A Writer’s Selection of Music for Writing

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Looking back on my recent posts, I see that I’ve been Very Serious in every one of them, which really isn’t like me at all.  I guess this has been a Serious Time.  Lots of work, much of it not very much fun, sick kids, friends going through hard times.  Serious stuff.  But I want to do something fun this week, if for no other reason than because I need to, for my own well being.

So…..

I’ve posted before, elsewhere, about how important music is to my work.  When I’m writing a book, I have to have music on.  And not just any music.  I don’t do real well listening to rock or pop in any of its incarnations, mostly because I find that lyrics throw me off.  The last thing I need when I’m writing is someone else’s words kicking around in my head, repeating themselves in melodic, catchy little phrases. 

I also can’t listen to classical music.  Too static.  Our best friends here in town are both musicians and music professors.  They’re both into classical music and they’ve introduced Nancy and me to some wonderful performances.  I enjoy classical; Nancy and I went to hear the Nashville Symphony a couple of weeks ago and had a great time.  But when I’ve tried writing to classical, I’ve found it stultifying.  For me it’s like trying to do gymnastics in a tie and jacket.  It just doesn’t work.

So what does work?  Instrumental music with a strong improvisational element.  Specifically jazz and bluegrass.  I listen to a ton of both.  I find that listening to improvisation frees up my writing, helps me tap into a creative thread, almost as if I’m playing riffs right along with the musicians.  As I mentioned months ago in that previous post about music, when I used to play guitar more often than I do now I did a lot of instrumental soloing, and the feeling I get from writing on a good day is very much the same as I used to get from playing.  I have the sense that I’m in sync with a creative process that’s larger than just me.  And the music I listen to helps that along.

I know that some other writers are pretty picky about the music they listen to when writing, and that others feel they can’t have any music going at all.  I’d like to hear what you all listen to when you write, if anything.

But first, here are my top ten favorite discs to write to (in no particular order):

1.  Skip, Hop & Wobble — Jerry Douglas, Russ Barenberg, and Edgar Meyer.  Virtuoso bluegrass musicians playing acoustic instruments. But this is way more than mere bluegrass.  It has elements of jazz, folk, celtic, and, yes, bluegrass. This is one of my desert island albums.  If I were trapped on an island for ten years with nothing but food, water, and five albums of my choice, this would be one of them. 

2.  Kind of Blue — Miles Davis.  This will come as no great revelation to fans of jazz.  It’s generally recognized as one of the great jazz albums of all time.  It’s another of my desert island discs, and a terrific writing album as well. Brooding, melodic, and still stunningly fresh fifty years after its release.

3.  Drive — Bela Fleck.  A bluegrass standard, although again, the music is far more complex than what most people think of as “bluegrass”.  Terrific musicians, including not only Fleck, but also Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Stuart Duncan, Marc O’Connor, and Mark Schatz.

4.  True Blue — Mark Whitfield.  Young jazz guitarist playing with an all-star back-up ensemble that includes Branford Marsalis, Nicolas Payton, Jeff “Tain” Watts, and the late Kenny Kirkland.  As the album title implies, there’s a blues undertone to the entire album.  Not a weak cut in the mix.

5.  Hot Dawg — David Grisman.  In the 1970s, mandolinist David Grisman coined the term “Dawg Music” to describe his then unique brand of jazz-influenced bluegrass.  Drawing on the music of Stephan Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, Grisman created a new sound that has since had a huge influence on a generation of bluegrass musicians (including many of those already mentioned here:  Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Marc O’Connor, Tony Rice).  Hot Dawg may well be the best of Grisman’s albums from that period.

6.  Get Inside — Johnny A.  A new favorite, a recent gift from one of my brothers.  Johnny A.’s music combines elements of blues, rock, and jazz into a sound unlike anything being put out by anyone else on the music scene.  His albums are entirely instrumental and they rock.

