On Listening to Music While Writing Or Why The Last of the Mohicans Soundtrack Plays an Integral Role in My Getting Work In By Deadline

I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that I have weird writing  
habits. I spend most of my writing time pacing around my room talking  
aloud to myseWlf, I’m most productive working during the Wesley-Snipes-
in-Blade
type hours of 12-4 AM, and I’m most comfortable typing flat  
on my back with the computer resting on my knees like I’m about to do  
a semi-intense set of sit-ups. But lately I’ve been most conscious of  
my inability to work without music.

My writing friends seem to fall into or between two specific camps  
here. There is the “I could type an essay while sitting in the choral  
pit during a live performance by Blue Man Group with a special  
appearance by Gallagher, such is my ability to concentrate” camp and  
the “I can’t hear the question you just asked because it would  
require taking off my noise-canceling headphones and leaving my panic  
room, which will ruin any chance I have of working today” camp. The  
polar ends on both sides suggest particularly neurotic behavior, but,  
as Google claims John Wayne said, “a man (or woman) writer has got to  
do what a man (or woman) writer’s got to do.”

Now I have very specific music needs. I can’t listen to any music  
that has words in it, because I end up thinking about those words  
rather than whatever acrostic poem I happen to be working on. Also,  
depending on the genre and the proximity to my deadline, the music  
changes in severity/intensity/genre.  Here is the sampling of my  
playlist according to what I’m working on:

Novel Chapters and Fiction: Spanish Guitar Magic.
Reasoning: In high school I was walking past a Brookstone (note:  
could have been A Sharper Image), when I overheard the rapturous  
sounds of a guitar playing some latin-themed something. Entranced by  
said music, I entered the store and sat in one of those vibrating  
massage chairs for a little under an hour, or until I was kicked out,  
listening to the music. After inquiring what said music was, I bought  
the opened CD black market style off of one the cashiers for ten  
bucks. Anyway, this is the music that I listen to when writing my  
book or any work of fiction. It is a two hour playlist of Andres  
Segovia, Carlos Montoya and Manuel De Falla tearing it up Spanish  
Guitar Hero-style, and it is soothing, acoustic and has little to no  
words. It reminds me of what it might feel like if I was in the  
Spanish version of The Thomas Crowne Affair and for whatever reason,  
that thought makes me productive. Plus, it drowns out the hippies.

Magazine Articles and Columns: Buena Vista Social Club and Jazz  
Compilation of Miles Davis/John Coltrane

Reasoning: I don’t know why my writing seems to be obsessed with the  
sounds of Latin America, but there it is. Maybe I use this mix during  
non-fiction because the music has more flair and edge, or maybe the  
constant improvisational moods in the jazz mimic what I have to do as  
I’m piecing together a story. Or maybe I just dig horns.

54.8 Minutes Before Deadline Regardless of Genre: The Last of the  
Mohican Soundtrack

Reasoning: Um, have you ever seen Last of the Mohicans? Daniel Day  
Lewis is always running, and always throwing things, and there is  
serious sense of urgency. Especially in the song “Promentory”. This  
music screams, “finish this or Magua will kill the gray hair’s  
daughter!!!”Once this music is on, I’m all about the benjamins baby
business. Probably because I only have 54.8 minutes till deadline.

Anyway, I’m curious to see where and into what camp you fall. Pro-
music? Con-music? Musically Neutral like the Swiss? And if you do  
slay music while writing, what does your playlist look like? Or  
perhaps more importantly, how many Rick Astley songs do you have on  
there?

I await your thoughts via the Commentary.

I Will,
Find You

Daniel Day Lewis

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18 thoughts on “On Listening to Music While Writing Or Why The Last of the Mohicans Soundtrack Plays an Integral Role in My Getting Work In By Deadline

  1. Lyle

    I’m one of the hated "could write at a Blue Man Group thing" people. Love crowded restaurants in particular.

    Music is all right – I’ll listen to just about anything on my playlist, which is anxiously awaiting the Rick Astley additions. I was one of those in mid school who made tapes that ran "Together Forever" on repeat on one side, and "Never Gonna Give You Up" on the other. Did I just admit that in public? Yeah.

    But I particularly like watching a movie I’ve seen a hundred times. Seems to engage whatever part of my brain wants to be distracted just enough to let the part of my brain that actually wants to write…write.

    Though, like Ellen Degeneres, I am given to fits of procrastination wherein I arrange my bookshelf by food group, and then by wardrobe preferences.

  2. Tom

    I hate this question, mostly because it brings up the fact that music, which I usually think of as one of my personal best friends, is only out to destroy me while I write at home. I’ve tried it before, and mostly I end up sitting back and thinking of something else entirely while it’s playing. I’ve tried turning it down, and apparently while I’m writing my sense of hearing becomse so acute that I can identify Regina Spektor’s "On the Radio" by one note played at a level that dogs would have trouble with. I usually end up turning it off.

    This, of course, flies totally in the face of my productivity at a coffee shop where I can identify Coltrane, Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, B.B. King, and bands I’ve never even heard before in languages I don’t speak and STILL maintain a vicious streak of productivity. The only reason I can imagine for why this is possible is the Kevin Alexander Deadline Defense. Mainly, I know the coffee shop closes at 11pm, and if I don’t use the next two hours surrounded by a fireplace and good coffee, I’m going to be stuck at home surrounded by dust, unfiled bills, and other reminders of Shit I’m Not Doing While I’m Writing.

    Maybe I need to try the Spanish/jazz guitar thing. I do enjoy the hell out of Django.

