So You Want to Be a Writer? Get a Playlist!

If you write books, you have to have a playlist. It has to be populated with the quirkiest arrangements of music you can find. Ever hear the theme song to Mr. Roger’s neighborhood? Great!  Now go and find a cover version, done by some heavy metal-post modern orchestral trio, or whatever, and claim THIS was the version of the song that inspired that fantastic fight scene in your latest novel! Excellent! Now, go find eight more songs like that and you have yourself a playlist.



Playlists are the soundtracks that writers live by. We can’t make our own movies, but we can listen to tracks that evoke a feeling or a memory while we write, in hopes the feelings will pour out through our fingertips. Not everyone writes while listening to music. In fact, I can only listen to music when I’m on my first big edit.  I need to hear the words as I type them. I need to listen to the sounds the words make together, so that I don’t use the same rhythmic combinations together over and over. On that first big edit, I’m really just looking for typos, weird little grammatical errors and maybe the occasional bad paragraph.  For that, I can have anything blasting in my ears.  For the rest, I need silence.


Photo by Zehra Rizvi

Photo by Zehra Rizvi




That isn’t to say that music doesn’t influence my writing. Before starting a new work, I like to listen to fresh music, something I haven’t heard before, or maybe just something I haven’t heard in a long time. Good songwriters can tell an entire story in four minutes, through evocative words, unusual phrases and gorgeous rhyme. If I can bring even a small portion of that to my book, I feel like I’ve done something right that day. I’m conscious of writing like a musician during the entire process.


Does listening to music influence what we write?  I started to wonder about that when reading an article online about the music in the new Baz Luhrmann version of THE GREAT GATSBY. Luhrmann is a master at combining classic movies with contemporary music.  We saw it in his version of ROMEO and JULIET.  There’s no way Shakespeare had ever dreamed of such a modern version of his tragic play, but the juxtaposition of modern society (including sex, drugs and rock n’ roll) and the original text worked because it was in such contrast. Luhrmann made us not only understand what the characters believed, he made us care. And he did it through music just as much as his visuals.


So, what would F. Scott Fitzgerald think of the soundtrack to THE GREAT GATSBY?  He envisioned music from the Jazz Age.  Some would argue that jazz has always been a controversial music, music that during the flapper age would have caused a lot of people to be uncomfortable. Luhrmann’s choice of hip-hop, alternative and pop music for GATSBY might arguably be the same thing. If he uses it correctly, the music–whatever type–will make us stop and feel and think and take notice. I don’t think Fitzgerald would have minded that at all.


When we write our own novels, then, does the music we listen to make a difference?  Would we be able to write the same novels if we changed the soundtrack and listened to something completely opposite?  Maybe not.  But it might also make us write outside of our comfort zones. I’m starting to wonder if it might not be a great test, to see if I could write while under the influence of something opposite to what I normally listen to.


How much do you think music influences your work? How much does the work dictate what music you listen to?  And would you write differently if forced to choose alternate music? Let me know what you think.



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