Monday, October 27, 2014

A Little Mood Music

Hi gang, I'm Nilah, and it looks like it's my turn to post! So, I’ve been falling back into working on a manuscript that’s been haunting me for the past four years. Writing, and plotting, and revising, and round and round I go, but there’s been something nagging me, and two weeks ago I finally couldn’t take it anymore. I banged my fist on the desk, stopped what I was doing right then and opened up a new web browser. It was time.

I needed a playlist.

And not just any playlist; one comprised entirely of piano arrangements. I’d been building it slowly but surely already, picking out a tune here and there and making a note of it for later. Now was finally the time.

I know working to music isn’t for everyone, but for me, it’s something I rarely do without. Maybe because I spent the better part of my childhood in front of the music stand, my fingers plucking away on a violin or a piano or a flute. Maybe it’s simply that I need something to drown out the traffic, barking dogs, and yelling neighbors that normally serve as my life’s soundtrack. In any case, when I sit down to work, selecting the right music is part of my preparations.

For general work, I use the normal sources, like Pandora; I’ve got a few stations set up to cull specific genres of music, and I keep it on shuffle throughout the day when I’m at work. At home I have the option of pulling out my iTunes library and its four days’ worth of tracks. If I’m in a particular mood, I’ll put on a specific album—film soundtracks are great to work to. When I’m illustrating, anything will do, though I tend toward upbeat, energetic music—anything that will keep me awake. When I’m writing, my selections tend to be instrumental or in languages I don’t speak. Music that will set a mood, get my head in the right zone and keep it there.

This manuscript needed its own playlist. Somehow I’ve gone four full years without one, but then it’s only recently hit me what this particular story needs. The main character is a talented pianist, and her music is an ever-present part of her character. 

I’d created a dedicated playlist already for my webcomic. In that case I knew exactly what songs I wanted to include. I used to compile a list of fast, fun, epic music, perfect for an action-adventure narrative. And hey, 8tracks even let me create an album cover for it!

For this project, I started a playlist on YouTube with the random piano songs I’d collected, but it wasn’t enough. I needed a steady stream of music, and I’m not familiar enough with the classical music scene to make my own choices. I turned to Pandora to do what it does best. I gave it a starting point—Michele McLaughlin, whose piece Finn McCool I’d come to think of as the theme of my manuscript—and with a thumbs up or thumbs down here and there, guided it to play only piano music.

And boy, the world of difference it has made! The first time I sat down to write with the gentle drumming of piano keys filling my ears, I knew I’d made the right call. Many of the selections are from contemporary artists, like Jennifer Thomas, David Lanz, Yanni, and Secret Garden, with compositions that are a blend of classic and modern. Their music relaxed me. It’s much easier to zone out, to let distractions drift into the background so that I can immerse myself in the world of my manuscript. I can pretend the music is the soundtrack and play the story like a movie in my head.

This new playlist isn’t just a fun addition to my writing process, but it’s also introduced me to a lot of composers I wasn’t familiar with before, and that’s pretty cool. So, does anyone else like to listen to music as they work?


  1. I really like the Finn McCool song! I like how that one chord(is that the term, I'm so bad!) is repeated throughout so much. My mother played the piano, so that's an instrument that I always love to hear. I go through phases listening to music when I'm writing. If I find a song that correlates w/a the theme of a story really well, then I will play it over and over and over again while writing! Maps by Maroon 5 was my most recent obsession.

  2. I always have to write to music. It's often my own playlist, but sometimes I also need to find the 'right' music that fits the mood of the novel I'm working on. One of the characters in my first two novels is a dancer and there are a few dance elements. I had to listen for the song that I thought would be played in that moment and I would listen to it over and over again as I wrote.

  3. Thanks for the post, Nilah! I'm definitely a write-to-music type. Something about it just takes the restlessness away and lets me write. Thanks for the song/site suggestions too! And good luck with your WIP.

  4. I'm team no-music, because I get SO DISTRACTED it's ridiculous. So it's just one extra thing to distract me. But I love listening before I write, or reading lyric booklets to get inspired.

  5. I can't write to music. I find it too distracting. But I heard that listening to Mozart is the way to get your creative juices moving. I might try that.

    1. Bach is my choice! I recently solved a thorny writing problem while listening to the partitas for solo violin.

      (I meant to reply to you before, but replied to the general thread instead - that's why there's a deleted comment below...)

    2. Looove Mozart, and Bach is a great choice! I'm also a pretty big Chopin fan. A lot of his arrangements are lighthearted and relaxing.

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