7.  Not All Who Wander Are Lost — Chris Thile.  Mandolin-playing magician of Nickel Creek fame.  Don’t laugh at this, but Chris Thile may be the closest thing modern acoustic music has to Mozart.  He released his first solo album at the age of eleven and his second at age sixteen.  Not All Who Wander… is his third solo effort.  It came out in 2001 in between the first and second Nickel Creek albums, and it features performances by, among others, Fleck, Douglas, Meyer, Duncan, Bryan Sutton, and Sara and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek.  Thile wrote or co-wrote every piece on the disc, proving that he’s not only a brilliant musician, but also a brilliant composer.

8.  Payton’s Place — Nicolas Payton.  Payton is a jazz trumpeter and he and his quartet are joined on this album by trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Wynton Marsalis, as well as sax star Joshua Redman.  There are a few standards on the disc mixed in with an impressive selection of original compositions.

9.  Telluride Sessions — Strength in Numbers.  Okay, I feel like I’m repeating myself a bit here.  Strength in Numbers is a bluegrass “supergroup” consisting of — surprise!– Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Marc O’Connor, Sam Bush, and Edgar Meyer.  All I can say in my own defense is that this is truly remarkable music written and performed by spectacularly accomplished musicians.  We are living in a golden age of acoustic music.  Each of the musicians on this disc has redefined his instrument; together they have taken bluegrass to places the genre’s founders never even dreamed of going.

10.  Question and Answer — Pat Metheny, with Dave Holland and Roy Haynes.  Pat Metheny’s music is often dismissed by jazz purists as being too New Age to be real jazz.  But he’s an incredible guitarist, and when he chooses to play straight up jazz, as he does on this release from 1990, he is as good as any jazz guitarist out there.

So, there it is.  My top ten list.  I’m embarrassed to find that there isn’t a single title by a woman on the entire list.  It’s surprising, because I have lots of discs by women.  But few of them are jazz and bluegrass, and fewer still are entirely instrumental — my criteria for writing music.

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14 comments to A Writer’s Selection of Music for Writing

  • Brian

    Wow, thats some list! Ive never been able to appreciate a lot of jazz music. I find it lacks a perceptible repetetive structure that makes me go crazy. But I love bluegrass, folk, celtic etc. I listen to Folkalley.com when Im at work writing reports and reading.

  • Wow. I just learned that I like “Dawg” music. And I love Bela Fleck’s Stuff.

    Writing in (relative) silence doesn’t seem to bother me, because every building I have ever done any writing in provides enough humming, clicking, beeping and creaking noises to be its own sort of background music. However, having songs (with or without vocals) that are sufficiently familiar, playing at a low volume or, even better, in the next room over, seems to not be overly distracting, either.

    Unfamiliar music, commercials, or any form of talk whatsoever is completely a brain-buster. With talk going on, I can’t do ANYTHING but listen.

  • Thanks for the comments, Brian and Frank. Music preference is highly personal, of course, and jazz can be an especially daunting genre to approach. There’s a lot out there, many different styles of music fall under the heading “jazz”, and a lot of jazz can be pretty inaccessible even for people like me who listen to a lot of it. Brian, if you’re interested in titles of some jazz that is accessible, that’s easy to listen to and has a more comprehensible rhythmic and melodic structure, drop me an email and I can send along some titles as suggestions of places to start.

    Frank, I actually need the music to mask some of those house noises you’re talking about. The Procrastination Engine in my brain is always looking for something to do other than write my current book. So if I hear a drip or a rattle or anything else that screams “project!” I’m in trouble. Music is my friend. It makes all my household headaches go away, at least for a little while.

  • David said, “I actually need the music to mask some of those house noises you’re talking about. ”

    I can’t bear the quiet. Complete silence would drive me insane, but even the relative quiet of an empty house is too much for me. I become hyper-aware of the house itself, and can’t settle into a writing rhythm because every creak and car door shutting down the street catches my attention. Music is great for combatting that.

    As for what kind…I listen to different choices as my mood changes. I have a special fondness for Middle Eastern music and American blues.

  • Mark Wise

    I perfer the “white noise” of Jimi Hendrix and JS Bach. They are the best for making my neurons fire. As for comfort music while writing, I go for ELO – Electric Light Orchestra. Not only are they good, but there are a lotof memories tied up in listening to them that emote into my writing.

