6 Techniques for Using Music to Help Our Muse

by Jami Gold on February 15, 2011

in Writing Stuff

Girl with Headphones

Lately I’ve been struck by how similar music is to writing.  Both arts use a non-visual medium to create an emotion.  And often, just like writing, music is meant to create movies in our mind for a do-it-yourself music video.

If you’ve ever watched a movie with the sound turned off, you know what a powerful effect music has on our emotions.   The right piece of music can induce anything from dread to joy.   Without the accompanying music, our visceral reactions and emotions to events playing out on the screen will often fall flat.

In writing, we create tension by contrasting what a character has with what they want.  Contrasts create tension in music too.  Even if you haven’t seen Tron: Legacy, check out the Daft Punk song Fall from the soundtrack and listen for the contrast between the rising pitch of the background noise and the stair-step falling pitch of the foreground notes.  This song is filled with tension.

According the ultimate time-suck website, Cracked.com, music messes with our brains by changing how we perceive time, tapping into primal emotions like fear (check out the different versions of The Social Network opening credits), making us stronger, changing our drinking habits, and making us better communicators by training our brains to listen for intonations in people’s voices.

So how can writers take advantage of the similarities between music and writing?  Can music help our muse?

  1. Use music to get in the mood. My friend Lynn Raye Harris listens to belly dance stations on Pandora while she’s writing a love scene.  A Linkin Park station might be good for fight scenes.  Share your suggestions for other good station/emotion combinations in the comments.
  2. Use music as a memory trigger. Need to write a heart-breaking scene of betrayal?  Try playing the songs you moped to after a bad breakup and tap into those emotions.  This can be a great way to write a happy scene when you’re upset or vice versa.
  3. Use music to identify a theme. Just like movies or characters can have a theme song (Darth Vader anyone?), so can our stories.  If a song feels like it “fits” your story, analyze how it makes you feel.  Maybe that will help you figure out the theme or emotional heart of your story or characters.
  4. Use music to inspire ideas. Reading the lyrics to songs might give your muse a concept to run with for a new scene or plot point. One song created a picture in my head that fit a character so perfectly I thought of a whole new subplot for a story.
  5. Use music to increase your focus. Listening to music with headphones or earbuds can help block out distractions around us.  I’ve trained my brain to think of listening-to-music time as “work time”—no Twitter, email, or surfing when the music is playing.
  6. Use music to create a soundtrack for your story. Websites like Playlist.com or Grooveshark link to songs on the internet and let you play them in a certain order.  I’ll often play the “soundtrack” for my story while I’m editing the matching scene.

How do you use music with your writing?  Do you have suggestions for any Pandora stations to create certain moods (feel free to link to stations in your comment)?  Has music ever given you story ideas?  What are your favorite movie soundtracks?  Have you created a soundtrack for your story?

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37 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Simon February 15, 2011 at 6:14 am

Just last night I was writing a preliminary synopsis for a dystopian spec-fic novella. I deliberately chose Nine Inch Nails as the soundtrack for that one. It just fit. (Also, Stabbing Westward and Filter might work, too. I’ll have to get those in the mix.)

And one of the flash fiction pieces I had published was directly inspired by The Hold Steady’s “Stuck Between Stations.” Awesomesauce.

I think this means I agree with you. Yes. 🙂

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Jami Gold February 15, 2011 at 8:04 am

Hi Simon,

Heh. Thanks! And thanks for the suggestions. One reason I love Pandora is because I learn of bands I wouldn’t have heard of otherwise – unless I have friends like you throwing out ideas. 🙂 Stabbing Westward, I’ll have to check them out. Thanks for the comment!

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Austin Wulf February 15, 2011 at 8:50 am

Music is my favorite. When I’m writing fiction, I tend to listen to whatever music my character likes which surprisingly really helps get into that character. For freelance, club music gets me going. I think the rhythm helps me keep a steady writing rhythm, which is cool in a lot of ways.

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Jami Gold February 15, 2011 at 8:53 am

Hi Austin,

Oh great point about listening to the music the character likes! Let’s hope I never think up a character who listens to bad music then, huh? 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Murphy February 15, 2011 at 9:44 am

Hi Jami!

Music is a great creative connect point. I think it helps you relax and once you’re relaxed you get inspired. I have a theme song for every story I write.

That being said, when I’m mad at The Boy, I can hear an old song that reminds me of better times and he gets off the proverbial hook. How cool is that?

