There are two types of writer: those who find it difficult to write with music on, and those who find it difficult to write without it. From the former group, the most common complaint is that music is a distraction: that it disrupts their ability to concentrate on the rhythm of the prose, that they need silence – SILENCE – to be able imagine their scene and build it, one word to the next. The second group, who don’t live in remote, wind-swept cottages in the middle of nowhere and for whom actual silence is possibly the most distracting thing imaginable notwithstanding an irascible pirate baby with tourettes and a pneumatic drill, most often use music to help the focus. I’m in the latter camp.
I’m an urban dweller and my writing day largely takes place in public spaces like cafés. And, since I’m not rich enough to requisition an entire café for my own personal use, such places tend to be used by other people: office workers bitching about their jobs or boyfriends; business people conducting extramural meetings; parents spending quality time with student offspring away from the wreckage of last night’s party; friends, families, whatever. Generally, people talking pish. It all needs to be blocked out. And that’s where a well stocked phone (or link to spotify) and a set of noise-cancelling ear buds comes in.
Now, different individuals have different levels of tolerance for what kind of music works best for them. Some can use anything, some can only use instrumental stuff. Personally I can go either way. Instrumental (classical, jazz, film soundtrack) is ideal, but there are some vocal albums that work for me too. The key thing is that the music itself is dynamically level with no spikes or hooks to snatch the attention that should be on the words I’m attempting to nail to the page.
Stuff that’s worked for me includes: Brahms and Mahler symphonies, Beethoven sonatas, Arvo Part’s choral music, Beck’s “Sea Change”, This Will Destroy You’s postrock masterpiece “Field Studies”, the soundtrack to “Taxi Driver” and most recently the dissonant electronica of Happy Particles and Remember Remember. It’s all good blocking music, it all puts me in the zone and lets me get on with my work while the world does whatever it does around me.
I’m not one those writers, though, who select a soundtrack to help influence the mood of what they’re writing and even credit their playlist in the finished book. That’s surely going above and beyond, and I’d probably spend more time researching the right music to match my personal brand of melancholia…
*re-reads previous paragraph*