Amp up your creativity and your sounds with these nine ways to enhance your writing using music.
Plato said that ‘music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything,’ while Nietzsche believed that a “life without music is a mistake.” Much like writing, it can transport us to a different time and place in an instant. Music can articulate that which cannot be said, expressing raw human emotions wordlessly yet it’s the universal language — no matter the culture, humanity is connected by a love of music.
Music and writing are both powerful mediums which can carry us — as a listener or as a reader — into whole other worlds. Both can touch us with such a swift and profound depth that fusing the two mediums can be rich with creative fuel. Using music is a potent tool for writers, enhancing creativity — the joy of creating too — and may even increase your productivity.
“Stories aren’t static. To keep the reader gripped, we need to generate a sense that the world of the story is changing all the time. For me, music is a useful reminder, because music does not stand still,” says Roz Morris, novelist and author of the brilliant Nail Your Novel series, and creator of The Undercover Soundtrack, a blog dedicated to writers and the music they love to write to.
“There may be a new instrument snaking into the mix, a new variation on a theme, a creeping, evolving harmony. If this is going on in my ears while I’m spending time with my book – whether I’m musing or typing – I find it keeps me up to the mark – pushing for ideas that give this forward pressure.” Music can enliven your writing by transporting you far more deeply into your own story’s setting, time, place, theme, and mood.
…to Connect with a Project
“Whenever I take on a project, my creative psyche demands that I find the right soundtrack for it. And if I don’t, I might as well kiss that creative spirit goodbye. They flounder, gasping and dying like a fish out of water,” says author Scott D Southard.
No matter the medium, genre or style, creating a playlist or soundtrack for each creative project offers you fresh inspiration every time you put it on, with you swiftly delivered into scene, setting or the project itself — for each has its own unique energy — it’s own flavour, cadence, timbre and feel. A writing playlist can mirror this.
Use music to create a soundtrack or playlist and play it while writing, editing or plotting.
Be aware that listening to music with lyrics can be distracting for other language-related creativity, including writing, as the lyrics also activate the language centre of your brain.
…as a Writing Prompt
One way to add power to a free-writing session is to use music as a writing prompt. Do a free-write while simultaneously listening to a piece of music. Write about what you experience as the music plays, as well as what it inspires, for example, a piece of 1920s jazz could help you slip into the mood and scene far more easily if that is the era you are writing in.
Free-writing while immersed in a piece of music can inspire fresh creativity. I also love fusing images with music and doing a free-write. It can bring up some interesting little gems. Nonsense too of course but wild and untamed writing often contains the most precious gems of all.
As the music plays, allow metal images come to you. Holding your pen loosely helps, as does keeping your breath steady and body relaxed. If you find yourself slowing or getting a little stuck on a scene or sentence, focus on sensory detail, as if writing through each of the senses. Alternatively, try free-writing after the music ends, and then do your free-write.
Even if you feel your internal images dissolve or momentum slows and stops, keep writing. Even if it makes no sense, especially in fact, as it can still trigger new worlds. As Anne Carson said, “Sometimes I dream a sentence and write it down. It’s usually nonsense, but sometimes it seems a key to another world.”
Set your timer and press play. Connect with the music come as you write, and keep your hand moving.
Write without thinking or trying to make sense. Let your writing be wild, and your pen roam free to the beats of the music.
Write about what you feel; write about the experience inside yourself as the music plays.
Allow yourself to be carried just as the notes are carried, in a delicious rhythm across the page.
Follow tangents and let yourself drift. Let your free-writing session be fluid. Do not stop until the timer rings.
…to Connect with an Experience
There’s nothing so instantly transcendent as music, especially if it has significance for you — a history that might tug at delicate, emotional threads, or happy memories — and your mind is there in a quaver (or a semibreve). “That’s why we have such a strong visceral connection to it because a song can take you back instantly to a moment, or a place, or even a person,” says Sarah Dessen, author of Just Listen.
“No matter what has changed, that one song says the same, just like that moment.” Using music as a trigger of your own feelings from your past for your writing is a potent storytelling tool. “Whether we write gritty memoir or the most extravagantly invented fantasy, we need to harvest our emotional memories. Many of our scenes, dilemmas and storylines are drawn from feelings we had at important times with family, friends, loved ones,” says Roz Morris.
“Music can be like little time capsules,” agrees author Scott D Southard. No matter the genre, music has such instantaneous power to trigger memories, it can be used in this way to connect with how your character is feeling or the scene you are writing. The music you put on after a painful break-up may be just what is needed to slip you back into that vulnerable space wherein your emotions — and therefore your prose — can express that vulnerability.
