What do you listen to when writing?

My last novel was written to Ian Brown, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Prodigy, Rage Against the Machine, That Petrol Emotion, The Wedding Present, The Zutons, and in the very final moments, Arctic Monkeys. Mostly dark, loud stuff.

As I write this, I’m listening to Cream’s Born Under a Bad Sign – what a rhythm!

How 'bout you?

While I love many types of music…country, bluegrass, jazz, classical, rock, alternative, progressive rock, metal, techno, etc., I need something softer when I write…usually classical or jazz. :slight_smile:

A record that has always inspired me is Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Volume 2. In the realm of “electronic music” it is quite ancient, but surprisingly enough it has not dated at all. It isn’t really “ambient” in the normal sense of the word, and is thus impervious to fad.

Once I wrote nearly half a book listening to primarily one track, “Peacock Tail,” by Boards of Canada. That was a little strange; but it was a Nano, so I was writing much more rapidly than normal.

I’ve been looking for music I can listen to while writing. I usually find it too distracting, but it’s becoming a necessity because my 13-year-old daughter is now invading my airspace with her own music. (And “turn it down” seems to mean something different to her than it does to me.)

So these are good tips, and I’ll be looking for more. Meantime, I’ll just give a plug for what I often listen to prior to writing, to get my verbal muscles twitching: just about anything by Stephen Sondheim. I’m not a big Broadway musical guy, but Sondheim isn’t your typical Broadway writer. He’s more verbal than musical, and I find listening to Sunday in the Park with George, or A Little Night Music for 20 minutes before I unleash the keyboard pretty stimulating.

For what it’s worth.


Very interesting, Maria. This is very close to the way I work as well. I often work at my favorite cafe, a bustling and active place with plenty of people noise, for hours at a time. I can focus better there than I can at home.

But when reading or writing at home, I generally don’t play music. I used to but that has changed. I love music and listen to it plenty, but not while working for the most part.


Jukebox function in iTunes. :wink: Alright, I keep skipping many songs, because at this very moment I don’t want to listen to them, but once in a while a song is washed ashore that makes me switch to the whole album. And this is mostly Tool or A Perfect Circle. But my current writing is enhanced by Billy Talent. So - the louder the better in my case.

Listening to music while writing is definitely a stimulus, and has an effect on what’s produced. Loud, fast stuff is good for action scenes, for example. It’s also good for keeping you awake if you’re writing late at night or early in the morning!

Most of the writers I know listen to something while working.

For me the music has to distract from anxiety (and my tinnitus!), but not from words or work. I generally find that instrumental, fairly repetitive, familiar music is best because it doesn’t ask for any attention and helps me focus. At the moment, Philip Glass is fitting the bill.


I can listen to stuff with a vocal as long as it’s something I’m very familiar with, so I don’t start actually listening to it.

If you don’t actually hear the lyrics anymore, it’s fine. But I have to wonder whether the endless flow of clichés that makes up most lyrics isn’t just catchy, but catching, hence not too conducive to good writing. :slight_smile:


I’d say that would only be the case if your only input was song lyrics.

And even then there are some very strong and thought-provoking lyrics out there.

I love minimalist music for long drives! I used to do a lot of long-distance driving and Philip Glass was a favorite.

When I do listen to music while working, it is usually ‘classical’ (Gorecki, Gubaidulina, Fauré, and Arvo Pärt are favorites, as well as Palestrina, Mozart, Beethoven) or my own weird mix of different genres, world music, drumming, yogic music, meditative music (Paul Winters, Russill Paul and Chloe Goodchild are favorites), a real blend. Or arias (Maria Callas is a favorite singer among others). Or female vocalists, such as Judy collins and Joan baez (so I’m dating myself!). Depends on my mood.

Mostly if I do listen to music while working, it’s working on more superficial stuff, cleaning up text, doing web reserach, minor revisions and the like. As I said before, when I’m really working and need to go deep, I generally find anything but ‘white noise’ a distraction.

I can’t listen to really active music while working at all. But, I love it for when I’m not! Or for when I have to clean the house!


I don’t see why. We are after all talking about inputs while writing – not in the rest of your life. What I mean, for instance, is that while you’re digging around in your head for the right word or phrase, do you really want input/competition from writing that is often designed to be clichéd? Who knows what this does subconsciously?

Notice the word “most” in my post. :slight_smile:

In any case, as I’ve implied, I don’t want the music to provoke any thoughts while I write; I have my notes and sources for that.

But I’d be curious to know who the good lyricists are these days. Any suggestions?



Love your list, Alex: full of great ideas. I’m sure I’ll find something I like.

I listen mostly to Agnes Poetry, a small band that started in my hometown. They’re known as Adom9 now, though, and their old Agnes Poetry stuff isn’t on the market anymore. Their stuff really gets me in the mood for some reason.

I also listen to a lot of Enya, Yanni, Bond, and Sarah Brightman. And occasionally a little Mannheim Steamroller. And when I’m stumped and just need some comic relief I’ll listen to a bit of Weird Al :slight_smile:

Alex, you’ve solved the issue. As I write I’m listening to Gorecki’s Miserere. Very beautiful and soothing. Since my Latin is almost as bad as my Polish, there’s no distraction at all. :slight_smile:


Before this, Gorecki could have been hockey player for all I knew. Thanks for the suggestion.

Ha. A hockey player. That’s funny. Yeah, Gorecki is one of my favorite composers of all time. Glad you are enjoying him! If you like Miserere, try his Symphony no.3, the Symphony of Sorrows. It is among my most favorite pieces of music. He has numerous other works out there as well.


Tuning in from another time zone. Alexandria, your list of music you like is close to my preferences – beside many others. Phil Glass reminds me of my time at high school, when I had the privilege to sometimes play in thhe orchestra in the National theatre and go to the opera or ballet for free. What went without saying, now I understand how much it was a priviledge when I observe life on our lovely island. Over there, we had the Phil Glass cyclus Satyagraha – Echnaton – Einstein on the Beach on the stage, beautiful music, easy to comprehend, and the composer coming around.

“To comprehend music” is the point of problem: Good music catches my mind like text spoken or sung, it has its own logic that wants to be grabbed – beside all those FEELINGS — So, despite loving to hear music, I couldn’t work while listening.

So far from the end of the world,

On the whole, I prefer quiet. I did write my second book to Gershwin - An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue, primarily - but I’m not sure why. Over and over and over again… But that was years ago.

Mostly, though, I don’t have music playing in the background. I live in a quiet area, so I rarely have to mask noise. When I do, I’ve noticed that I end up not hearing it when I’m involved in the writing so I’m not sure of the point.

When I listen, I’ve lately been clicking on Corelli a lot. Also have a quite a few, uh, eclectic playlists in iTunes and on my iPod, each for a different mood. :smiley:

I can definitely see that! Those songs have such a narrative.