the case with my current work in progress, a contemporary adult novel, co-written with another writer, and set in the present.  I’m resisting saying too much about it at the moment, but what I will say is that it’s quite edgy. It’s emotive, diverse, and, those who have had a sneak preview of the first couple of chapters say it’s ‘mesmerising’.  So, it lends itself to quite a wide range of music.  In fact, I often find myself hearing a track now and thinking ‘Oh my God, that is so…..’ and mentally place the song with a particular scene or chapter.  The book is a film in both mine and my co-writer’s heads.  In fact, many of the scenes are set at places we have visited, so the whole thing really feels like a living, breathing thing.

In fact, I often find that if I can’t get into a scene, am fumbling a bit or in need of inspiration, just listening to something – anything – can trigger a mood or idea and send things spinning again.

So, I thought I’d give you a sneak preview into my currrent YouTube playlist, which is as follows:

Lana Del Rey – Born to Die
Gotye – Somebody that I used to know
Gotye – The only thing I know
The Divine Comedy – Our Mutual Friend
Blancmange – The Day Before You Came
H2O – I Dream to Sleep
Linkin Park – Rolling in the Deep
Underworld – Born Slippy
Linkin Park – Numb
Depeche Mode – Enjoy the Silence
Gary Jules – Mad World
Johnny Cash – Hurt

It’s quite a diverse list already, and, as we are almost half way through the novel now


(yes, really!!!), this list is set to grow!  Eventually, I want to have tracks for each chapter, photos and images too.  We have already built up some of these.  I have a journal and one or two other wee things that follow its progress.  The other bizarre thing about the tracks is that sometimes, at a particular point in writing, the words of the song almost appear as words on the page.  The appropriateness of them is such that I have found myself weaving two or three words from the lyrics into the text at that exact moment.  It’s quite a wonderful thing actually, and because my sensory memory is so strong, once those connections are made, the lyrics, the tune, the visual image of the moment in the story, and my own words, all become one and trigger each other off.  It is a very holistic process.  I am currently listening to Gotye, The Only Thing I know, from the playlist, as I write this post, and can literally see the scene from the book.  It’s a very very powerful one.  One of the most powerful in the first third of the novel.  The setting was inspired by a place we visited, so the experience becomes even more real.

The next half of the novel beckons, and excites me as much as the first half.  I can’t wait to find more tracks to add to it!

Do you use music to write by?  And do you find it enhances the mood of your writing and inspires new ideas?

About Abi Burlingham

I write children's books and paint pictures inspired by nature, animals, trees etc, mostly in acrylics. I am a crisp addict.
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19 Responses to 11th May 2012

  1. Great post, Abi. Music has a way of bringing scenes and images to me too, but whenever I’ve tried to listen and write, I’ve always found it too distracting – especially if there are words. The music can give me inspiration, but it has to be quiet when I’m actually writing. For me, the perfect writing feeling is when I feel like I’m there, in the places where my characters are doing their thing, and music is an intrusion to that. Instead, I want to hear the crunch of my character’s boots in the snow and the whisper of the wind in the branches . . .

  2. Martin Day says:

    All sounds fascinating, Abi. Being more of a watcher than a reader I can relate to the idea of scenes in film and so the music that goes with it. Being acutely male in the way my brain is wired, writing and listening would seem an impossible ‘two things at once’. I think I could only use classical music, that has no word associations, and even then more as functional white-noise to drown out other distractions. However, there have been many times when I have been mowing the lawn (the only time I listen to music at volume now) when I have misheard a phrase from lyric that has triggered an idea in me that I want to scribble down.

    I had been working on a sitcom (now indefinitely ‘on hold’ due to the circumstances of my friend – one of the downsides to collaborations!) and one of the things that came quite early on was an idea for the theme tune. Like you, I don’t want to give too much away, but it was a Prefab Sprout song. It’s not one of their best but lyrically and sonically provide a perfect frame for the project. My preference would have been to do a ‘Dennis Waterman’ and use one of my own pieces, but this track is inescapably perfect. I hope it comes off one day…

    I hope your novel makes it into print – I will be looking forward to hear more about it when the covers come off

    • Thanks Martin! Your response was similar to Dan’s in part – maybe it’s a male/female thing and is to do with the way we’re wired! That’s a shame about your sitcom being on hold – I hope that comes to life again soon. Yes, isn’t it odd how a song can seem to fit perfectly into a writing project? I love that!

  3. Ah, thanks Dan! That’s really interesting! You see, I don’t actually ‘hear’ the sounds in what I’m writing, so that’s perhaps why listening to music compliments the process for me. My writing process is incredibly visual and colourful, and I get smells, and voices, but struggle to imagine other sounds. Hmmm! You’ve got me thinking now Dan… and THAT is very dangerous ;o)

  4. jomcarroll says:

    I love music – but tend to write (and always read) in silence. Somehow I find it harder to ‘hear’ what I’m really trying to say if there’s another voice wafting round the room. Plus – I tend to join in the singing; belting out ‘I Wanna Break Free’ makes me feel wonderful, but doesn’t many words on paper!

