Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Does Your Writing Need a Little Background Music?

Years ago, after I'd graduated from grade 12 and moved on to higher learning — English 100 and Philosophy 120 — I discovered that my university had a recording library. Hallelujah! Sounds quaint now, I know, but this was more than a generation before iPods, and I was ridiculously excited about getting to hear music via headphones.

That said, my relationship with the library began poorly. In the booth next to me, I discovered a classmate listening to Shakespeare (King Lear, I think) on a 33-rpm vinyl recording. Fair enough, except he was listing to it at a speed of 45 (fast).  And when he admitted to me, "I started listening at 78 (super fast) but found that a little too quick," I burst out laughing and was immediately kicked out of the library for being too noisy.

I returned the next day, however, and soon settled into a nice groove. I quickly discovered that harp music — quiet, low-key, not something you'd want to hum along to — worked best for me while I studied.

I'd completely forgotten about this experience until I gave a speech recently. During the question period someone asked me about listening to music while writing. Did I do it? Did I recommend it? The questioner had heard that Gregorian chant was supposed to be particularly helpful.

Truth is, while I could tolerate quiet music while studying, I've never been able to listen to it while writing. Too distracting! This is despite – or maybe even because of — coming from a musical household: my grandmother was a conductor, my aunt a violinist who went to Julliard, I play the flute (badly) and two of my kids are skilled pianists.

Besides, when I write it's already noisy enough inside my head that I don't particularly want any more distraction. I spoke with several friends who are professional writers and none of them write to music either.

But I had vague recollections that Mozart was supposed to be particularly inspirational so I looked around the web to see if I could verify that. Apparently, a 1997 book by Don Campbell, The Mozart Effect, presents the theory that listening to Mozart may temporarily increase your IQ and enhance your creativity.

I'm trying to write this column while listening to Mozart K 448 and I find it intensely distracting. I can tell because whenever my computer takes a brief break (to buffer the file) I actually write faster.

I think the idea of writing to music sounds attractive — especially when we don't like writing very much — because it suggests the notion of making something that seems boring or tedious more lively and fun. So here are my three suggestions:

1) There's good evidence that music can change your mood. If you're feeling tired and lazy then listening to something upbeat can indeed boost your energy. Even though I dislike ABBA on principle, I find their songs insanely energizing. Ditto for the right indie music (I adore Basia Boulat, Ana Egge and Rufus Wainright) and I'm equally revved up by Broadway show tunes (Kristen Chenoweth singing "Popular" is terrific). Of course, everyone's taste is different, so be sure to pick music that suits you. But here's the thing: don't listen while you're writing. Do it before, preferably while you're doing something mindless, like filing.

2) Instead of listening to music while writing, go for a walk. I try to walk for an hour each day and this is some of my best writing time, even though I never write down a word 'til I return to my office. I figure out how to begin stories, fix problems in them, and decide which of my subjects need more research. Walking is marvelous for this sort of work.

3) If you're really stuck on the idea of listening to music while you write, make sure it is quiet and has no lyrics (or, at least lyrics in a language that you don't speak.) What you're aiming for is minimal distraction. But don't expect music to be a magic bullet that's going to "cure" your writing problem. Only writing practice will do that.

I think many of us perceive writing to be hard work and frankly we'd like a way to lighten the burden. This takes me back to a crusty editor I used to work with. He liked to say: "Moving bricks is hard work. Writing is just sitting at a desk. Be thankful you're not in construction!"

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8� Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Monday August 16th 2010, 2:46 AM
Comment by: Grant H. (Syracuse, NY)
I really enjoyed this!
Monday August 16th 2010, 7:21 AM
Comment by: everaldo L. (rio de janeiro Brazil)
To me writing is something pleasant. Background music is not really necessary. I have my own noises inside my head. But there is no harm in listening to something that is not too loud. Plain music. No words. Not even Sinatra or Perry Commo no matter how sweet the song may be. Every one has his own particular way of doing things. Writing is not something that everyone does if they are free to choose what to do. Believe me it can give you lots of pleasure. With background music or not.
Monday August 16th 2010, 4:51 PM
Comment by: bluefade (Chagrin Falls, OH)
Great topic Daphne. Your three suggestions are very helpful and as usual, very professional.

Several years ago I wrote a story (I'm just an amateur)and found out that writing with Clair De Lune playing quietly in the background, I was elevated into the mood I needed to write the tender moments between the two lovers. It worked so well for me that whenever I hear Clair De Lune being played quietly in a restaurant or some other still place, my mind wanders to those two affectionate characters I created and I wonder how they're doing.

As an experiment however, I am listening to Clair De Lune as I write this and I'm finding it highly distracting. So much so that I just clicked on the pause button. I'm trying to think of a song or even some sort of background pleasantry that would be appropriate for writing this response and I realized there is none.

Why? It's because I'm in a bit of a hurry right now. Professional writers such as yourself are always against some sort of deadline which I'm sure creates pressure. Your mind requires all the concentration for the project at hand and lovely music is a distraction away from that task.

When I was writing with Clair De Lune playing quietly, it was usually 6:00 a.m., coffee cup was in hand and it was a very quiet and relaxed atmosphere. There was no pressure, just the joy I found in the solitude of writing.

Maybe that pressure is the difference writing with music as a help or a hinderance.
Monday August 16th 2010, 6:10 PM
Comment by: Steve V.
Although it depends on my mood, I like "cinematic" music; I actually have a playlist for "writing". Silversun Pickups, Mozart, and Mr. North are some of my favorites.

Of course, sometimes even the passing of dust mites can be distracting so it's not for everytime...
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 12:33 PM
Comment by: SoulFireMage
For me, music makes a big difference to my writing. If I'm writing any form of story, then certain types of music allow my words and images to flow freely.

Work writing, the more staid, professional and basic description I use to create certain types of assessments or careplans, then the music is a little less important; though still helpful.

Like many things creative, there isn't an absolute rule that works for everyone. One thing I do agree with however, lyrical music-at least easily distinguished lyrics do distract from the words tripping out of my fingertips, tangling them up and leaving a pile on my screen if I'm not careful!

I wrote this reply to silence.
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 1:25 PM
Comment by: noblsavaj (San Antonio, TX)
I'm with everaldo - no words when I am writing. I listen to everything from Phillip Glass and ambient music to hardcore techno, mostly modern jazz or soundtracks. I have several playlists that mix these, many of them called "writer's block." I will even listen to choral music as long as it's in a language I do not understand. Music while writing, I believe, provides two important tools: rhythm and melody. While that seems obvious, applying them to creative or business writing is particularly effective.

When I am doing more mundane work, or graphics, I listen to rocknroll - with words - very loud.

Headphones isolate, so they aren't particularly good for constant use in a collaborative workspace (better than trying to agree on shared music), but they are also a good signal to coworkers and partners that one is "concentrating" and should not be disturbed.

Tuesday August 17th 2010, 2:04 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
So glad you all enjoyed the column! As usual, I'm writing to silence, but am about to do some filing and think I'll go pick a good piece of music... Something upbeat, as I just returned from holiday and am feeling rather sluggish!
Wednesday August 18th 2010, 12:42 AM
Comment by: tmack. (Nashville, TN)
I have a writing folder of music on my itunes that I'll often run when I am writing a fast first draft. For the most part it is all instrumental--bach is a favorite. But I love music too much to relegate it to background; invariably, it'll pull me in and involve me in it.

But when revising, I have to listen to my writing--I have to hear it in my head; music would just conflict with that and impair my ability to create writing that should have its own unique rhythmns, tones, and flow.

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