By Katie Lewis
Music has always been an integral part of my life. I sing in my car. I’m always wearing headphones when I go on walks. And I love cueing up a playlist when I write.
As someone who played violin throughout school, I’ve always had a strong connection to music. I got a CD player and two albums for my tenth birthday: NSYNC’s “No Strings Attached” and the soundtrack to the “Pokémon: The First Movie.” It was the year 2000, don’t judge me. In any case, I would spend the next twenty-one years filling any silence with music.
So, it was only natural that I would slip my headphones on to read. Some of my strongest memories from Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter stick with me because of the “soundtrack” I gave to them. As a result, certain songs only represent triumph or heartbreak to me, even today.
When I first started writing in middle school, it was on the family computer in the living room. Once again, I turned to music to help drown out the sounds of my brother playing video games behind me. From that point on, music became the director of my imagination. To this day, I’ll put on a new song and find myself crafting a scene around the beat. I can’t help it.
From Beethoven to Lizzo
I’m far from the first person to write to a soundtrack. The kind of music that inspires and does not distract differs from person to person. In an interview with The Atlantic, Stephen King said he listens to heavy rock like Metallica while writing. On the other hand, Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen listened to composer Philip Glass while writing The Sympathizer.
In an age where you can pull up just about anything on YouTube or Spotify, the sky’s the limit for your musical inspiration. One genre that may seem odd to some is actually video game music. And no, I’m not saying that just because I’m a Millennial.
Video game music is composed in a particular way. There are epic tracks for big story moments in the game, but the absolute goldmine is in the mundane background tracks. Games are never silent, after all. That would be boring. So, these tracks are designed to help players engage in the game’s world without distracting them. Likewise, these same tracks can energize you to write without pulling your attention away. You can try for yourself with the music from The Legend of Zelda or Skyrim.
There’s certainly no rule that says you have to stick to orchestral music. While writing my short story, The Peony House, I listened to a playlist of albums from Japanese artist Sakuzyo. I chose that artist for two reasons. The lyrics, though few, were in Japanese to minimize distractions. His mix of classical and electronica songs gave me a boost for action scenes and softer melodies for the rest of the story.
An Oxford study found that background music helps increase performance on creative tasks.
Personally, I find songs with lyrics distracting (though not always). I prefer soundtracks from movies or video games and songs in foreign languages. I’ve found that this allows me to vibe with the beat but stay focused.
I also change what I’m listening to depending on what I’m writing. Action scenes get something punchy. Meanwhile, quiet moments call for something slower. Sometimes I find myself drawn to a particular artist or album. Other times I’ll make a playlist of cherry-picked songs. It really just depends on how I’m feeling at the moment.
Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of Korean dramas (before Squid Game *puts on hipster glasses*). As a result, I wrote a novella to the soundtrack of The Devil Judge. I looked it up because I had just finished the show but found the music inspiring all on its own. Ironically, there are classical songs, pop/rock songs to emphasize when the tables have turned, and a whole host of moody songs. The entire album was perfect for the atmosphere I was trying to capture.
In short, there is no right or wrong kind of music to write to. Maybe your happy place is the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack. Perhaps it’s Beyoncé. It’s perhaps Rammstein. Or you need complete silence to write, and that’s fine too. I find silence unbearably distracting, but many people need it to put their thoughts in order.
If you’ve never tried writing to music, I challenge you to give it a shot. You never know what might click. Hopefully, I’ve dropped plenty of examples, but here’s another one: I wrote this entire post while listening to Japanese guitarist Miyavi.