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Writing Level-Up?: Music

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Jul 21st, 2010
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Whenever I work on a novel, and sometimes short stories, I like to have some inspirational theme songs. It helps me to block out the world around me and sink into the story. For my most recent short story set in a desert, I had a nice, deserty-sounding tune I grabbed from the score of an old video game. For my novel, Jack of Hearts, I built an entire playlist of songs that captured the mood of the story, or touched on similar themes, or just resonated with the work at some raw intuitive level.

Some of my writerly friends warn against this–that the emotional tides of the music might just make you think your text has more awesome-sauce than it actually does. Maybe so. I have to admit, at least when I’m editing, it’s hard for me to listen to music. I need silence so I can concentrate on breaking sentences down. Editing, for me, is more analytical than the flow of generating new content. So I switch back and forth. Writing: music. Editing: silence.

So, what do you think? Does music help you to write better, or does it just trick you into thinking your writing is better than it really is?

Just so everyone can make fun of me, here’s the soundtrack I built for Jack of Hearts (in random shuffle order):

1. The Lady of Shalott, Loreena McKennitt
2. The Host of Seraphim (Remastered), Dead Can Dance
3. Sleep Forever, The Big Sleep
4. Just Like You Imagined, Nine Inch Nails
5. The Day the World Went Away, Nine Inch Nails
6. Summer Overture, Clint Mansell
7. Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), Marilyn Manson
8. La Serenissima, Loreena McKennitt
9. Fever, The Violet Burning
10. Cymbeline, Loreena McKennitt
11. Zero, The Smashing Pumpkins
12. The Nobodies, Marilyn Manson
13. My Debt To You, The Pineapple Thief
14. The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning, Smashing Pumpkins
15. Prologue, Loreena McKennitt
16. Tarantula, The Smashing Pumpkins
17. Mayonaise,  The Smashing Pumpkins
18. Eye, The Smashing Pumpkins
19. Tango to Evora, Loreena McKennitt
20. Chant of the Paladin (Remastered), Dead Can Dance
21. So Long, The Big Sleep
22. Tonight, Tonight, The Smashing Pumpkins
23. Today, The Smashing Pumpkins
24. Skellig, Loreena McKennitt
25. Bullet With Butterfly Wings, The Smashing Pumpkins
26. Little Sister, The Big Sleep
27. My Bleeding Hand, The Pineapple Thief
28. Disarm, The Smashing Pumpkins
29. The Sorry State, The Pineapple Thief
30. Ava Adore, The Smashing Pumpkins
31. Night Ride Across The Caucasus, Loreena McKennitt
32. Christmas Steps, Mogwai


  • Adam Heine

    When I’m drafting, I can’t focus at all if there’s music (and yet I must find a way to focus with the screaming of two 3 year olds, so maybe I should try music again).

    I used to like music when I was editing, as it took some of the tedium out of it. But I noticed what you said: that it makes me think the story is better than it is. Then again, when I’m editing, I’m anything but a fair judge of my own work…

    So I guess my conclusion is do what works for you ;-)

  • Anthony Huso

    If you really cared about us, you’d have linked each song to its youtube namesake.

  • Erica

    I always need music when I’m writing. If not for inspiration, then for simply background noise. When I’m editing (and all you guys will laugh) I turn on the audio to my TV to sports, just for something to keep me company as I do my work. It doesn’t interest me, I just can’t have silence and music distracts the left side of my brain.

  • julie

    i actually prefer the same song on repeat to set my mood… that way it drones in the background and doesn’t break my concentration or thought… crazy, i know. but it works for me!

  • Ricardo Bare

    Adam–that’s funny, sounds like you’re the opposite of me in that respect.

    Anthony–I’ll pay you .25 cents an hour to do it for me :)

    Erica–Yep. Whitenoise. I actually bought a whitenoise app once for my iPhone. Works pretty well.

    Julie–I did that with my short story. The song had no lyrics, so it helped to not sound too repetative. More like a score.

  • Jean Brashear

    I can’t write to music at all–too susceptible to the emotion of the music, and I don’t want the influence–so most of the time, silence, but I also use white noise (have a machine but love the app on my iPhone.) Again, though–just the white/brown/pink etc. noise, no defined sound effects.

    BUT…forget me. Ricardo–your Ratburner story ROCKS!! My order came in while on the cross-country road trip, so I just got to read it last night and…wow. WOW. Horror is sooooo not my thing, but your prose is fabulous! Edgy, evocative, crisp–really, really terrific. So effective that girly me had to go read some pablum before I could go to sleep. ;)

  • Ricardo Bare

    Hey Jean–sounds like your road trip was fun. Thanks for reading my story! I’m glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for the nice words :)

  • Claire Ryan

    I definitely need music, or people in the background. Just something to rest my ears on while my brain and hands do the important work.

    I can’t stand writing in silence.

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About Me

Ricardo Bare
Austin, Tx

Ricardo Bare is a writer and game designer living near Austin, Texas. Currently he works as a game designer for Arkane Studios, which in 2012 released Dishonored. Ricardo started his career in the games industry working on the Deus Ex series, winner of the BAFTA and numerous other Game of the Year awards.

Ricardo is the author of Jack of Hearts and Fool of Fate, the first two books in a young adult fantasy series.


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