Music for the muse

A few days ago on Twitter a friend asked if anyone listened to music while they worked. She said she was writing with headphones on and struggling to hear her writing voice over the music.

I’m not sure how her other friends responded, but I usually listen to music when I write. Working in complete silence doesn’t work for me, possibly because there’s always something I can hear—the fridge humming, the house creaking, my own breathing, etc. So I put on some music to create my own background noise.

But to do that, it can’t be just a random selection from my iTunes library. No, the album needs to have a few… shall we say “qualities”.

First, it can’t have any lyrics. You have no idea how many times words from songs have made their way into my writing, usually with comical results. This is one reason I envy artists, who can probably work with any kind of music playing. (The other reason being that they can draw.)

Second,  I need to know it backwards so it drifts into the background without me getting distracted my something new I’ve noticed.

Finally, it needs to be relatively “soft”, which in my case means it features a lot of synthesizers and would probably be found in the New Age or Ambient section.

Over the years I’ve built up quite a collection, and so I’ll often be listening to Vangalis, Brian Eno, Enya (her lyrics are more like another layer of music) and even people like Craig Padilla. But if I need to get into the writing mindset quickly, then there’s only one choice: Jean Michel Jarre’s “Oxygene”.

I’m not sure why, but this particular album is the one I turn to again and again (and yes, I’m listening to it now). Maybe I’ve done so much writing with it playing it’s now part of my writing kit. (Hey, at least I can take it pretty much everywhere I go.)

So, what music do you listen to when you’re writing?

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Jen January 13, 2010, 9:11 pm

    If something’s distracting me I need music when I write. Otherwise, perfect silence is fine.

    It doesn’t really matter what I listen to so long as it’s something I enjoy and something that suits my mood. Lyrics don’t matter. Actually, almost all music I listen has lyrics.

    I’ve tried to listen to music without lyrics – the classics like Tchaikovsky and Mozart, or my favourite, Astor Piazzolla’s neuvo tango – but I find myself lost in the key changes. The rise and fall of the structure of the piece. I get lost in the mathematics of it all. (Too many years in music classes, I suspect.)

    Music is only really distracting if I don’t know it well enough or it doesn’t match my mood. If it’s the first or second time I’ve heard it I’ll listen to it and my words will be neglected. If it’s something upbeat but I’m feeling restless and frustrated, I’ll get no where, blame the music and give up.

    The downside is that I can spend an hour or more looking for the “right” music. And sometimes I end up listening to an album on repeat for days on end. Listening to he same album again and again doesn’t bother me until I realise what I’ve been doing and suddenly, for no good reason, it does.

    • Bill Harper January 15, 2010, 8:17 pm

      I’ve been thinking about the whole “writing in silence” issue, and I think I’ve worked out why I can’t do it. If the only sound is me tapping on the keys, then it feels like there’s a spotlight on me, and I’m expected to perform. By playing music I don’t feel quite as much pressure to get the words down.

      I’ve never been a big classical fan (interesting considering both my mother and sister played it a lot on the piano when I was growing up), but I know what you mean. I have some music that makes me stop whatever I’m doing and just marvel at how the composer pulled it off.

      I hadn’t thought much about matching the piece to my mood, but I probably do it subconsciously. And forget about playing the same album for days on end. I can do that with the same track.

  • Russell Smith January 17, 2010, 12:19 am

    I write software, not prose. I may be a little less affected by the chance of dropping in a few lines of “Get Over It” by the Eagles into my work, due the the sprodic nature of the actual writing component of software development.

    For me, when I ‘write’, if I want to get into the zone, it has to be loud and very upbeat/energetic. Generally, but not necessarily, this will mean songs with lyrics. Always songs that I know and love. I also always listen with headphone, even if I am the only one around. When I talk headphone, i am talking full over-ear old school headphone, not iPod ear buds. Those things s**t me at the best of times.

    I don’t tend to go on a journey of discovery to find some tracks either. I have some playlists specifically setup with my ‘in the zone’ music there. It is not uncommon for me to put a track on loop too, and listen to it over a few times. Probably high on rotation when I am listening while working is live versions of songs.

    I think that live versions for me have a bit of a detached feel : you are just a part of the crowd. Maybe it echo’s a little Bill’s theory on songs with lyrics, but ‘studio’ songs seem to demand your attention a little more : you feel like the only person on the room ? That train of thought of mine might be better worked through with a psychiatrist sometime.

    (I am sitting down now for my 3rd day on this reply – not 24×7, but it’s been a carefully consdiered 3 or 4 sentences already – the question posed has really piqued my interest, and I have thought a bit about it over the past few days)

    I would like to add another dimension to the mix : location…

    The music I listen to when I am working tends to change by where I am working too. In my home office its the full on loud and energetic playlist. If I am working in a ‘real’ office, I tend to go for something a bit lighter, so I can keep on contact with the office around me.

    I do travel a lot with work, and spend some lengthy stays away. This becomes a little tricky with work music. For me, music will set off a bout of home-sickness so fast, it literally makes your eyes water 😉 Some of my favourite music (favourite for obvious reasons) is intertwined with my memories of closest family and friends.

    Hmmmm, what was the question again ? That’s right…

    Q : Do you listen to music when you work ?
    A : Yes (now, that was simple wasn’t it)

    • Bill Harper January 20, 2010, 11:03 am

      Now that I think about it, Russell, I occasionally need a track with lots of energy as well. (“Saturday night and Sunday morning” from Phil Collins’s Serious Hits Live concert often runs through my headphones.)

      Speaking of headphones, I don’t use them unless I have to. (Maybe it would be different if they were wireless.) That being said, I do most of my writing either at the office during my lunch break or at night when our son is asleep, so I use them quite often. I’m using ear buds at the moment (my Sennheiser headphones died last year, and I’ve grown fond of being able to pause and skip tracks just by clicking a button on the cord itself), but I want to upgrade to headphones with decent bass. (Who knows? I may give in to temptation and buy the Bose headphones I saw at the Apple store.)

      I like the idea of having different playlists for different moods. (Haven’t played with them much in iTunes.) As for live versus studio, it depends on the track. I generally favour studio as well, but I prefer Dire Straits’ live version of “Sultans of swing” (from the Alchemy album) to the studio version.

      People at the office have learned that if I’m wearing headphones and they want to talk to me, they need to either tap me on the shoulder or use our IM system to get my attention.


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