Music: a Tool to Help Writers Focus?

by Chris Mandeville

It can be easy to lose focus when trying to write, especially when there’s distracting stuff going on around you. According to psychiatry professor Anthony Rostain, MD, in an article on Heath.com distractions often come in the form of external stimuli like noise.

Well, that’s not news to me. External noise—specifically music—is the biggest impediment to my ability to focus while writing. I can block out most distractions: people talking, road noise, dogs barking, babies crying. But if a radio comes on, or someone starts drumming on a table, or if a kid breaks out in a rendition of “I’m a little teacup,” forget it. Once you add music, my concentration is blown. I’m firmly in the no-music-while-writing camp.

musical-notes

Image by Photosteve101 courtesy of Creative Commons

I’ve long known that there is a huge contingent of writers in the other camp—writers who thrive while listening to music. When I was researching 52 Ways to Get Unstuck, one of the most common methods authors shared for combatting writer’s block was listening to music. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of writers are in the “yes-to-music-while-writing” camp.

Whatever camp you’re in, I bet there’s one thing we can agree on: music stirs emotion. So I can understand a writer playing music that evokes in them the emotion they want to convey in the scene they’re writing. Author Cindi Madsen is perhaps the queen of this technique. For each of her novels she creates a playlist with songs that summon the emotions she is trying to get across, with pivotal scenes each having their own “anthem” of sorts.

“I love how music can instantly transport you and make you feel so many emotions. So when I’m stuck, I put on my playlist and remember what emotions I’m working to convey.” Cindi Madsen, Crazy Pucking Love

But let’s focus our focus back on focusing. I can get on board with using music to evoke emotion, or even using it for inspiration, but I still can’t fathom using it to help me focus. Lucky for me, there’s a bajillion writers out there who are happy to tell me how they use music to help them focus.

male-writer“Writer” by Eelke courtesy of Creative Commons

Take Johnny Worthen, for instance. When writing Eleanor he kept his head in the game by listening to music. Usually it was instrumental only, but he turned to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” when he really needed to get into the mindset of his character. He says it was “so perfectly the theme song of the lovers in the story,” that listening to it helped him focus on what he was writing, despite the song having lyrics.

Likewise Aimie K. Runyon writes while listening to music, typically light classical, and Vivaldi in particular. She says it helps her to “drown out the world around her” and concentrate on her story world. She tweaked her listening habits a bit when she wrote Promised to the Crown. Specifically, when she was working on scenes that take place in churches and in the charity hospital, instead of her usual flutes and violins, she listened to Gregorian chants because it kept her focus on the scene and in the moment.

Author Paul M. Carhart uses music to sharpen his focus on the type of scene he’s writing—upbeat for chase or a fight scene, something softer for an intimate scene. Typically he chooses instrumentals. In particular he loves movie soundtracks because of the inherent energy and emotion. But if the songs have lyrics, they can’t be ones he’s overly familiar with or it will break his focus and have him singing along.

“The right music transports me into the world I’m writing and keeps my focus there.” Paul M. Carhart, Planetfall

While I can’t speak to the experiences of everyone who listens to music while writing, for the above authors, music helps them concentrate on their writing when it blends into the background and doesn’t pull their focus away from their work. If there are lyrics, the writer doesn’t pay attention to them.

deborah-coonts-bookWhen I talked with author Deb Coonts about this topic, I was expecting the same old song and dance, and it did start out that way. She said she discovered she “can’t do silence” when she was writing Wanna Get Lucky, the first in her Lucky O’Toole Vegas Adventure Series. Music provided the noise she needed to write. Since then, music has been her muse for every project. Okay, no big surprise: Coonts listens to music while writing. But here’s where it gets jiggy: Coonts sings along.

How on earth can she do that? you might wonder. I certainly did. I mean, I can chew gum while walking. I can even pat my head while I rub my belly. But no way can I write and sing at the same time. Heck, I can’t even make a grocery list while singing. What gives?

“To me, it’s like repeating a familiar mantra,” Coonts says. “So, the songs I listen to have to be so familiar that singing along takes no real conscious thought.”

So like the other authors I spoke with, for Coonts the music is in the background. It doesn’t require her focus. But she’s singing. Out loud.

Singing while writing. It’s hard to wrap my brain around. But after some pondering (with no music to distract me) I think I understand: it’s like jiggling my leg while I write—it doesn’t interfere with my mental concentration because it’s unconscious, and it seems to help me maintain my focus. There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that “leg jiggling” can help distractible people to concentrate. So perhaps singing is verbal leg jiggling….

