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Writing music

April 5, 2010

Writers spend a large amount of time thinking about words, using them as tools to create mood and tone and character.  Music can be very helpful in this process, whether providing stimulus for starting works or atmosphere in which to craft the tone or style of a piece of writing.  Music is a fundamental part of our everyday lives and an extension of this fact must surely be that music is a fundamental part of the everyday lives of writers.  What follows is a list of ways to use music as part of your writing process

Five ways to use music in your writing:

1. Character theme tunes.
A couple of years ago, the tutor on my writing course suggested selecting theme tunes for characters as a way of exploring them.  This useful exercise can open up your characters, giving you information about them previously undiscovered.  The young male protagonist whose theme tune is Cake’s cover version of ‘I Will Survive’ has a story to tell.  Give a character a piece of classical music for their theme and you can assert their social class, or subvert it.  The stay at home mum listening to punk in her kitchen all day becomes something quite beyond what she might appear to the outside world.  Associating your characters with a signature track or two can help you get a firmer grasp on how they see themselves as opposed to how they are perceived by others.  I’ve found this a great way of inhabiting the world of my stories and getting to know my characters.  Some have come alive enough to demand songs I am surprised to find they like.  Clare, the main female protagonist in a story I am planning, recently let me know that she has a thing for Hang You From The Heavens by The Dead Weather.  It’s moments like these where your characters start to come alive.

2. Using album covers for inspiration.
Album artwork can be an excellent source of starting points for writing.  Whether you are flicking through old vinyl, sorting CDs, or scrolling through your iTunes library, you can’t help but be sucked in by some of the imagery.  In the same way that photos or looking out your window can present you with an idea or image worth developing, album art can trigger that flash of inspiration.  Imagine writing the story that presents itself in the cover of Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power.  Or how about the cover of the Best of Joy Division?  No.  Maybe one of the Anthony and The Johsons album covers?  No?  Then pretty much anything from the Porcupine Tree back catalogue will get you started.  Or maybe Smog’s The Doctor came at Dawn cover?  The first Suede album?  Lambchop’s OH (Ohio)Supergrass’ Road To Rouen?  Seriously, take a look through your music collection.  You’ll be surprised what jumps out at you.

3. Using titles.
The fact that their is no copyright on titles helps with this one.  Song lyrics and titles in particular are often made up of interesting and original combinations of words that might spark an idea.  You can pilfer it and use it as a working title to get you going.  Chances are, by the time you have made the story your own the title will have changed three or four times.  If not, then, as I said, there is no copyright on titles.  I have a list of possible title ideas at the back of my writer’s notebook that I update every time something strikes me as a good idea.  A sizeable percentage of these are song titles.  Again, take a look through the song titles in your iTunes library, it will be full of gems you can use to get started on your next story.

4. Writing with music for tone and style.
Having a large selection of instrumental music can help with this.  You can select a film soundtrack or piece of classical music that has a similar tone to the piece you are planning to write.  Assuming you have chosen the right piece of music this can help you craft similarly emotive writing.  It helps if you have a number of pieces in the same vein as your writing will almost always take longer to write than a single track takes to play.  Failing that, the repeat function is your friend.  And songs with lyrics can be useful too.  My short story ‘Soiled’ was written and redrafted while listening to Graham Coxon’s excellent album, The Spinning Top.  While the lyrics in the songs were different to the subject matter I was writing about, the tone of the music and the words resonated with what I was trying to achieve.  That tonal hook helped me ground the sometimes comic elements of the story in the deep tragedy of what was actually happening.  Using music in this way can help you anchor your work in the correct emotional area for the story.

5. Playlists for projects.
Another great way to use iTunes (or other music library software) to assist your writing.  Simply make a playlist, give it the name of your project and drag in tracks that will support the piece.  All of the previous points can feed into this.  Tracks can be slapped into the playlist for their artwork, their title, the tone of the piece or as a theme for a character.  I am in the process of doing this as I research my novel, which has a working title of No Occasion, after the J. Tillman track that is the main theme for my main character, Benjamin.  I have used the playlist to organise music to write to and added notes to tracks (in the Get Info tabs) that relate to key characters in the book.  While you plot your story and work out who and what and how and why, listening to this playlist keeps you submerged in the tone and feel you are aiming for.

These are some of the ways I have integrated music into my writing process.  Do you have a favourite piece to write to or another method of using music to unlock your writing process?

