by Amy Evans
Writing any kind of musical piece, from composing a Brazilian samba song to a Hollywood movie soundtrack, is an inherently creative process. Does it follow then, that listening to music will help you write a better novel? It depends on the type of music and varies from writer to writer. Viet Thanh Nguyen listened to rock music while writing his Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Sympathizer. Lori Osterberg, an international bestselling romance novelist, creates a playlist for each book she writes. I listen to instrumentals while I write, and I wanted to share how this can enhance the creative process.
The Writing Atmosphere
Listening to instrumental music can help immerse yourself in the setting of your novel. This is particularly beneficial when writing a story that occurs in a different time period or a foreign country. Are you writing a steamy love story that takes place in Spain? Listen to some romantic Spanish guitar. Working on a historical novel that takes place hundreds of years ago? Listen to music from that era. What is truly amazing about the digital age is that you can find music that fits any genre, time, and place. Even if you are writing a sci-fi space adventure, there is music for that too (hint: Interstellar soundtrack).
Getting in the Zone
Instrumentals can help you focus and tune out distractions. A solid playlist can have you writing for hours on end. There are times when there are too many ideas bouncing around my head, and music helps control the flow of ideas. Do you ever feel that silence can be too loud? Keep in mind I’m talking about the creative aspect of writing. If you’re in hard core editing mode, music might be distracting. Concentration is also dependent on the volume of your music. It would probably be difficult to focus with Beethoven blasting out of your speakers – and your neighbours would likely not be too happy about the symphony orchestra next door. Background music at low to medium volume is your best bet.
The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley studies the extensive psychological benefits of music. Neuroscientists have confirmed the link between music and motivation. They also discovered that listening to music heightens positive emotion by stimulating dopamine receptors. Music is proven to significantly decrease anxiety and establish a calming effect – so listening to tunes can help if the pressure of writing a novel is getting to you. There is also evidence that music acts as a memory aid, but the jury is still out on that one. More fascinating still, listening to music causes almost every brain center to light up, suggesting there are even more benefits that we haven’t discovered yet!
Simply put, lyrics can be distracting, even if they are only in the background. You might find yourself singing along in your head or end up typing the lyrics in the middle of a sentence (it happens). There is an immense variety of instrumental music available online. Many movie soundtracks, like those of Academy Award-winning composers Hans Zimmer and James Horner, are beautiful to write with. There are ambient instrumentals that focus on mood and ambient versions of many famous songs. You can find instrumental covers of your favourite songs. Violin and piano covers are my personal favourites. There are even instrumentals that create nature sounds. The options are endless, really.
Finding and Crafting Playlists
You can find playlists for creative writing and concentration on many music platforms such as Spotify and Youtube. These platforms also suggest similar songs, so your playlist will keep on growing. If you don’t know where to begin with creating playlists, you can start with pre-made ones before designing your own. In addition to the creative benefits, you’ll discover great new music.
Listening to music and writing is not for everyone, but it is certainly worth trying. And not every good song is suitable for writing. Just because you love Kendrick Lamar, does not mean he can help you write your novel. I mean, he could. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for his recent album, after all. The type of music that enhances your writing may surprise you.
Every month Kobo Writing Life will post a song list for each genre, starting with romance! Check out our playlist, designed by me, on Spotify or Youtube.
Do you have a creative playlist to share? Favorite songs to listen to while you write? Share them with KWL! If you are trying the music and writing combination for the first time, we want to hear about it, so report back. As always, happy writing, friends.
Amy works on Author Engagement for Kobo Writing Life. She helps answer author questions and comes up with creative blog content. Amy studied Social Sciences at the University of Ottawa and Publishing at Ryerson University. She has worked as a content author of literature study guides and as an online literature educator.
Thank you!!! This is a wonderful playlist…I appreciate you sharing it. In all my to do lists, creating playlists never showed up. But it’s always taken up just a bit of space in my mind…this is a beginning nudge to do some of my own. After I listen to yours a few more times☺️
Thank you Brenda! It is so incredible how powerful instrumental songs can be 🙂
I like to listen to dark techno when I’m writing. It’s got nothing to do with the subject matter, but the tribal rhythms fire up my brain and the weird sounds stimulate my subconscious.
I admit, i am not one for listening to music when i write, but work from yma sumac or daft punk some harry potter film stuff will be what i listen too if i did
This is a great article, Amy– especially the point you make about writing in a different historical setting. I found myself listening almost exclusively to medieval/Norse tunes while writing my novel “The Exile,” which is set in pre-Viking Scandinavia… Needless to say, I had to find a new playlist to accompany my 1600s English play (thank goodness for James Horner and Hans Zimmer!!) 😀
Do you ever find that listening to a soundtrack from a movie you have already seen makes the creative process more difficult? In other words, does the association of the music with another story hinder your own storytelling?
Your novel sounds very interesting, Shiloh! Coincidentally, I have a character with your name – she is of Polish/Russian descent who moves to Toronto in the late 19th century. Hans Zimmer is my absolute favorite but I love James Horner and Patrick Doyle (Harry Potter soundtrack).
There are definitely some songs where their association to another story is too strong — especially if the song is played only in a few pivotal moments in the movie. Soundtracks that apply to more than a few scenes (ex. Soundtrack associated with Winterfell in Game of Thrones across 8 seasons) have me thinking of my own fantasy ideas. While music does help me generate creative ideas, the most valuable thing it does is get me in the right mindset for a certain genre and its associated mood, tone, and atmosphere 😊
Thanks for sharing, we love receiving feedback and having discussions with our authors!