Back when I was in college, we’d occasionally have a professor come in and play classical music while we were studying. They would tell us this helped us concentrate. These little interludes never lasted long, they made made most of us think “is this person for real?” I think there’s something to it – though I’m not going to talk in absolutes.

It’s Not for Everyone

In college, I had a really tough time going to a library to study. I had to work in a space with people around, with a little background noise so I didn’t feel walled off from the world. In grad school I had two small children, and I did the same thing. I even wrote portions of The Trip in coffee shops, waiting for my kids at dance class, wherever I had free time.

My wife, on the other hand, needs silence to write her papers. When she was in grad school, she’d find a quiet spot to work.

There’s no right or wrong way to look at this. You know how you work better than I do. If you work better in silence, work in silence. If you work better with noise, work with noise. If you have no idea, try both ways and see what works.

It’s Got to be The Right Music

I’ve seen studies on certain types of music help higher thought processes. You can probably do a Google search and find what I’m talking about. Usually it’s classical (I have no idea whether other types have been studied), but let’s open it up to any genre for the purposes of this discussion. (I had an interesting workshop a couple years back with Odds Bodkin, who played the harp and guitar in our session and truly opened my mind up in Imagine, Don’t Create)

Almost everybody enjoys some kind of music; that’s close to as an absolute as I’m ever going to get. Think about the styles you’re drawn to – I’ll be the songs you really enjoy have some kind of powerful emotional impact. When you’re writing, you need to be in touch with your emotions, especially when you’re working on an intense scene. Personally I feel listening to the right music helps, but it’s got to be the right music. What you’re listening to should strongly invoke the emotions you want to convey. If you can channel the emotional resonance into your writing, you can do some really powerful work.

Lyrics or No Lyrics

For the people who listen to music while they write, the topic of lyrics can bring political level passion out. Some people feel that lyrics are distracting while others believe without them they can’t concentrate. I personally don’t care; sometimes I listen to artists who sing, and other times I’m listening to Joe Satriani, Danny Elfman or Brad Fiedel. It really doesn’t matter to me long as I listen to something that brings out a powerful feeling.

Be Inspired, Don’t Imitate

Can this be too powerful an emotion? Let’s say you’re listening to the soundtrack of your favorite movie. I’ll bet if you’re listening to a movie soundtrack, you’re probably writing something similar to the movie. Or play.

Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. After all, you’re trying to convey the same emotion as a work that talked to you. This is a good thing if it keeps you inspired.

However, be inspired, don’t imitate. I remember back in high school I grabbed the Danny Elfman Batman soundtrack while I was writing my first screenplay. I wound up getting a superhero story out, and it was a mash-up of Batman and Robocop. It was fun to write, but I look at it now and cringe. Some of the elements were close – close enough I’d probably have been thrown in the rejection pile if I’d sent it out.

So is this a bad thing? For a teenager learning the ropes, I’d say no. I needed to do that to figure out what I was doing – if I didn’t do it then I’d be doing it now. Better to get this out of my system. If you listen to a soundtrack, try to think about whether you’re too close to your inspiration in your work.

Get Outside the Comfort Zone (Musically)

In Outside the Comfort Zone I talked about writing in ways you haven’t considered to push yourself. I think listening to music you don’t usually listen to can help as well. Try a totally different genre (with apps and websites allowing free streaming, this is easier now than ever before). If that’s a little radical for you, try setting up a Pandora station. They’ll automatically load artists similar to the one you set as the “station” artist. It’s a great way to try some new artists out without costing anything, and it can help move your writing along by activating parts of your brain you don’t normally use.

And what are YOU listening to as you write?