Equally, if you are in far too finer mood to write such a gut-wretching scene, music can be the swiftest way to allow you to connect with darker feelings. That said, if laden with life and feeling sorrowful or sad, joyful music — especially music with happy memories attached — can help you flip that sitch, and write anyway [even if you don’t feel like it].
…to Slip into Writing Mode
“Whether you’re putting on a soundtrack, closing the door on your favourite silent space or seeking the anonymous corner of a coffee shop, the first step is to find a way to delete the outside world,” says Roz Morris.
Regularly using playlists for your writing can also be a subconscious signal to your brain that you are about to create, which helps you slip into that creative space all the more swiftly. As soon as it goes on, your brain clicks into writing mode.
“I listen to music only about a third of the time that I’m writing, usually just to get in the right mood — and so I’m not distracted by the silent sound of me trying to write,” says writer David Dobbs. “I might listen [until] I’m enough into the story that the music becomes distraction rather than muse. If it’s going well, the music dies and I don’t realise it.”
Listen to music to enhance your process and prose — whether through being connected with a character, piece, genre or project — before you begin to get you into writing mode.
…to Connect with a Character
A powerful way to add character depth to your fiction — as well as deepen your own connection to your characters — is to create a playlist just for them. When creating a playlist for my protagonist, the melancholic notes of the cello seemed to express this character, and now — whenever I need to be transported to her point of view, all I need do is press play.
Spend a few moments sitting in stillness, and think about the character — just be present with whatever comes up.
Search for music that connects with these impressions about your character.
Choose anything think he or she would themselves listen to and love, as well as music that resonates with your character’s story arc, as well as their unique blend of traits, inner, and outer conflicts.
If writing in an different era, you can choose to exclusively use music from that era or from every genre, culture, time and place.
Now make your playlist for your character.
Before and during your writing sessions, listen to the playlist to reconnect with your character. It will immerse you in the subtle intricacies of your characters in an instant.
…to Connect with a Theme
When submitting your writing to literary magazines or for competitions — whether a short story or vignette, a poem, haiku, or essay — writing to a theme can be a prerequisite. It’s also a fine opportunity to utilise the power of fusing music with your writing.
“If a song feels like it “fits” your story, analyze how it makes you feel. Maybe that will help you figure out the theme or emotional heart of your story or characters,” says Jami Gold. Equally, you can find a piece that resonates with a theme, or your take on it, and try this:
Find a piece that suits the theme, or your own take on the theme.
Listen to it the first time without writing at all.
Listen a second time while doing a free-write.
Finally, a third time as you write your piece, poem or prose.
…to Connect with a Mood
Using music that provokes the right mood for your writing is one of the most immediate ways to deliver you into scene, setting and especially the mood of a piece. Nothing can be more powerful to alter our mood than the instant transcendence that only music can bring.
“In movies, music (or the lack of it) is utilised to enhance the scene. Music is also one of the key aspects of my writing process,” says author of Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys to Writing an Outstanding Story and Structuring Your Novel Workbook, K. M. Weiland.
“I have more than seven days of music on my computer in genres ranging from alternative to industrial to techno. This broad range of styles helps me create a writing soundtrack, as it were, for a specific scene, character, era, or particular intensity I want to impart to my readers.” Listen to a broad range of music depending on your mood, the mood of the scene and what kind of atmosphere that scene needs.
…to Inspire Your Writing with Film
Another way to find powerful music is to go to the medium of film. Writing to film scores, which are of course designed to loosen the emotions of even the most stoic of souls, to add tension, heartache, increase momentum, slow it down again. You may like to check out the Internet Movie database here: INDB to find film music scores.
“If you’ve ever watched a movie with the sound turned off, you know what a powerful effect music has on our emotions. The right piece of music can induce anything from dread to joy,” says Jami Gold. “Without the accompanying music, our visceral reactions and emotions to events playing out on the screen will often fall flat.”
Play around with different genres, songs and styles of music to fit the mood of whatever creative offering you are working on.
Use music from the culture or place of your setting, the era too may be echoed in your playlist.
Use music from film scores to amp up both mood and music
If you do not find lyrics too distracting, they can also be powerful tools to add depth to your writing.
…Just to Use Headphones
As every audiophile will tell you, the finest way to listen to music is through a set of quality headphones. “Headphones opened up a world of sonic colors, a palette of nuances and details that went far beyond the chords and melody, the lyrics, or a particular singer’s voice,” said Daniel J. Levitin, neuroscientist and author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.
“Headphones also made the music more personal for me; it was suddenly coming from inside my head, not out there in the world.” Aside from adding rich depth to your tunes, listening to music with headphones can also help block out any distractions.
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Roz Morris, novelist and author of the brilliant Nail Your Novel series, has a blog dedicated to writers and the music they love to write to: The Undercover Soundtrack | My Memories of a Future Life