Sound and Writing

Sound and Writing

A lot of writers I know like to listen to music when they write.  I often don’t — I’m usually able to get so immersed in the oceanic headspace of the writing that listening to a song would only distract me.  But sometimes the ambient noise of a room or the alarms and engines outdoors or even just the clack-clacking of the keyboard starts to get to me instead, distracting with its own kind of annoying music…and that’s when I usually turn to something musical to drown it all out and help me focus.

But when I do switch on the tunes, there are particular requirements. 

It can’t be the radio, television, or anything else that contains spoken chatter.  If I hear a couple of disc jockeys cracking wise or those annoying “screaming car salesman” commercials I get pulled away from the story I’m trying to write.  Almost any human voice directly addresses me is purposely shaped to call attention to itself — and it works, pulling me out of my workflow.

If I pop in a CD or turn on my iPod, I have to choose something I know so well that I won’t similarly drift from my writing into trying to listen to the lyrics.  I want to create, not analyze or learn someone else’s words.  But singing along and tapping my feet is okay, and sometimes the pulsing beat of a song can get me to pick up the tempo of a scene, so if I put on a CD I know inside out (classic rock mostly — hard stuff like Ozzy or Black Sabbath or Judas Priest) it can help oil my writing machinery.  I really fly when a hard rock song matches my typing energy.  You’d laugh if you saw me cranking out the words while banging my head along to some campy 80s song like Judas Priest’s “Turbo Lover” (“I’m your tur-bo LOVAHHHHHH…. write-ting like no OTHAAAAAHH…”)

But even better than metal or classic rock are bands that don’t use words at all.  I’ve started getting into post-rock music lately; rock-influenced music that has a lot of drama and flair, but usually no lyrics.  If there’s singing, it’s mutated voices that don’t really make lyrical sense.  I’m talking about bands like Explosions in the Sky or Mogwai.  Check them out.  The emotional drama of their music does influence the mood and pacing of my writing if I’ve got it playing while I write, but it influence me in a good way, I think.  The music almost seems to follow Freytag’s Pyramid — the five act play structure — building slowly up to a climax — usually in a way that fits the dramatic timing of the scene I’m writing.  Not always, but usually.  But more importantly, it helps me to focus.  The really long songs — progressive rock tracks that would take up the whole side of an album in ye olden days — are the best for working on chapter length projects.

There are other, more radical (and often laughable) auditory options one can use to enhance their writing, too. 

I usually don’t use the following self-help techniques myself when I write alone in my home office, but I will bring them into the writing classroom when I am running a creativity exercise with college students. 

One of them is “nature sounds.”  You know what I’m talking about:  recordings of chirping birds or rippling pools of water or crashing thunder and rainstorms.  You might be able to find these online for free somewhere.  I have a CD I found at Goodwill that plays a thunderstorm in surround sound that’s pretty cool — really makes you feel like you’re there.  But it puts me to sleep.  I also have an old Timex alarm clock that I got on eBay really cheap that contains these sounds.  I always bring it to my poetry writing classroom on one rainy day of the term, dimming the lights, having students turning their desks toward the open windows, and playing the “nature” sounds while they write.  I don’t give them many  directions, save for the story setting (usually a forest):  I tell them to “just write.”  Often this “immersion” of the senses produces really great images in the writer’s mind. 

I have started buying CDs of film scores and movie soundtracks; they often don’t have lyrics/singing and usually shape the sound in dramatic ways that reinforce what I’m writing.  In the classroom, I don’t just play a CD, however; I bring in the actual DVD for the movie and select an appropriate scene — usually a “kill” scene in a crime movie or horror flick fits the bill — and then I play it with the projector/screen turned off.  And I ask students to imagine what they’re hearing and write it out.  And I always get a thrill out of hearing what they wrote (I have them read these aloud) before revealing to them the REAL scene (usually something totally freaky, like a crazy moment from Dario Argento’s freaky fright movie, Suspiria!).

There are CDs of “subliminal suggestion” out there.  I bought one on eBay once to use in a writing class.  When I listened to it, all I heard was ocean waves crashing on a beach…but the producer claims that there are hundreds of very faint affirmations and other whispering suggestions that encourage a writer to produce, along with some psychoacoustic manipulation of the brain waves.  It didn’t sound any different than the “nature sound” alarm clock to me.  But I played it for my writing students one day; in fact, I just turned it on before they came into the room, and I asked them to write in class right away without explaining what they were hearing.  It didn’t make a bit of a difference to them.  It was my way of proving to them that such writer’s block promises rarely deliver, and that they need to be on guard against the whole “writer’s block cure-all” industry.  Everyone has their own writing process, and you have to discover what works best for you personally to help lubricate your mind to produce words. 

And for some of us, maybe earplugs are ideal.

So what do you listen to when you read and/or write?  Is it really helping?  Or are you fooling yourself into distraction?

Guest blogger Michael A. Arnzen is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of the flash fiction collection, 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories, and the novel, Play Dead. His most recent project is a spoken word cd called Audiovile. A collection of his best fiction and poetry to date — called Proverbs for Monsters — is due soon from Dark Regions Press. You can find out more about him by subscribing to his award-winning newsletter at

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