  • Christine

    This topic really touches a chord with me (pun not intended), as I simply must have music playing while I’m writing.

    That’s not to say that I can’t write otherwise but if I’m working through an intense scene, I need the music to help me focus.

    As for preference? I’m a soundtrack addict. I’ve created playlist for what I might be needing to write. I have a list for when writing emotional scenes and a list for when I’m dealing with a certain cultural situation that is similar to tribal indians. I don’t keep anything by John Williams on my list as, after a short while, it all sounds the same. My favorite soundtrack would have to be Dances With Wolves by John Barry.

    It was nice to see this topic mentioned here. Good to know I’m not the only one to use this method.

  • Mark, I actually think that Hencrix would be one of the few rock artists I could listen to while writing. I think his music would lend itself to the kind of creative interplay I need when I’m working. And Christine, I can’t tell you how many people at my LJ blog have mentioned that they listen to soundtracks. I’m going to have to look into this. I love the movie Dances With Wolves — I’ll have to watch it again and listen more closely to the music.

    Misty, I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who can’t deal with a “silent” house.

  • I always have music on when I’m writing too, though my favourite is a band that most of you will never have heard of. A great British band called “Ozric Tentacles”. I know it sounds like something from a Lovecraft story, but it’s awesome writing music. It’s all instrumental (as I have the same lyrics issue that David mentioned) and it’s an eccelctic mix of swirling sound, psychadelic sometimes, loads of guitar. If you haven’t heard of them before, try checking them out.

    Soundtracks are another good option, but they can have a sub-conscious effect on me and I find myself getting the vibe of the movie in question, which can sometimes mess up what I’m trying to write!

  • This reminds me of a project a few of us tried some years ago (back when Napster was free and copying music to CDs wasn’t the Eighth Deadly Sin). We chose songs that exemplified our novels, and created CDs for each other featuring the chosen songs.

    For “Mad Kestrel”, I chose:

    “Strike the Bell” – Pyrates Royale
    “Mrs McGraw” – Jolly Rogers
    “Rogues In a Nation” and “The Diamond” – Lost Boys
    “Caide Sin D’on Te SIn” – Clannad
    “Black” – Sarah McLachlan
    “Hunter” – Bjork
    “Mevlana” – Soundtrack from Suleiman the Magnificent
    “Graceful Ghost” – George Winston
    “Spanish Nights” – Blackmore’s Night

    So now you’ve got me thinking of what the soundtrack of Book Two needs to be!

  • Okay, I LOVE the idea of a book soundtrack. I’ll have to think about that for some of my novels.

  • Michele Conti

    People would buy it, too. If they weren’t too expensive.
    Except, not many people can listen to music WHILE reading…I can, but people always look at me funny when I say “I’m listening to music and reading a book…” Even if I’m on the phone with them, they look at me funny, it’s this giant pause in the middle of the conversation where they say “What the hell?” Lol…I dunno…

    Brain is scrambled, so much to do, so little time…

  • David said, “Okay, I LOVE the idea of a book soundtrack.”

    It was fun. I still listen to mine sometimes, and listening to the ones the others made is neat.

    Michele said, “People would buy it, too. If they weren’t too expensive.”

    There’s the rub, though… the licensing for all those separate songs would make it the most expensive CD ever. *pout*

  • You all are way ahead of me. I was thinking it might be fun to put together a soundtrack for my own fun, something to listen to that would put me back in the mindset I was in when I wrote the book in question. It never even occurred to me to sell it, Michele! That’s one of those things that a big name author (Neil Gailman, say) could get away with. But not me.

    That said, Rachel Caine has included a song list at the end of at least one of her books, saying that people can make their own soundtracks for reading it. Cool idea.

  • Man, I even have to allude to songs in my writing because I can’t afford to secure the rights to quote lyrics, let alone put together a CD! But the idea of a soundtrack is excellent. You could always include a note at the start of the book – “The author’s suggested soundtrack for this novel includes…” and then list all the relevant songs. People could play the music while reading then without it having to come directly from you and that way immerse themselves deeper into your vision.

    It’s a really interesting concept.