What’s Your Writing Soundtrack (And Should You Even Have One)?

by Evan Yeong

The first time I can remember thinking about music and its relationship with writing was when I finished Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson (the sequel to her award-winning Speak). In the acknowledgements she included bands like Incubus, Staind, and Linkin Park, as well as composers like Beethoven and singer-songwriters like Tori Amos. As a fan of her musical choices, I think back to the connection I felt with her, and the delight at recognizing how many of the songs were thematically reflected in her work.

Fast-forward to several years later and I’m trying to motivate myself to write one of the many blogs I’ve abandoned over the past one and a half decades, headphones on, trying to block out the outside world so that I can focus. But what if my attempts to concentrate were actually making it more difficult?

In 2017 writing teacher Amy Isaman attended a neuroscience lecture where she learned that listening to music while writing “creates stress.” She explains further that music causes our brain to multitask, which makes it harder to focus on what it is we should be doing. (In your case, possibly writing the next big Harlequin romance!)

Thinking back on my years hunched over my laptop, earbuds locked in place, a distinct memory comes to mind. Typing away for about ten minutes, music blasting, before either ripping the headphones out of my ears or turning the volume down until it was just barely audible, essentially just faint background noise at that point. It’s no wonder then that Isaman goes on to share that “low-level ambient noise can improve creativity.”

As one final note from her well-researched piece, the writing teacher also mentions that music with lyrics is what most hinders creativity. Your brain tries its best to follow along and understand the words being sung. From digging around the internet, lists like “10 Film Scores to Listen to While Writing” and many other writers asked about what they listen to support this.

But what about Laurie Halse Anderson, who used rock music to inspire her work? And what about you personally? I don’t think the power of music to set the tone or mood should ever be discounted. One of your goals as an author is to bring the reader into a place where they can feel the emotions of the scene, and having the right song can really help to establish that for you (and hopefully for them!).

Isaman’s advice, which I’m passing on to you, is that if you’re going to listen to music while writing make sure it doesn’t have lyrics (and that it isn’t too loud!). My personal two cents would be to find what works for you. For a good number of years I did something that didn’t work for me (blasting music) before transitioning to something that did (music played very faintly). If I’d stopped and thought about it at an earlier point in time, maybe I would have started writing with the volume turned down to a smidge above zero!

You might be someone who can’t concentrate when it’s dead silent, or someone who needs the noise to be just shy at a dull roar to block everything out! For some ambient nature sounds are the perfect fit, and for others foreign music may allow them to listen to the genre they want, but without feeling like they need to follow along with the lyrics.

If you listen to music while you write, please let us know what it is that you’re listening to! Is there a specific genre, or genres? Does your choice of music differ depending on whether you’re writing something like a Heartwarming or more like a DARE? What is the perfect soundtrack for a heartbreaking goodbye, or a long-awaited reunion? As one question that may be useful to many of us, do you have a go-to Spotify playlist for when it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to typing? If there is I’d love to know!