Murphy – who is now wondering if The Boy knows this little trick and selectively plays those old tunes to get a ticket out of the dog house. Hmm… must think about that. 😉

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Jami Gold February 15, 2011 at 9:54 am

Hi Murphy,

Oo, music manipulation – scary. 🙂 Yes, it’s so much easier for me to get into the writing “zone” when I’m listening to music. Thanks for the comment!

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J.A. Paul February 15, 2011 at 11:10 am

Fun post today, Jami!

I often listen to classical music when writing. I can choose a slow pace or a fast pace depending on the scene. I especially love it when I’m writing a slower scene and a mellow song suddenly booms a dramatic change thus reminding me to trigger a change of pace in the writing.

Also, I grew up on Tom and Jerry so classical music in a part of my soul. 🙂

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Jami Gold February 15, 2011 at 11:21 am

Hi Jason,

Yes, maybe my childhood love of Bugs Bunny cartoons is why I appreciate orchestral soundtracks so much today. 🙂

That’s another reason why the Tron: Legacy soundtrack is really working for me lately. You don’t often get industrial electronica mixed with symphonic orchestral movements. And the amazing/shocking thing is that Daft Punk wrote the whole score, including the orchestra sections, themselves. Here’s a link to one of the orchestra-only songs, Adagio for Tron: http://listen.grooveshark.com/s/Adagio+For+Tron/3mTa77?src=5 . This is not what you’d expect from Daft Punk. 🙂 But they make it all work together and work well.

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Piper Bayard February 15, 2011 at 11:32 am

I find it always opens writing channels when I go to the studio early in the morning (6 a.m. or so) and dance for an hour to my favorite music. Gets all of the creative juices flowing. Here’s the link to my favorite Jesse Cook piece. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLyb3pBLp08 I’ve been in my Jesse Cook phase for three years now and I don’t see it passing any time soon.

Music can be negative, too. When I’m in a coffee shop, if they’re playing something disjointed like transitional jazz, or they’re playing music too loud, I find it incredibly distracting. Sometimes I ask them to turn it down, and sometimes I just leave, but it’s hard to get back into the swing of things after that.

Thanks for your great post.

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Jami Gold February 15, 2011 at 11:35 am

Hi Piper,

Yep, good point. I’m very picky about the volume of music – hence the headphones. If it’s too loud, it dominates my awareness. I’ll check out your link now. Thanks for the comment!

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CMStewart February 15, 2011 at 11:48 am

I need silence when I write or read. But I do occasionally listen to the music my characters like- it helps me understand them. In a “research” context, I am able to listen to music that would otherwise make me gag. It’s as if a different part of my brain is listening to it.

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Jami Gold February 15, 2011 at 11:52 am

Hi CM,

Yep, I know you’re not the only one who needs silence. Unfamiliar songs with lyrics can be difficult for me because the words are more distracting to my brain. But if it’s a song I know, I can background it pretty well. Thanks for the comment!

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K.B. Owen February 15, 2011 at 11:49 am

Terrific post, Jami – I’m so low-tech that I haven’t been paying attention to internet radio. Now I’ve got some good places to start! I use iTunes and created playlists – classical. I can’t concentrate if there are someone else’s words swirling around in my head space. Mozart and Bach mostly. (Does that make me boring? I’m willing to branch out :)) Starting up my iTunes playlist is my signal: writing time!

Thanks for the post!

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Jami Gold February 15, 2011 at 11:59 am

Hi K.B.,

Yes, as I just mentioned to CM above, songs with lyrics – especially if it’s a song I don’t know well – can be more problematic for me as well. So classical music is popular in house too. 🙂 And you’re right, music can be a good Pavlov-type signal to get serious. Thanks for the comment!

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Tamara LeBlanc February 15, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Loved the post! And learned some things too, Fall, Pandora, Grooveshark, and Palylists.com, I’m embarrassed to say I’m ignorant of each. I’ll have to check them out!
I, like you, have trained my brain to know that when the earbuds go in, the writing begins. And like many others, I use different genres and beats and tempos in order to get each scene going. Alanis Morisette; The Unforgiven, Def Leppard; Love Bites, Christina Perryi’s; Jar of Hearts, Nickel; Stupid Thing, and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy are just a few of my slower moments songs.
Styx; Renegade, Def Leppard; Pyromania, Muse; Uprising, Ozzy; No More Tears, and anything Nine Inch Nails, is just a tiny sampling of the songs I listen to to get action scenes going.
In my opinion, Music is utterly important in every way, shape and form. Like you mentioned, could anyone imagine Darth Vader’s entrance without the Imperial March?
I’m so happy I found you today on Twitter! Really liked the post.
I’ll be back!
Have a fantastic afternoon,
Tamara

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Jami Gold February 15, 2011 at 1:46 pm

Hi Tamara,

Don’t worry, I’m not that familiar with Grooveshark either, so there’s always something new to learn. 🙂 Thanks for all the great suggestions!