In case you’d like to try your hand (mouth?) at singing while writing, Coonts graciously shares her list of “songs to write by” below. But she also shares this cautionary tale:

after-meSince she must have noise to write, Coonts often has to leave her apartment in order to stay on good terms with her neighbors. But that’s okay—she enjoys writing outside the house, and spends a good amount of time in “places that have a nice music selection and wine list.” She wrote most of her new dark thriller After Me in bars because she found it comforting to be around normal people who weren’t looking to kill her. However, she said all bets were off when she got deep into her writing and began unconsciously belting out the words to the song playing in the bar—some of her fellow patrons started looking a bit menacing!

Whether your hills are usually alive with the sound of music or you prefer the sound of silence, the next time you have trouble focusing, try a tool from the other camp. As for me, die-hard no-music writer that I am, I’ll take my own advice and try singing along to “If I Could Turn Back Time” when I need help focusing on my YA time travel manuscript… But just to be safe, I’ll do it in my home office behind closed doors. Hopefully the resident dogs and cats won’t start plotting to kill me.

BONUS: Deb Coonts’ Songs to Write By

“When You Say Nothing at All” – Allison Kraus

“All About that Bass” – Meghan Trainor

“Where Do You Start” – Barbra Streisand

“Run to You” – Whitney Houston

“Just a Fool” – Christina Aguilera with Blake Shelton

“I’ll Never Get Over Getting Over You” – Exposé

“Something Stupid” – Frank Sinatra with Nancy Sinatra

“Friends in Low Places” – Garth Brooks

“Passerà” – Il Divo

“Chances Are” – Johnny Mathis

“All I Want For Christmas” – Mariah Carey

“It Had to Be You” – Tony Bennett with Carrie Underwood

“I wish You Love” – Natalie Cole

“Cry Me a River” – Natalie Cole

“Who Can I Turn To?” – Tony Bennett with Queen Latifah

“La Vie En Rose” – Tony Bennett with k.d. lang

“I Want to Be Around” – Tony Bennett with Bono

“Another Sad Love Song” – Toni Braxton

“Someday” – Sugar Ray

“Time to Say Goodbye” – Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli

“She’s Got You” – Patsy Cline

“Lonely tonight” – Blake Shelton featuring Ashley Monroe

“You don’t Know Me” – Ray Charles

“Last Christmas” – Wham!

“Uptown Funk” – Bruno Mars

chris-mandeville-photochris-mandeville-tools-photo

Chris Mandeville writes science fiction and fantasy, as well as nonfiction for writers.

Her books include Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure  and 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block. 

9 comments

  • Yes! Singing and writing go together in my world! Thanks so much for the shout-out, Chris!! I would be singing right now, but my neighbor just glared at me through his window…dang. I wonder what other tactics writers use to remain focused when the words want to run away…

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  • Thanks for your comment and for contributing to this article, Deb!

  • Like you, Chris, I find music incredibly distracting. It completely takes over my consciousness, affects my mood and thoughts. If I’m out with friends and I can hear music, my mind will tune into that and the real-life people in front of me will become the background.
    And then I discovered this was exactly what I needed for my writing. It began when I was ghostwriting thrillers for bestselling writers. I’d have to conjure up environments I’d never been in, so I’d use soundtracks from obsucre films to create them in my head. Then I wrote a novel of my own – which had always been my real intention anyway. I suddenly found that random pieces of music heard on the radio were suggesting the ways characters felt, giving them little rebellions I hadn’t even considered until that track came on. Slowly, I amassed a collection of talisman pieces that anchored me to the characters and the way they were evolving. The novel was about a musician anyway, so music was central to her life, but it was also central to my creation of the book.
    When I published it, I wrote a post about the pieces of music that had steered the book. I called it The Undercover Soundtrack. And then I wondered if I could find other writers who could open up their creative spaces in the same way. Six years on, I’m still finding them. I’ve got about 300 posts from writers, all talking about the music that helped them in their most private moments with their characters. I’m still finding more of them, all the time.

    • Your process and how you arrived at it are fascinating to me! I like the idea of using a movie soundtrack to put me in mind of a particular setting. I am writing a time travel story right now, so I think it would be a good time to try this–find music that’s evocative/emblematic of the place and era I’m writing… Hmmm. You’ve definitely got me intrigued!

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  • It certainly can’t hurt to try something new. But at the end of the day you know yourself and what keeps you on track and what makes you lose focus. There isn’t a “right” way!

    • Exactly, Kristen! Find what works for you, and do that…until it doesn’t work, and then try something different. I actually (I can’t believe I’m saying this) worked with music on the other day AND I DIDN’T DIE OR GO CRAZY! Thanks for your comment 🙂

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