February 15, 2011

6 Techniques for Using Music to Help Our Muse

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,, 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 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?

Pin It

Comments — What do you think?

Click to grab Pure Sacrifice now!
  Subscribe to emails for Comments/Replies on this post  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of

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. 🙂

Austin Wulf

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.


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. 😉

J.A. Paul
J.A. Paul

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. 🙂

Piper Bayard

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. 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.


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.

K.B. Owen

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!

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Loved the post! And learned some things too, Fall, Pandora, Grooveshark, and, 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,

Jill Kemerer

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!


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.


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

Gene Lempp
Gene Lempp

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!

Rachel Firasek

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

M.E. Anders
M.E. Anders


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! 😉

D. Friend

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.


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!


[…] good blog posts about using music: 6 Techniques for Using Music to Help Our Muse iTunes and Your […]

Mary Elizabeth

Thanks for the great post! I found it via the Writer’s Knowledge Base (, 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!


[…] good blog posts about using music: 6 Techniques for Using Music to Help Our Muse iTunes and Your […]


[…] to create movies in our mind for a do-it-yourself music video,” says paranormal author Jami Gold. Fusing the two mediums can be rich with creative fuel. There’s an […]

Click to grab Pure Sacrifice now!