The Sound of Writing

More and more books I read have a curious addition:  a soundtrack.   It’s a well established fact that many authors write to music, and now some of them are publishing in the novel a list of songs that inspired them or, even in some cases, providing an link to an iTunes mix you can listen to while reading.

I can’t imagine reading to music… especially someone else’s’.

And, though I realize this makes me unusual, I’m one of those authors who works best in relative silence.  Maybe its because I’m mildly dyslexic, but if there’s a song with lyrics on that I love, I tend to forget what I’m writing and start singing along.  Music without words works best, but I don’t have a large collection of music like that because, well, I like to sing along.  After much practice, I’ve gotten used to writing in a coffee shop where there’s a fair amount of ambient noise, even possibly music, but I don’t get my best work done in those conditions.

I understand that for a lot of writers the reason they like to have music going while they write is because it,  in a sense, functions as silence.  It’s a wall of familiar noise that helps keep other distractions at bay.   This makes sense to me because I have used music that way when I used to work in a cubicle farm and had to deal with all the various noises of people going about their business (man, it was tough to write a novel in that environment!)  And, in fact, my job had the weird problem of being too quiet.  I used to work in an archive (think: library only slightly different) and, well, archivists prefer librarians tend to like silence.  I found total silence almost as distracting as the noise of a coffee shop.

So what about you?  Music or silence or something in between? 

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  1. 1. Matt

    I used to insist on near-complete silence–which, given my household, only happened late at night. I neither got much sleep nor much writing done. Every now and again I’d head to my local library, but that wouldn’t help much; I’d be too tempted to go browsing through the stacks.

    Nowadays, I still write with as little noise as possible. Just after dinner, when everyone’s mellow for the evening. There’s some murmur, but I can deal with it. I don’t write with music, although I do keep a box-fan on; the steady buzz provides just the right amount of background static to not distract me from working.

  2. 2. Sarah Prineas

    I’m one of those no-music, no-soundtrack writers. Just like you, I find coffeeshops difficult to work in, not just because they’re often noisy, but because of the piped-in music on top of that.

    When I’m writing I’m in the zone, focused so tightly on the work that I tune out everything else, and music gets in the way of that.

  3. 3. SMD

    When I’m reading I need either complete silence or have noise in the background that is unintelligible. What I mean by that is, I can read in a public place full of people talking because I can’t focus in on any one conversation, so it all just blends in. This explains why I don’t work for NASA in mission control :P .
    When I’m writing I can’t listen to anything with words. I generally don’t listen to music, but if i do I listen to soundtracks or classical.

  4. 4. Jim

    I always have music going when I work or write. I find it helps me focus – but then again, I’m also a musician, so music is a huge part of the way my mind works. Most of my music is instrumental, since that’s the type of music I favor (I’m an instrumentalist; go figure). What music I listen to that does have lyrics usually falls under genres like folk, classical, jazz, etc. – easy listening, in other words. I don’t have much use for rock or popular styles of music, for the most part. I’m the artsy type, so my music tends to match – and it’s never far from me, no matter what I’m doing.

  5. 5. Kristine Smith

    I have music-I-can-write-to music. In a general category, there’s EuroPop or an American variation thereof, sometimes instrumental, sometimes with vocals. Shoegazer tunes. Gentler stuff.

    OTOH, some characters have their signature artists–I liked to write one with Peter Murphy (*not* Bauhaus) playing in the background. Another character went well with Depeche Mode.

    No pounding rock, or anything that makes me want to dance. The beat is too distracting.

    Light classical often works, as long as there are no vocals.

  6. 6. Stephen Leigh

    I’m one of those authors who has put the novel’s soundtrack in the Acknowledgments of my last few books. I always have music going while I write — like Jim, I’m a musician; maybe that has something to do with it. I can’t write in silence; I don’t even like to think in silence. If I have a choice, music is always playing around me…

  7. 7. Jennifer

    I love to write to music. I try to match the music to the scene I’m writing. I’ve found that I write faster when I’ve got the action cues to follow, and I like that. If I’m writing gentler scenes, I choose slower tracks. Most of my music collection is made up of movie soundtracks, which is great for writing. I usually can’t put on music with lyrics, or I’ll end up singing along.

    Some of my best writing has come along without the benefit of music, of course, but *more* of the best has come into being with it. But with music…I can get lost in the sound and suddenly it’s not me and the keyboard; it’s me and the words.

  8. 8. Laura Reeve

    Silence. The sound of my writing is silence (when I can control my environment).

    Unfortunately, my writing suffers when there’s background noise, so I can’t get much work done in coffee shops or even libraries. Is there a way to desensitize myself to ambient noise or music? I’ll consider suggestions, as long as they don’t sound unsafe to mind or body…

  9. 9. Zoe

    For me, it depends. Sometimes I need to have music on to write; sometimes I need silence. The level of sensory input I need varies quite a bit. I always have a soundtrack for my novels, but I don’t necessarily listen to the songs on the soundtrack while I’m writing; the soundtracks are just made up of songs that make me think of the novel.

    I like looking at other authors’ soundtracks, but I can’t listen to music while I read. It’s too distracting for me. (Though I might be able to listen to music without lyrics while I read; I’ve never tried it.) I don’t know why I can write to music but can’t read to it, but that’s how it works.

    And while I’m fine with writing to music, anything _spoken_ is too distracting for me. The singing in the music I listen to doesn’t distract me, but I can’t write if there are people talking nearby, and I definitely can’t write with the TV on.

  10. 10. Marie Brennan

    providing an link to an iTunes mix you can listen to while reading.

    <perks up> Really? How does one do that?

  11. 11. lyda morehouse

    On how to link to an iMix… Michele Hauf, the author I know who did this for her book GETAWAY GIRL, probably has some tips on her blog (try googling the book title + soundtrack). Mostly, however, I think she just publicized the fact you could download it, if you wanted — in the book, on her blog, on Amazon Connect, etc. I’m not sure how much the publisher helped with this, if at all. Sorry I don’t have more information. It’s a cool idea, though, isn’t it?

    Well, it would be if I was one of those folks who wrote to music. :-)

  12. 12. Kelly McCullough

    Music with lyrics and writing are incompatible for me, completely and utterly. They’re both processed by the part of my brain that does story and it just fries all my synapses.

  13. 13. Melanie

    I finished “Once Bitten” by writing between the hours of 9PM and 5AM when the rest of the house was asleep. I wrote it nocturnally. I actually *require* the complete silence that only comes in the dead of night. Music is distracting, though in my head, sometimes a character has a theme song I might associate with them.

    See, I really like to sing along, too.

    -Mel

Author Information

Tate Hallaway

Tate Hallaway is the best-selling paranormal romance alter-ego for an award-winning science fiction author. Her most recent novel is DEAD IF I DO is forthcoming from Berkley Trade in May of 2009. Visit site.

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