Words & Music

Reading & Writing

I’ve been talking to writers about how we create prose, and a common subject has emerged.

But let’s not talk about money today.

It seems most of us write to music. Joanne Harris tells me she was in a band, and has a strong musical ear for prose. China Mieville and Iain Banks both mentioned the strong influence of music on them. Apparently Terry Pratchett stopped playing sounds while working because musical rhythms started invading his prose and shaping cadences.

Personally, I find it hard to work without playing some kind of music, but it needs to be instrumental, or the lyrics invade my head. I think it was Jonathan Franzen who went to the opposite extreme and sealed out all light and sound from his room before starting to overcome his writers’ block.

I’m not sure a real ‘block’ exists, but I am positive that the right state of mind isn’t enough – there’s an exercise that requires you to power through the ‘being stuck’ phase as if you were driving a runaway truck.

I have a trainer who teaches me about states of mind, and before you dismiss this as New Age rubbish, I’d like to point out that this is a guy who can get me free-standing on my hands in around 30 seconds just by preparing me mentally.

Musicologists dismiss the so-called concentrating effects of Mozart for students studying, but I find that low bass-heavy chords, the kind you get in suspense film soundtracks, definitely alter my tendency to rush the writing of big scenes, making me extend sequences to their correct reading speeds.

Shakespeare famously built breath pauses into Iambic Pentametre (ie xX xX x – – X xX), but writers can do this too. For some wonderful examples of this technique, look at the short stories of JG Ballard and check out the end lines – often, he deliberately slows the pace of the words to create a gentle, elegiac conclusion.

Music can change the writing pace for you – it’s a bit like driving with an automatic gearbox. If anyone else is interested in this, let me know and we’ll talk further.

7 comments on “Words & Music”

  1. Vickie Farrar says:

    Interesting: the science of writing well. I am a reader and I can recognize a well-written book from junk, but often scratch my head as to what makes the difference, as it is all just words. I have found that some (well, maybe lots) of smash bestsellers are crap writing. The depth and intricacy of your writing is perpetually delightful and illuminating…and I am very grateful that you are so skilled and so dedicated to your craft. Now I am going to scrounge up some JG Ballard short stories to see if I can recognize the slowing of pace created by his word choice/placement.

  2. Lynn says:

    Talk further.

    Do you think different kinds of music bring different feelings to your writing? Different subject matters? Would you listen to different music to write about Bryant and May than, say, your new play?

    For the record, (and for what it’s worth — that’s a song isn’t it?) I think Shakespeare IS music. You can sing it as easily as you can say it.


  3. Steve says:

    Someone very close to me always writes to music – through headphones. It inspires her. For myself, I seem to live to music as I hear it everywhere – in the rhythm of machinery, the hum of electricity, the washing machine going through its cycles, the cadence of someone’s speech. It’s ambient sounds that inspire the music I write – although sometimes, it simply writes itself in my mind.

  4. Alan Morgan says:

    For work I slam out stuff to nearly anything, indeed typically Radio6. Just background to fill the crumb conquered breadbin silence of my workroom. I’ve been doing that so long though that it’s nearly automatic. For anything more considered or carefully crafted (so only of late) it has been Classic FM. There’s no control with radio but neither is there a need to stop, to change CDs* and think which of them to put on.

    It’s interesting if there is a real link to music/pace/writing/pace, other than standing atop a swivel chair if Wagner comes on screaming ‘Up my goblin armies, for Klingsor and the ring!’. Not I obviously. Though if Chumbawamba make an appearance I do overthrow the state.

    Drawing being the opposite, it’s Radio7.

    So interested? Of course, tell us more.

    *Remember them? Not having a walky phone or a stabby slab I certainly have no means of making music appear by magic. People faint aghast when the find out my computer has no means for making sound. It’s a typewriter, I explain – yet to no avail. It’s a lifestyle manager they explain in more words in reply.

  5. Daniel says:

    This is something I’m very interested in talking more about. As an amateur writer, and one who seems to be preprogrammed to write short fiction into the bargain, correctly pacing a story is vital to what I try to do and usually end up getting completely wrong.

    Now, I’m also someone completely unable to write anything without music playing. To me, the acts of writing prose and listening to music are linked so inextricably that without one, the other fails utterly. Perhaps my choices of music are unconsciously affecting the rhythms I put into my prose, this is something I’ve never thought about before. As someone who listens primarily to pop music (I use that term in the catch-all sense meaning everything rock, soul, pop, hip-hop and dance related since 1954 or so), it’s never occurred to me to change my listening habits while writing. I’m not suggesting that different music will make me a better writer, that will only come with practice, but perhaps it will change the rhythms in my prose, hopefully leading to a more coherent pace running through the work. Is it something you’d suggest a relative beginner give genuine thought to?

    Interestingly, the one and only story of mine I’ve been truly happy with, was written while listening to a lot of big band music in a desperate attempt to get inside the head of my protagonist.

  6. Lou Morgan says:

    It’s a fascinating idea, the effect of writing to music. I can’t remember who it was, but I remember reading an interview with someone years ago who said he’d had to stop writing along to the radio, as the changes in mood and tempo you naturally come across in radio playlists were filtering into his writing. I don’t *think* it was Pratchett, although it does sound like a very similar situation.

    Echoing your own experiences, film soundtracks seem to be popular (perhaps because the whole point of a film soundtrack is to support images and help set a mood?) and I’ve seen a lot of people on Twitter say they’re currently using the Inception OST or bits of it. Do you think it’s to do with the pace of the music itself, or rather that by having the right “sort” of music on for you, you’re getting into a different state of mind; one that makes it easier to work?

  7. Helen Martin says:

    At one point some on-line calligraphers discussed the use of music in their studios. There was no consistency other than the almost universal agreement that music helped both the conceptualization process and the actual laying down of ink/paint. It wasn’t investigated very far but everyone agreed that the music had to fit with the work rhythm.

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