Writer’s Life and the Role of Music

Most of the writers I know talk about listening to music while they write.  In On Writing, Steven King talked about listening to hard rock while doing a lot of his work.  George Lucas listened to symphonies while writing Star Wars.  My new friend Mark Gelineua listens to music while writing, and at Con-Volution 2017, he spoke about the idea of writers posting their writing playlists.

Maybe I’m strange, but I cannot listen to music and write at the same time.  It just doesn’t work for me.

I think it’s because when I’m reading, I hear the words in my head.  As a teenager, I remember trying to listen to a radio presentation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and I couldn’t get into it.  Marvin’s voice was wrong.  After reading the book, I’d made up my mind how the character was supposed to sound, and the actor’s voice didn’t match up.

I’ve tried writing to different genres of music.  Music without lyrics, like classical and electronica.  Nothing works for me.  If I turn it down low enough, I can find the words.  But at that point I’m not really listening to music.  I’ve just turned on some noise to fill the background.

I can listen to music while programming without a problem.  In fact, one of the ways I’m able to focus at work is to put on something catchy.  Rock, pop, metal… even some rap works.  I put on my headphones, turn up the music, and I write code.  I dance in my chair.  If I’m alone or so deep in my work that I don’t notice that there are others around me, I’ll sing.

While writing, the best sound I can hear is the clackety-clack of my keyboard.  I have a gaming keyboard with mechanical keys, and I find writing with it to be very soothing, especially when I’m on a roll.  But that’s not really music.  The rhythm isn’t steady enough to be a cadence.

I’ve been playing music a little bit longer than I’ve been writing stories.  In spite of that, I consume the respective medias differently.

For example, when I read other people’s stories, I’m unable to fully disengage my writer’s brain.  I see the beats of the story.  I build a scaffolding of the plot and character arcs and make educated predictions as to where everything is going.  I’m rarely surprised by a story anymore, which frustrates me.  I read for escapism, but there is rarely any escape.  I read, hearing the words in my head, noticing the adverbs when overdone.  I trip over the places where the prose falls flat, and I cringe where the writer engages in silly gimmicks or deep, self-indulgences.

When I listen to music, I do not listen so deeply.  I’m able to float off on the waves of harmony and melody.  Sometimes the lyrics inspire stories.  Sometimes I get hooked on a tune so completely that I replay it over and over, feeling a weird sort of guilt every time I hit the back button.  It doesn’t matter the music genre, either.  I have very eclectic tastes.

I don’t listen and analyze music the way I read and critique writing.  I can appreciate good music analysis, though.  Take for example, Andrew Huang’s break down of Find Me by Sigma (featuring Birdy):

He hears the chords and transitions.  He appreciates the music theory and how the song was constructed.  Maybe it’s because I play the sax, incapable of playing chords, but I don’t hear the music the way Andrew Huang hears music.

If I did, would I become dissatisfied, the way I am when reading fiction?

I’m slowly learning to play the guitar.  Maybe I’ll find out the hard way.