Saturday, January 21, 2012

Soothing the Beast

I write this while listening to “Whipping Post” by The Allman Brothers Band, the live version that goes on for about three days from the At Fillmore East release. I need to hear music, in isolation, while I write. Such was not always the case. During the short time I lived in San Francisco, when I was less interested in writing and more interested in meeting new ladies, I used to carry a beat up spiral notebook down to Fisherman’sWharf, find an empty bench at Ghirardelli Square, and sit and write. Sooner or later, a winsome lass would approach and ask what I was doing, or, better yet, ask who I was (“Well, yes, actually, I am Richard Brautigan!”). This would no longer work, at least I don’t think so, and I don’t really want to upset the apple cart of my life to find out, so I eschew the coffee shops and the overpriced, trendy sandwich chain that offers free Wi-Fi in favor of the clutter of my basement office, where I blast my music as loud as I like.

I go on listening jags. It varies with my mood. The Allman Brothers Band disc a temporary swerve from Miles Davis. I’ve been listening to complete sessions of In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, three to six hours of music at a stretch. If you think you’ve hit a wall with your writing, try listening to In a Silent Way, even if you don’t like jazz. I find that for some reason jazz music of a certain type opens up a corner of my mind that isn’t always accessible.  Before I got on the Miles jag, I listened to nothing but Guided by Voices for three weeks. In contrast to Davis’ extended pieces, GBV songs are anywhere from 35 seconds to three minutes long. In the last few months I’ve done this with Tom Waits, Black Keys, Fats Domino, Jimi Hendrix, and Kronos Quartet. I can’t write without it. On the other hand, if I’m disturbed by a phone call, a whiny cat, or news of a leaky or plugged up commode, my whole train of thought is derailed. Sometimes for the entire day. It’s not noise I seek, but noise of a certain type.

Some writers listen to music while they work. Others whistle. And others require a cone of absolute silence. Which are you? What works for you? And if it’s music that lures your muse into the room, what music?


  1. I think in musical rhythms quite often. A good Latin beat will get me going on light hearted stuff. Slow descriptive scenes = smooth jazz in the background. Action days requires some techno-electronica to pulse the battle scene. And every once in a while I find myself listening Celtic music or African folk music for some reason. Those two bring out some pretty strong scenery in me.

    As a matter of fact, just such music was playing when I created this ... the first chapter of my nearly completed WIP Cold Summer. Enjoy the freebie if you like, written to part of the sound track from Braveheart and a bit of Enya.

  2. Joe, I think watching a movie without music would be less than alive. So when I write, I use music to create moods just like in the movies. I find lyrics to be distracting so I only listen to instrumental movie scores. I have hundreds of CDs converted to MP3s on my computer. Sometimes, I play a particular score, othertimes I put my Winamp MP3 player on random and let it choose. Either way, the music helps set the scene and keeps me absorbed in my writing.

    Another option is to use Pandora and create a "station" consisting of instrumental music such as piano or guitar tracks. It can play all day in the background if I want a change.

  3. For me it depends. In the planning stage, I'm like Joe and use instrumentals, usually sound tracks from TV and movies. But, during the first draft I'm a cone of silence guy. but either way, lyrics are way too distracting, as are TV, friends, family, pets, etc., etc., etc.

  4. I love your posts, Joe. So vivid, great imagery & insight into YOU. I hadn't thought about listening to music while I write. I sometimes listen to certain songs that remind me of my characters before I write, but not during the process.

    I'm not a cone of silence writer, but I do have a big office upstairs with a door I close. My dogs (and husband) can be a little distracting. But I might have to try your playlist.

    Stay cool, Joe.

  5. I'm a total silence person when I write (actually I prefer silence almost any other time too). Occasionally while plotting I'll play some related type of instrumental music but not often.

  6. It depends on my mood, location, etc.. whether I would prefer some quite time- sometimes I need it. As for music with writing... a wise person showed me how to create a soundtrack for my book or story - with music that reminds me of the characters or events etc... even if I'm not writing I can listen to the soundtrack and the deep, dark recesses of my mind sit and stew on my story so that when I get to write I am good to go.

  7. Through the miracle of Pandora, I can create whatever music mood I need. Some days only The Boss will do, other days it's 80's pop (although that's usually days I am cleaning or doing physical stuff). I also love my Righteous Brothers channel.

    For writing, it's typically my Johnny Cash channel. Pandora digs deep into the music wayback machine to bring up the best rockabilly, rock, gospel, country and blues (with a little Celtic thrown in) combo to soothe my soul.

    When I'm writing law or cop stuff (or actually doing legal work), I throw something like "First 48" or "CSI" on Netflix in the background at low volume. I like to listen to stylized cop talk when I'm, . . . um . . . trying to write stylized cop talk.

    Great topic!


    Great topic.

  8. Joe, I remember seeing Miles at the Chicago Jazz Festival in the 80's. He kept his back to the audience the entire performance. At the end he approached the microphone, was about to speak, then shook his head, waved us off and left the stage. Ha! He was brilliant, still love his music.

    Right now I'm listening to Lustmord (The Darkest Places of the Earth and also, Rising) as I work. It is the ambient soundscapes of Australian composer Brian Williams. Like Joe Moore, I'll change it up according to mood and atmosphere.

    I'm checking out some of Joe's suggested movie scores from his 2009 posting. Great stuff.

    Thank you, to both of you guys!

  9. Basil, thanks for the share. Can't wait to read it.

    Joe, that's a great idea. I've been with Pandora since the beginning though lately I've been using the free version of Spotify as well. Also my iPod, of course.

    David, I occasionally suffer (as does Joe M.)from the lyric distraction, though not always. I listen to a Hispanic rap group named Control Machete and can't understand a word (other than "hermanos") so that the lyrics aren't quite as much of a distraction.

    Jordan, I'm blushing, but don't tell anybody. Thank you. And it goes without saying that I am one of your biggest fans.

    I never mentioned pets as a distraction, but our family cat enjoys the editing process of walking across the keyboard. How can a cat know how to change the margins of a Word document?

    BK, I envy folks who can write in total silence. It's hard to explain to folks (family) "Yes, I need noise, but the right KIND of noise." To, not "can you drive me to...?" Still it's all good.

    Chaco, I loved your description of how music works for you with respect to the creative process. You said it better than I ever could.

    Love that eclectic mix, Terri. "Hurt" by Johnny Cash --- the song and the video --- always get the creative juices flowing. One of those songs that you can't get out of your mind.

    Thank you one and all. I love reading comments.

  10. Tied to the Whipping Post. Interesting selection. I usually write with talk radio or TV on in the background. Habit I picked up in high school doing homework. I don't listen to what is being said and don't usually know what's been on.

  11. John, thanks, but I think we all know that radio hadn't been invented at the time you were in high school...

  12. Four words: Two Steps from Hell.

    Words completely distract me (if I even manage to find a song with lyrics that don't fall in my opinion box of sappy/stupid), which is why I prefer the scores from soundtrack artists like Two Steps from Hell and Future Worlds Music. This music takes me to a different world. Sometimes even music without words distracts me, but I still listen to it before I write.