The Soundtrack of Our Lives

It’s Friday and you know what that means. Okay, well it actually doesn’t mean all that much in terms of the site, but typically on Fridays I post links to music that I enjoy as a way to share a song here or there. Today I thought I’d a broaden my horizons a bit and talk about my own personal rich relationship between music and writing.

I started with one of these bad boys.

I can’t exactly say when I discovered my own link between music and writing. My earliest writing efforts were on one of those comically giant manual typewriters – the thing came from a yard sale and wasn’t even electric. I used that typewriter to primarily write down some of the stories that I came up with while playing with my toys, but I was also creating a series about a private investigator in North Dakota, the name of which is lost to time. No music then, just a handful of ideas.

I moved onto an electric typewriter after a few years – one that my mother had been using for a home business. It still wasn’t an automatic typewriter, though, the difference being that I still had to use whiteout, there was no automatic carriage return, and the typing action, while faster than the old manual, was still a bit slower than some of the automatics I would use later. I still hadn’t really made the transition to music at that point – my “song” was the rapid-fire chatter of the keys – but I did manage to bang out a novel on that old typewriter, may it rest in peace wherever it is.

All this leads me to guess that it would possibly have been early high school or late middle school when I discovered the connection, while writing journals and fiction in a dark room lit only by candlelight, rock music sealing away the outside world. My earliest memory of this method includes Nirvana’s Nevermind, which would have been when I was 15 and a sophomore in high school, but I’m pretty sure that it was earlier than that. I suspect I’ve just blocked out some very bad music – I mean, really bad late 80s stuff. Less said the better.

But I learned that that the music helped me transcend my surroundings and become more focused in the world that was evolving on the page. One particular example of this that comes to mind is when I was pursuing the concept of writing a modern day version of the Canterbury Tales, with titles such as the Junkie’s Tale, probably spurred on by some class assignment but expanding to a whole new life. I remember following my process at the time – filling up a small journal with the story, writing in long-hand by candlelight while listening to music (Siamese Dream, in this instance) and then later transcribing it to a friend’s computer and printing it out there. This proves to me that, in some way, transcription has always been a part of my writing process. Intriguing.

Of course, I was a teenager in the early ’90s so the music that I listened to as I wrote was mostly angsty, alternative rock.  I remember Nine Inch Nails being particularly effective because I was writing a lot of nihilistic stuff.  As I got older and refined my approach to use certain types of music for certain scenes and certain characters, I began to discover more atmospheric music.  One of my go-tos to this day is the score to the original Crow movie. It’s exceedingly atmospheric and I’ve searched far and wide to try to find music that sounds like it and I still haven’t quite succeeded.  Here’s a sample track:

As my musical taste continued to evolve into my 20s, so too did my approach to mixing the music and genres.  Some of my early explorations into other types of music and becoming more of a music connoisseur could be marked down to just this – trying to create an effect as I was writing.

I know I’m not alone in this. A lot of writers use music to set the mood for their stories; Nietzsche wrote a treatise on tragedy inspired by Wagner, for example. Some people consider the music the soundtrack to their work, but I don’t know that I would go that far. By the time I’m done doing my editing and rewrites a lot of what was captured in that scene may no longer be present, but it does offer the atmosphere that I’m seeking. For instance, with my character Matty from Corridors of the Dead, I built a pretty extensive playlist of punk music that she liked, so anytime I was focused on a totally Mattie-intensive scene I would put the playlist on and it helped me to get into her head and really hear her voice speaking to me.

That’s definitely not the first time, either. I know that if I haven’t been able to figure out or nail down a character’s musical taste then it’s going to be a lot harder for me to hear their voice.  For some reason, I feel like musical tastes lead to the way that people sound, right down to their cadence. That applies even to people who don’t really listen to music; there’s something to that attitude as well that can shape a character. In my fiancé’s fanfic community, they use and create elaborate soundtracks for the stories that they write.  It’s kind of an interesting idea, I guess. If you can pick a song or two that might sell someone on the mood of your book, I suppose I don’t see a problem with that as long as the artist is compensated.

The crux of this, however, is my own curiosity about other writers. Do you use mixes? If so, do you have character specific mixes?  Book specific mixes?  Or do you just have one long playlist that you listen to as you write?  Please, let me know in the comments, I’m very curious. If you’d also you’d like to recommend some bands or music that sound somewhat like I was describing up there, I’d appreciate it.

