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Music to Write By
by Indra Sena

Return to The Writing Life · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

If you are struggling with writer's block, looking for inspiration while crafting, or having trouble getting started when you sit down to write, music just might be the perfect muse.

Music can relax or invigorate you. The lyrics often refer to timeless themes, much the way writing does. Instruments can also express a wide variety of emotional nuance. Anger, sorrow, joy and despair are all common emotions music seeks to express. You can use music to bring you into these states of feeling and infuse your writing with rich emotion.

I like to listen to music the entire time I'm writing. However, even if you prefer to write in silence, music can give you the jump-start you need to begin moving your pen.

Here are some ways to use music as part of your writing practice:

1. Anchor Yourself to a Starting Song

Anchoring is reminiscent of Pavlov's famous experiments with dogs. Pavlov sounded a bell as he fed the dogs. The animals salivated when they saw the food. After some pairings of the bell and the food, the bell alone elicited salivation. Also known as Classical Conditioning, it is a form of associative learning, which is based on the belief that experiences reinforce one another and can be linked to enhance an activity or process.

I chose 'The Flower Duet' from the opera 'Lakami' as my Starting Song. As soon as it starts to play I feel compelled to write, a response I created by playing the duet every single time I sat down to write.

You can choose any song that makes you feel energized, inspired or excited. Consider Aerosmith's 'Back In The Saddle Again', or Bette Midler's 'Wind Beneath My Wings'. If you prefer not to hear lyrics, try Claude Debussy's haunting 'Pour l'egyptienne' or Chopin's exquisite 'Nocturne No.9.'

Once you've chosen your Starting Song, always keep it nearby. Have it in your Itunes or Media Player, or have the CD sitting on top of your keyboard. Every time you sit down to write, play the Starting Song with the plan that you will write for the duration of the entire song. Even if you decide you will only write for those few minutes, the old science law holds true: A body in motion tends to remain in motion. Trick yourself into writing past your blocks with the thought that you're only going to write while your Starting Song is playing. You will often find that once you begin writing, your hand will continue almost on its own.

If you play your Starting Song every time you sit down to write, your writing practice will become anchored to the song. Just hearing the song will make you feel the urge to grab your keyboard and start typing.

2. Play Songs That Reflect the Period You Are Writing About

If your novel is takes place entirely in the year 1930, buy a couple of CDs with music made that year. With sites like Wikipedia, it is a cinch to learn which songs were played in a given year. A period novel taking place in America in 1850 will have you playing Stephen Foster's 'Gwine to Run All Night'. Chronicling the 1980s disco scene should fill your writing studio with Madonna.

Playing these songs will connect you directly to your characters--this is what they would have been listening to. It will also let you feel the ambiance of that period in history.

3. Play Music That Puts You In The Mood

When writing an action scene, play fast, driven music. Let Heart's album 'Dreamboat Annie', The Smashing Pumpkins' 'Gish', Guiseppe Verdi's 'Stiffelio' or Rachmaninoff's 'Piano Concerto No. 3' rev you up with energy.

While writing tragic or heart-wrenching scenes, have music like Schubert's 'Litany', Janice Ian's 'Seventeen', or Joni Mitchell's album 'Blue' playing on repeat.

Compile your favorite love songs to play when writing passionate scenes. Songs like Elvis's 'I Can't Help Falling in Love With You', Billie Holiday's 'I'm a Fool to Want You', George and Ira Gershwin's 'Someone to Watch Over Me', or Linda Ronstadt's rendition of 'I Love You For Sentimental Reasons' will have you--and your characters--swooning with desire.

If your book is Science Fiction, you can play New Age or Space music. A spiritual theme might call for Gregorian Chants or southern gospel songs.

Whether your characters are fighting, falling in love, going to a funeral, or on a crime spree you can easily find songs that croon about those life experiences.

4. Use Music That Increases Brain Functioning.

I often listen to Mozart or Vivaldi for background music. Played on a low volume and lacking lyrics, you might hardly notice it is on. However, studies have shown that both Baroque music and music by Mozart increase the functioning of our brains.

The term baroque applies to music composed during the 17th and 18th centuries by composers such as Vivaldi, Telemann, Bach and Handel. Baroque music is believed to optimize brain function by producing a state of calm, relaxed alertness. Lab studies have shown that it increases alpha and theta waves in the brain. Alpha waves indicate a slower, more relaxed mind. Theta waves represent both creative and meditative states in the brain.

Keeping Mozart in Mind, a book by Dr. Gordon Shaw, discusses music as a window into higher brain function. World-renowned for his "music and the brain studies," he demonstrates how music changes the way we think, reason, and create.

Listening to music creates new neural pathways in your brain that stimulate creativity. Research from the University of California showed that music actually trains the brain for higher forms of thinking.

5. If You Prefer Silence While Writing

Simply use your Starting Song to get your pen moving, and then continue writing without any music playing. Try music without lyrics, so you won't be distracted by the words. If you are accustomed to writing in silence, you can experiment with playing music to measure how if effects your productivity. You might be surprised to find music a writing enhancer, rather than a distraction.

Pick your favorite songs and use them to aid your writing practice. You will be surprised how quickly your brain learns to take cues from music. The key is consistency, that age old practice of successful writers.

Copyright © 2009 Indra Sena
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Indra Sena published her first book, Closet Full of Coke, in 2011. It is a memoir about her life as a teenager. You can visit her website http://www.closetfullofcoke.com. She also has a Blog about memoir writing at http://closetfullofcoke.blogspot.com/. She is currently working on her second memoir.


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