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Craft of Writing, The Writer's Life

Can Music Inspire Your Writing?

The fine arts, to me, are closely related. The emotional appeal of a great book seems similar to that of a painted or sculpted masterpiece. So I find it helpful sometimes to use another artistic genre to inspire my writing. Lately, I’ve turned off the news stations during my commute in favor of music. Same for those hours at work spent on less cerebrally taxing tasks—I’ll pull out the earbuds and channel whatever strikes my mood.

Thanks to iTunes and a wealth of online music stations, I’ve been experimenting with new genres, as well as revisiting classics and long-forgotten songs of my youth. This week’s playlist has included everything from the synthetic music of Dutch duo Tennishero to British sophisti-pop group Swing Out Sister. On Wednesday I had an inexplicable jones for some disco, and found an old video of Andrea True singing “More, More, More”[1] on YouTube.

But clearly the most inspirational music for me is still classical. Give me Mozart, Bach and plenty of Vivaldi[2]. Something about that music gets my creative process going. Perhaps because of the complexity of their baroque compositions, the music seems to affect both the conscious and subconscious areas of the brain, and it’s the subconscious that needs to work on the plot, themes and characterization necessary for a writer to compose a story that is both entertaining and provocative. I find that solutions to story barriers occur on a regular basis while I’m listening to classical. No wonder some scientists recommend classical music for everything from infant brain development to helping cows produce better milk. As far as I know, the only drawback to listening to classical is the concerned stares from coworkers who catch me waving the air baton.

But that’s just me. What music inspires you to write? Or do you get your inspiration somewhere else?

P.S.: Thanks to blogger friend F.P. Dorchak’s recent post at Runnin’ Off at the Mouth, which got me thinking about this.

Next week: I’ll be on vacation all week on the Oregon coast, so there may not be a SatMoPo next week. But who knows, the ocean vistas may prove even more inspiring than music.

[1] By the way, there’s some interesting backstory to the making of this video.

[2] There are all-Mozart and all-Bach channels on the web, but alas, no all-Vivaldi.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


24 thoughts on “Can Music Inspire Your Writing?

  1. I find music inspiring, in general. I’ll try it later today, when I revise sometihing. Most people seem to find that classical music works best, though Anne Rice listened to “L. A. Woman,” by the Doors, repeatedly when she wrote “The Vampire Lestat,” her vampire/rock star sequel to “Interview with the Vampire.”
    BTW, I’m enjoying “The Face Maker,” especially the one about dark houses.

    Posted by michellemorouse | July 20, 2013, 1:36 PM
  2. Hi, Jon. I listen to all genres of music when working (other than hard-core country) and find that yes, it can even help create character(s), even ones totally unconnected with the specific gist of the song or style. By the way, there was an experiment done some years ago, which proved that plants grow better to classical music, and that some plants grow more symmetrically to Bach and Haydn than they do to rock music (not that rock is to be despised, but still….)

    Posted by shadowoperator | July 20, 2013, 2:14 PM
    • The full power of classical music to affect all manner of things is yet to be discovered. Perhaps it’s the mathematical precision of many classical works that has something to do with it.

      Posted by jpon | July 20, 2013, 10:49 PM
  3. Thanks for the call-out, Joe! :-]

    I sometimes also use classical music, just depends what I’m shootin’ for…intellectual stimulation/compilation or story mood. Great post!

    Posted by fpdorchak | July 20, 2013, 2:25 PM
  4. I shop at Fresh Market for groceries, and they play classical music. It’s a lovely experiece to be in that store, and I always feel like “waving the air baton” as the cashier checks me out. But for writing, I need music with great lyrics to get me going. Then I need quiet to conjure the words.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | July 20, 2013, 2:34 PM
    • Yes, it’s the quiet time afterwards where the inspiration has a chance to reveal itself. I often abandon the music (or reading) as soon as inspiration strikes so I can get to it.

      Posted by jpon | July 20, 2013, 10:52 PM
  5. I definitely think music can be inspirational for writers. It can help settle me into the right mood for the piece I’m working on. (For my novel set in 1940s Argentina, I listened to a lot of Carlos Gardel, a Tango maestro.)

    Recently, a friend sent me links to a couple of web sites with audio tracks or playlists that claim to increase both creativity and productivity. Coffitivity is intended to be the background noise of a coffee shop that you play under your regular musical selections. I found it oddly soothing: http://coffitivity.com
    Here are a couple of others that didn’t speak to my but may inspire others: https://www.focusatwill.com/music/#player and http://99u.com/category/music

    Great topic, Joe.

    Posted by LCEaton | July 20, 2013, 3:05 PM
    • How interesting. Thanks for the links, Lori. Although the coffee shops I’ve tried to write in were filled not with soothing sounds, but with a lot of loud people on cell phones.