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  1. hmm thats a great question – I realize I am a purist. When I write I need quiet and I’m surround by books and dictionaries. As a musician, I need music all around me. As an artist I need a visual focal point for my art to be productive.

    gr8 article thanks for stirring my brain cells

  2. My novels had theme songs for setting mood / atmosphere. These days, I tend to write with silence.

  3. I, too, was a high school devotee of Nirvana, and I cringe when I think of some of the bad 80’s music and fashions I embraced. Love your posts, because your “voice” is amazing. Have a great weekend!

    • Hahaha oh no, I was looking through college pics the other day and I had these *horrible* glasses. Remember when big glasses were the thing? Yeah, I looked like I lived in a van down by the river. Thanks a lot! I love your posts too – I’m a closet photographer, so I really dig the photos. Have a great weekend yourself!

  4. Hmm, I’ll have to check out the Crow soundtrack.

    I can’t write to music with words. Unless they’re in another language, like Clannad’s older stuff. I used to write to Clannad a lot. Then I added Afrocelt Sound System, which has a driving rhythm but is somehow nonintrusive. I like the Lord of the Rings Soundtracks a lot, especially the darker pieces for action scenes. The Crow might be good for weirder, eerier scenes.

    Usually, though, I put all of this in a big list and use shuffle. Once I’m really into the writing, I don’t hear it any more. It’s there to block out distractions and settle my brain.

    • Oh be sure to go for the score, not the soundtrack to the Crow. I like the soundtrack, but it’s VERY different from the score.

      Oooh Clannad is interesting, actually. Hadn’t considered that. I also find Tuatara to be pretty great in that vein, if you’ve heard of them.

      I sometimes do the big shuffle with some psychedelic music. That can be fun.

  5. Great post! I find that I get stuck listening to the lyrics of songs when I hear them, so while I am writing I switch over to instrumental pieces. I am a Pandora user and the Danny Elfman or LOTR channel has brought me to the weird places while the Celtic stuff (like Clannad) gets me to that fanciful or emotional place (I have a few celtic channels for this, lol) Old school classical or chant helps when I am revising.

    Will have to check out the Crow soundtrack! Thanks for the great read.

  6. We’re crazy alike–right down to The Crow. I do create character playlists now–they help me get into the characters’ heads. I make outfits or wardrobes for them on Polyvore sometimes, too. If I can see them and hear them, it’s easier to feel them.

    • Yeah it’s a little terrifying 🙂 That’s awesome that you know the score. Do you know any other artists that do stuff like that? Just checked out Polyvore and it’s really useful (I’m actually surprised at how it expands understanding of a character) for female characters, but do they not have clothing for males, or am I just missing something?

  7. Reading this makes me feel totally old. 😀 Those really bad 80s songs were my generation of high school. LOL. But I do use Pandora, (Enigma station), unless I need intense and then I use Vast, Hurt, Disturbed, Godsmack, and maybe a little Marilyn Manson thrown in. Music is like an opening to your inner soul, a doorway to a higher plane of understanding. Great Blog!

  8. I like how you have woven music into a the writing phases of your life. Nice taste in music, too. 😉 As a Nails fan, I wonder if you like their mellowed cover of ‘Hurt’? Love it myself…

  9. Great post. And once again, I have found a few more things that we have in common. I’ve often hoped that when I die, I’ll get a chance to watch the movie of my life and get a copy of the soundtrack.

    As to writing, oddly enough, I don’t really have a habit. Sometimes music really helps. Other times it only hinders. Sometimes I’ll try to play something that I think will help the mood of the piece, but other times, I just need random. I would say one thing is that I need random MY music. Much as I love Pandora most of the time I’m on the computer, I can’t do it when I’m writing. Too many opportunities to get something that will be so totally unfamiliar or discordant that it breaks the rhythm.

    Paul D. Dail A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

    • I like that wish for the afterlife. Sounds about right 🙂

      Huh. Actually, I can understand that. I use a lot of tricks to get the words down on the page. Probably goes about the same when it comes to music – whatever works!

  10. Pingback: My Secret Weapon in Writing: Playlists | L.M. Gil, Author's Blog

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