  5. Hi Jo! That’s 3 of you then that find it distracting… this is soooo interesting. There has to be someone else out there who finds music can draw out and encourage their writing (am thinking Emma Pass might help me out here 😉 ) I know what you mean about wanting to join in though Jo – that is tempting at times.

  6. I can definitely understand having certain songs relate to certain things you’re writing. I love listening to music to get me in the mood to write — there are two songs I strongly associate with my just-finished WIP that I’d often listen to just before writing…. one song in particular (that I’d never heard before, the second I heard it I knew it was my MC’s anthem!). But once I start writing I rarely listen to music. It’s not that I find it distracting — it’s just that I don’t notice! Once I’m in the writing zone, absolutely anything can be going on around me and I just don’t hear it.

    • That’s lovely when you find a track that you can identify with a certain character isn’t it? Yes, I tend to shut off too, to everythiing else going on around me. But can’t shut off when the TV is on! The music becomes subliminal sometimes I think, just there working its magic.

  7. I tend to write when it’s quiet…so I can, as Dan said, hear the crunch of feet in snow, or feel the rain on my protagonists face, I need quiet to be there with them… (I struggle to write in school holidays! Too much chaos at home.) But…if I’m writing an aggressive or battle scene or something strong I can put rock music on and disappear into the scene with the music!
    I do sometimes find a ‘theme song’ with some books I write. I listened to Avril Lavigne’s ‘Innocence’ and it melted into the entire ending of my published book, adding even more power to the emotive words. Marillion’s ‘Beautiful’ inspired another book sitting in my ‘to be continued’ pile…
    My current editing though, is a children’s fantasy adventure and the world is so different to ours that our ‘adult’ music doesn’t fit (like you said), so I immerse myself in their lyrical world instead and write without music!

    • Thanks Lisa. I think you use music in the same way as me then. Yes, writing for children and music don’t seem to work together do they? I think when you do find something that echoes your intentions, as you said with ‘Innocence’ it just feels right and the two seem to harmonise and meld – I think that’s lovely!

  8. Emma Pass says:

    *Stumbles in, out of breath and looking a bit windblown* Did someone say my name?

    No, I don’t find music distracting at-all. Unless it’s very early in the morning and I’m not awake, I *have* to have it on while I write, and I always make soundtracks for my books. There’s also certain bands/singers I listen to obsessively while working on a particular project, and when it’s finished I can’t listen to them in while I’m working on anything else, because they don’t ‘fit’. For example, when I was writing my first ever YA novel (9 years ago now… wow, I can’t believe it’s been that long!), I listened to the Strokes over and over. Their music WAS that story. And now, whenever I hear them, it takes me straight back into the heads of the characters I was writing about then.

    Your playlist is fantastic – thank you for sharing it! Weirdly, Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ is on my WIP soundtrack too. Great minds, eh…?

    Hmm. I might have to blog about book playlists sometime soon!

    • Hoorah! I thought you’d be similar to me with the writing/music thing Emma! I’m the same, the music and writing become so connected that afterwards I can’t separate them! Yes! The Gotye track, I remember posting the link on Twitter ages ago and you saying you loved it and were thinking of using it – it’s fab isn’t it? Such an amazing cinematic track – I think that’s why I easily found a place for it.

  9. Martin Shone says:

    Well, I used to be able to write while listening to an audio book, weird I know, but know it’s usually silence or I start off listening to a bit of classical something or someone like Rumer, well anything really and carry on until the music has finished and the silence takes over 🙂

    I don’t have a YouTube playlist thingy :-/

    Great post, Abi 🙂

  10. Thanks for that Martin! Yes, I can imagine classical music would work in the background, especially with you writing poetry. Glad you liked the post!

  11. I find that music can inspire, but when you really start creating, that process is so all-eneveloping that the music utterly recedes. Thanks for the post.

    • I agree, the music is almost unnoticable after a while, with just the odd word jumping in. But I find I can stop and focus on it if I want to. Thanks for your comment.

  12. Nadine says:

    Intriguing! I must try that. I tend to listen to a certain music genre depending on the mood I’m in. I agree with you about the TV, though. Too distracting.

    I’m gonna try it out and see what happens. I don’t know about listening to rock, though. It tends to rev me up, lol. BTW, is that “Rolling in the Deep” by Linkin Park the same as Adele’s version?

    P.S. I love that you’re on such a writing roll. *applauds*


  13. Hi Nadine! Yes, try it. It takes a bit of getting used to, but I get all sorts of ideas from the feel and lyrics of music now. Yes, it is Linkin Park’s cover of the Adele song. I’ll tweet you the link later – it’s flipping amazing!!! And thank you so much for your support! x

    • Nadine says:

      Now I’m keen on trying it. Just need to choose the tunes. 🙂

      Yes, please send me the link. I heart Linkin Park too.

      You’re most welcome. xxx

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