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Jill Kemerer February 15, 2011 at 1:58 pm

I love old bossa nova and moody jazz for those scenes where the character realizes nothing in life is good. They just nail the mood for me! Great post!

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Jami Gold February 15, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Hi Jill,

Yes, I’m usually a very positive and upbeat person (all my smiley-faces in the comments? completely true!), so I need to dig deep when I’m writing a heartbreaking scene. And since I love torturing my characters, I have a lot of those scenes. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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louise February 15, 2011 at 2:16 pm

I love listening to the radio. Music will interrupt my writing. I just like background noise, and the radio is perfect for me for that.

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Jami Gold February 15, 2011 at 2:20 pm

Hi Louise,

Wow, that’s funny. I can’t do radio with all the commercials and talking. 🙂 When I listen to a song, the singer’s voice becomes just another instrument, so I’m not paying attention to the words. But if I hear actual talking, I’d probably start typing those words in my manuscript. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Christine February 15, 2011 at 6:26 pm

Love this post! I often use music to inspire my Muse.

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Jami Gold February 15, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Hi Christine,

Yes, the inspiration technique I think can be very powerful. If music gives you an idea for a scene, then you automatically have a song to listen to when you’re writing it for tapping into those emotions. Thanks for the comment!

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Gene Lempp February 16, 2011 at 2:42 am

Music is a great love of mine and one of my most powerful “tools”. When it comes to brainstorming, I love listening to lyrical music which can be anything from Metallica to Alter Bridge to Allan Parsons. If you haven’t heard Allan Parsons “Tales of Mystery and Imagination”, which focuses on Edgar Allan Poes writings, including the use of music, I would highly recommend it. Just as Jami says, all of these can inspire new thoughts and help tap into the emotions of a scene
I find though, when I write, that words in music tend to intrude. Fortunately, I love classic music above all others. The power of classical music is that it evokes emotion and fanciful thought without distraction (being my unstoppable urge to stop and sing along for just one song, or two or what was I doing…).
Thanks for the great post Jami!

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Jami Gold February 16, 2011 at 8:07 am

Hi Gene,

Yes, singing along with the words is just one of the dangers of songs with lyrics. LOL! As I mentioned in a different comment, I sometimes find myself typing the words of the lyrics instead of the words from my muse. Oops. Head-bopping along is just dandy though. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Rachel Firasek February 16, 2011 at 5:22 am

I love to write to music. Mine is usually of a dark variety and sometimes only instrumental. Love this!

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Jami Gold February 16, 2011 at 8:09 am

Hi Rachel,

Dark and instrumental? Sounds perfect. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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M.E. Anders February 16, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Jami,

This post was EXACTLY what I needed today…it actually sparked a cascade of ideas for my writing. I made so many notes on this post…my pen actually ran out of ink. 🙂

Time for me to order some headphones for “work” – – a justified purchase. Also, I appreciated the links to the websites to create playlists for my WIP.

You’re the best! 😉

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Jami Gold February 16, 2011 at 3:31 pm

M.E.,

Aww, thanks! I’m happy to help. 🙂

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D. Friend February 19, 2011 at 7:23 pm

Great post. I have playlists for novels and whenever I hear the songs (random on the radio) I’m taken back to my scenes…I love it.

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Jami Gold February 19, 2011 at 9:06 pm

Hi Denise,

Yes, once I create a playlist, that song is forever linked to a scene. Fun. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Maggie February 25, 2011 at 2:26 pm

Linkin Park is the best for fight scenes, definitely! Enya is good for calmer scenes. My favorite writing muse is The Smashing Pumpkins, though.

Great post!

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Jami Gold February 25, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Hi Maggie,

Enya… Hmm, I like her music, but I don’t think any of it fits with my stories. I must not write calm scenes. LOL!

Thank for the comment!

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Mary Elizabeth March 17, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Thanks for the great post! I found it via the Writer’s Knowledge Base (http://hiveword.com/wkb/search), and it’s a great list of tips for using music. I can’t write without it, honestly. I create playlists for each of my characters so I can really get in their heads when I’m writing about them. FYI, I linked to this post in my blog. Thanks again for the great tips!

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Jami Gold March 17, 2011 at 1:20 pm

Hi Mary,

Thanks! And thanks for the link on your blog! 🙂 Yes, I love Elizabeth Craig’s “Writer Google” database. I follow her on Twitter and she has the best links. Thanks for the comment!

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