Dan has his dad to thank for his love of all types of music.  Having spent time writing songs in various bands in his teens and twenties, Dan now focuses on writing fiction.  He blogs about his writing life and other things besides over at  His twitter name is @danpowfiction. When not writing, he takes great pleasure in listening to music with his two young sons, all of them dancing like Iggy Pop.

  1. adampb permalink
    April 5, 2010 12:49 am

    Would never have thought to name check Porcupine Tree and Joy Division and Pantera in the same sentence. Must find out about Doctor Smog.
    I had never thought of how music could be used in a piece, despite being a drummer and having an ever-increasing CD collection. Another idea could be to generate a random playlist of 5 – 10 songs and try to create a narrative that links the ideas of the songs together.
    I use music to create mood for myself when writing. Current faves are Steve Lawson (solo bass player) and Meshuggah or Mastodon. If I want some relative tranquility, I play Iona’s Journey Into the Morn. As a muso, ok, a drummer, I tend to think of the pattern and rhythm of the words that I use, not the role music can play in establishing tone, character and atmosphere. Now it’s got me thinking. An enlightening post. Thanks.

  2. April 5, 2010 4:06 am

    Glad you liked the post. The idea of a random playlist is definitely one I will have to try. I’ll also be looking up your recommendations, particularly Steve Lawson and Iona, to broaden my collection of ‘writing’ music.

  3. April 5, 2010 6:36 am

    When I’m hurting for inspiration, I put the iPod on shuffle and it hits me sooner or later.

  4. April 5, 2010 8:03 am

    I couldn’t agree with you more Dan. I had some specific music left on loop when writing my NaNoWri Mo for 2008 – almost trance , drumming music which really keyed me into my characters and the world they had built inside my head.

    For a short time, I wrote fiction using a musical prompt from – this brought up so many fantastic characters and plot lines…. I am beginning to think it needs to be kicked into gear again – especially after reading your post.


  5. April 5, 2010 10:27 am

    I always write with music. I dedicated a whole series to MGMT’s “Weekend Wars”. Dirty Post-Apocalyptic goodness 🙂

    I am so thankful for Pandora (too)… I just choose my station and plug in.

    Awesome Post!

  6. April 5, 2010 1:37 pm

    I’m just getting into MGMT. Weekend Wars is a top track – what’s the series? The Eden Corp stuff?

  7. adampb permalink
    April 6, 2010 1:44 am

    Forgot to add Sigur Ros to the atmospheric mood enhancement simulator. They are almost cinematic in their style. Very lush textures. Awesome music.

  8. April 6, 2010 9:35 pm

    Dan, “Forbidden Fruit” was actually part of what I called “The Weekend Wars”; a series of post-apocalyptic shorts revolving around an obsessed comic book collector’s version of the past, present, and future. It later bled into this whole other series, the Eden Corporation, because like some of my characters, I obsess.


  9. April 6, 2010 9:53 pm

    One of the most creative write ups that I have come across in a while! Excellent!

  10. April 7, 2010 5:14 am

    Now I am back in civilisation I’d like to thank Dan for sitting in my chair Monday – even in the wake of my chaotic departure for holiday.

    Music is my staple – more so than tea or coffee or chocolate.

    The soundtrack for my Fourth Fiction novella (hell, it has SO got to get a name!) was the ‘Twilight Soundtrack’… and Exile on Mainstreet was the staple while I was writing NaNo last year.

    I love the idea of getting my characters to share a few songs… *listen up kiddies… I’ll be taking notes!* I have several characters who stepped straight from songs… Liam Finn’s “I’ll Be Lightning” album – especially the live recording at The Chapel threw me “Sam” whose story came via the song “Wise Man” and is languishing in the Green Room and the epic, only partly told story, “Second Chance” from the song of the same name about lovers who are caught trying to ‘get it right’.

    Having just returned home from a rather long car trip over Easter (we clocked just under 1400kms across the six days – 680km in the first day) I was longing to hangout with some characters… but I realised that driving isn’t enough – it is driving and music… and as I didn’t choose the music for the trip there was nothing! It feels like a wasted opportunity 😦

    Anyway – thank you Dan! I look forward to being able to vacate my chair for you again in the not so distant future.

    PS: thanks also to Paul who fixed everything up for me in my absence!

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