      Posted by jpon | July 20, 2013, 10:56 PM
  6. Music certainly does inspire me. I use it to quieten the hurricane of possibilities that an idea suggests, to hold a moment still so that I can examine it and understand its impact in the novel I’m writing. I’ve used music to create a mental structure for a story that became the interplay between narrative strands. I’ve used it to conjure the voice of a character’s alter ego.
    I now collect writers who, like me, are pleasantly enslaved to music. It’s a series called The Undercover Soundtrack.

    Posted by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris | July 21, 2013, 9:06 AM
    • Since I write a lot of historical fiction, I sometimes use the music of an era to frame the time and place I am trying to recreate. If I can put myself in the proper mindset, my hope is that it translates through the writing to the reader.

      Posted by jpon | July 21, 2013, 5:42 PM
  7. Music is essential. I like all kinds of rock for the beginning stages of a book, and movie scores for the revision. The big action/adventure movies have wonderful compositions—like the one I’m listening to now, from Man of Steel. Lots of drums and dramatic crescendos. But quiet scores like The Place Beyond the Pines are also mood-setting and lovely.

    Posted by Averil Dean | July 21, 2013, 1:09 PM
    • Hadn’t even thought of music scores as inspiration, but they make perfect sense, since they invoke not just the music, but the film’s themes and plot.

      Posted by jpon | July 21, 2013, 5:39 PM
  8. I love classical music. I sometimes write to it (Brahms works well. Also Dvorak and the Impressionists.) But I do it with some guilt. I remember Dr Karl Haas, popular musicologist who broadcast Adventures in Good Music from Detroit in the 60s and 70s. During one show he advised listeners who were hearing him in their cars to pull over and park while he played a certain piece-it was just too important to not give it full attention. Classical music, he said, was NOT backgroud music, or as he said, It is not a spray of sound, meant to be secondary to anything else.
    So when I’m reading or writing, and have the classical station on, I can still Karl Haas chastising me. It’s somehow different when I’m thinking about writing or outlining and making notes, and classical music is a great help. Karl doesn’t mind it then.

    Posted by jonzech | July 22, 2013, 1:45 PM
    • Dr. Karl Haas sounds like a real buzz-kill. Music courts us, inspires us, it can affect us while we are doing something else, so why not be able to take it in while doing something else, say I? It’s not as if you were listening to Muzak. I mean, if you listened to Muzak while writing, God knows what you’d get–but if you listen to Dvorak, isn’t that possibly affecting your writing for the better? I think it might. Just as sometimes we are able to solve life problems with literature, so we can sometimes solve compositional problems with music: it doesn’t take away from the aesthetic mode to also serve a practical purpose. Just read some of the “greats” in the various realms of art and see how they use the other arts to inspire them (sorry, I know I’ve read tons of these things, but can’t think of any to support my thesis just now!). You go, guy!

      Posted by shadowoperator | July 22, 2013, 2:06 PM
  9. Haas was a wonderful teacher and I really learned a lot about how to really listen to classical music. But you’re right. Hearing him in my mind now is like hearing my mom telling me how many minutes after eating a tuna sandwich I could go swimming.
    Hard to fault the man for his love for music. I mean, I’d rather you not read my stories while attending a football game, but as long as you’re reading it, I’m happy. Back now to a balky plot line. Maybe some Respighi? Ancient Airs and Dances is always good.

    Posted by jonzech | July 22, 2013, 4:15 PM
  10. You are the second friend of mine to talk about music this week! something in the air…. I have found myself increasingly drawn to classical music lately. there is something about how structured it is, that I find comforting. In fact, I wrote my college professor to thank him for the Music Appreciation lecture course he taught in 1972 (um yes), and he wrote back! That and electronica — which my niece is involved with producing and that I also enjoy.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | July 23, 2013, 5:26 AM
    • Yes, it’s possible the structure of classical helps us organize our thoughts, and that’s so important for creative writing, especially novel writing, where the character depth and plot elements are so much more convoluted.

      Posted by jpon | July 23, 2013, 6:41 PM
  11. I can’t listen to anything while I’m actually sittting there, but I do like to take a brainstorming break on my spin bike with my ipod. I’ll listen to almost anything (except most pop) and it makes me think differently about what I’m writing. (Although I must say it is difficult to balance the pen, paper, and ipod on the handlebars of my bike.)

    Posted by girl in the hat | July 23, 2013, 6:32 PM
    • Probably not easy to write while you’re pedaling too. And you’ve reminded me of a whole other writing influence, that of working out or even just walking to stimulate the creative cells. I’ve come up with some of my best ideas during workouts.

      Posted by jpon | July 23, 2013, 6:44 PM
  12. While writing Born to Kill, I listened to a lot of Nine Inch Nails, Tool, System of a Down — angry white boy music. It really suited the protagonist’s seething proletarian rage. And the optional Parental Advisory seal on the cover of the book (just kidding).

    Posted by akhoffman | July 25, 2013, 2:27 AM
    • If those don’t get a writer in the mood to compose that kind of story, I don’t know what will. I’ve been known to get into System of a Down myself.

      Posted by jpon | July 25, 2013, 1:31 PM

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