In the previous post, I rambled on a bit about what types of music I generally listen to (when I can). This post (another ramble) is specifically about the music I do listen to as an aid to my writing, and under what circumstances. So, in full disclosure, I don’t listen to music very often these days, and only rarely when I’m writing. I listen to music while I’m writing primarily for two reasons (to block out unwanted noise, or to set a mood).
When I’m writing or editing I try to minimize any potential distractions, so I usually only listen to music while writing when the noise around me is loud enough to divert my attention. Since the last time I wrote in public was November of 2019 it hasn’t been an issue (and probably won’t be again until sometime in 2022). Even though I got my second COVID-19 vaccination about 45 days ago, I will still likely socially-distance through the rest of 2021. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, I did meet with other writers occasionally (and sometimes by myself) to write for a few hours. Some of the locations were relatively quiet venues (coffee shops during their mid-morning lag, for example), but others (like the weekly drink-ins some of us had at the Cedar Creek Bar & Grill during NaNoWriMo) were so loud during the evening that it was difficult to hear myself think. Even some places that were in between those two extremes had enough activity (talkative customers, kitchen noises, etc.) that I found it necessary to block their noise level with earphones and music. The louder the noise, the louder the music had to be, of course.
The first few times I tried drowning out noise with music I made some instant decisions.
- Songs with lyrics usually won’t work. So, even though I might ordinarily love listening to “Way Down We Go,” by Kaleo, or “Kid Charlemagne” by Steely Dan, they wouldn’t be good choices to write by because I would get wrapped up in the lyrics and lose focus.
- Much longer pieces of music are preferable to short ones. If the songs I’m listening to are only a few minutes long, the shift from song to song to song could also act as an interrupter. For example, a 12-minute movement from a symphony would be preferable to four 3-minute gigues.
- Music with a great deal of variety doesn’t work well either. If there are lots of highs and lows in a single piece of music, either rhythmically or in tone, or if it has several unusual or shifting time signatures in one piece, those shifts and changes could also shift my attention away from what I’m working on. In other words, Brian Eno’s ambient piece, “Thursday Afternoon,” might work far better than Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” (which is one of my favorite pieces of classic jazz, by the way.
Setting a Mood:
In the past, while working on a first draft, I have played music while I was writing to create a particular atmosphere (creepy, turbulent, action — or whatever). I don’t do that nearly as often now, but when I did I used a playlist of film scores, sorted by mood, but I found that the effort to curate each piece of music for its mood took time that I could better use for writing. If someone was enterprising enough to skillfully sort music for specific moods, I would guess they might do well at marketing it if the rights to the songs weren’t exorbitant.
Suggested Music and Materials
I’ve found two things that work for me in extremely noisy environments, music with vocals I can’t possibly understand, or instrumental ambient music. Here are just a few examples.
Sigur Rós is an Icelandic band whose music has been described as ethereal. If you’ve never listened to them before, I recommend you begin with their second album, Ágætis byrjun, (which translates to “A Good Beginning”). The song above, “Starálfur,” is a good example of much of their music. The benefit of using their music as background is that all of their early albums were sung in an invented language, which they called Hopelandic. It has the grammatical structure of Icelandic, but its vocabulary was invented by the band.
As far as other languages, if you want to experiment, I would start with a language you have no background in. Given today’s global culture that could be difficult. But also look for music which doesn’t have frequent staccato passages in it. Something slow and rich might work better.
“Vega and Altair” by Tom Fahy, from the album Magpie Bridge is just one of many instrumental songs which I’ve used to block out noise. Tom Fahy was the name of a group of musicians whose music was composed and performed by Tom Fahy (a pseudonym), along with a core of five or six members of his group. Little else is known about who he really is or was. Their albums (from a wide variety of genres from classical to experimental, and largely instrumental) have helped me block the noise of rowdy bar-patrons on a number of occasions. A big advantage is that all of their music (82 albums, from 1991 through 2017) was released to the Internet Archive by the group and is freely available for download in both MP3 and OGG Vorbis formats.
Here’s a link to the entire Tom Fahy collection at the Internet Archive.
“ekki hugsa,” is by another Icelandic composer, Ólafur Arnalds. It was released as a single in 2019. His music is largely ambient/electronic, and many of his compositions could work well as a soundscape to block external noise. “Ekki hugsa,” by the way, means “Don’t think,” which is good advice for us writers when we’re working on rough drafts.
And, just so we’re clear, I’ll leave you with the Icelandic phrase, “Eg tala ekki islensku,” Which Google Translate tells me means “I don’t speak Icelandic.”
These are just a few examples. Look around, you’ll find plenty of other music that will work for you. Feel free to post any choices you’ve found useful in the comments below.
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