  3. Jen St. Clair

    I am firmly on the pro- music side, but I do have to watch what I listen to. Why? Because I love to sing along with most of the CD’s I have, which we all know isn’t very productive. Anything by the Eagles- my all time favorite group- tends to be a good choice for me for some reason. I suppose it’s because I know all of the lyrics by heart, so I can still sing along to my heart’s content and I don’t have to think about the lyrics.
    Jen

  4. Kevin Alexander

    Pat- I think you bring up a good point. We don’t always get our first choice situation, writing-wise. Sometimes the hippies are being too loud discussing their time living in Burlington, VT or my roommate has decided that he is taking two weeks off from dentistry to "celebrate the holidays" or my mother decides she needs to use her basement to do her laundry and "since I don’t even live here anymore" she doesn’t understand why I always have to show up "like clockwork, every Sunday, with a pile of laundry, browsing her cabinets like a grocery store". And, believe it or not, despite all that –especially if i’m on deadline– I still have to focus. It’s a wonder I get anything done at all with all of the hardships I face…:) Speaking of which, I’m on deadline right now for a re-write of a Boston Mag piece, which explains my long comment. On my own blog. Hmmmm. I think I need to take a walk.

  5. Pat

    Okay, Kevin, I am going to answer this before I read the other commets as I don’t want to be influenced in anyway. I can’t write with any music because I will try to sing and it will distract me. However, when I am on a roll, I love to have the TV on with a re-run movie. A movie I have not seen will distract me. So, okay, I weird too. Just weirdly different.

    I also learned during NaNoWriMo that I can work with people talking around me. If I want to add to the conversation, I can do that without losing my train of thought or momentium.

    Truthfully, my first choice is, I like to write with peace and quiet. I just don’t always get what I want.

    Pat Marin

  6. Kiley Murphy

    If you like spanish infulenced music listen to Ameranoche. They are amazing. Any ways I cant write on music and it all depends on my mood. I listen from Mozart to Marilyn Manson.

  7. Kevin Alexander

    I’d never before thought about the idea of listening to different music to put in the mood to remember something or feel something, but obviously that happens unintentionally all the time…
    i like how I’m getting all of these different recommendations/opinions. I think that instead of buying my family and friends Christmas presents, I’ll just blow my paychecks on new writing music via iTunes and send out $10 Starbucks Gift Cards…

  8. Andrew

    Whatever music seems to fit with my mood. Lately it’s been all The Smiths, but I also like Evans Blue acoustic, and anything by K’Naan -The Dusty Foot Philosopher, which is just good anytime.

  9. Russ

    I love to listen to internet radio. Shoutcast.com is one of my favorites. You can pull up almost any kind of music from the website. I like to search for "new age" and then find the "chillout ambient" section. Typically, there are no words and it is great music. You can also listen to 80’s hairbands, rap, metal, country or pretty much any genre you want.

  10. Judith D Ackerman

    I like music playing in the background while I write, but it does need to be background music; no words!

    I usually put a CD of classical piano music on the player, hit "repeat" a few times, and go to my computer to write. The music drowns out distractions, and if I need to stop and re-group, it is there for me to sooth my savage mind till I am ready to go again.
    Judith A

  11. Anna

    It depends what stage I’m at whether or not I do the music scene. It also depends on what I’m writing. For my memoirs I have a playlist of songs that were particularly relevant to certain timeframes in my life; so I chose the playlist depending upon what time I want to really *feel* at the moment – for example, anything of importance that took place during my teen years usually had some form of song by Chicago to punctuate it.

    Occasionally I get fiction inspiration FROM a piece of music – Bodicae by Enya (which I heard at the beginning of a CSI episode) inspired an entire fictional cast of drug-lord type characters as well as the epiphany the main character experienced. I created an entire novella around how that song made me feel. The downside to this though is that every time I hear that song I can’t think of anything but that particular storyline.

    During writers block I have about 1G of instrumental trance and dream dance mp3s to help me push through. It works everytime – not necessarily with plausible results however.

  12. Genevieve Cancienne

    I always write with music playing. It helps get me into it because sometimes the album or song I’m listening to was the inspiration for the story or essay in the first place. For the book I’m working on I’ve been listening mostly to The Shins "Oh, Inverted World" and The Dandy Warhols "13 Tales From Urban Bohemia."

    Spanish guitar playing is definitely inspirational. At the end of the summer I saw flamenco dancing for the first time. The performance was a mix of flamenco guitar, dancing, singing and poetry recitation. My friend who’s a sci-fi writer called all of it fruity, but dude, that guitar had muscle. I came home and wrote for hours after that performance.

  13. Chris

    Ditto on the no lyrics music. Since I don’t want to be bothered with changing CDs nor being tempted to start singing with the music, I usually will have Internet radio going in the background to a dinner jazz type of station. The music could almost be a soundtrack for what I’m writing, so it’s a nice influence. Most times though, if I’m in the zone I don’t hear it anyway.

  14. Mindy

    I’m the no music camp, mostly. There are a few rare occasions when I’ll let something play in the background, but it has to be along the lines of my Native American flute music CD I picked up cheap at Target one day. Anything with words, and my dialogue mysteriously has random lyrics sprinkled throughout.

    On the other hand all brainstorming requires music, and with that I perfer sad country love songs and Christian rock music. -Mindy

  15. Chicklit

    When I was in junior high, I wrote an entire "novel" (read: 100 pages) while listening to The Last of the Mohicans on repeat. The story was about what you would expect from a junior high girl with headgear and a crush on her art teacher, but it was fun and it established a pattern of behavior that would last for the next fifteen years.

    I think I do my best writing to music that doesn’t demand a lot of attention. Movie soundtracks got me through grad school, but lately I’ve been incorporating more smooth jazz and emo music. I find that what I listen to influences the story that I’m writing, so I try to tailor my playlist to the mood I’m creating. For the story I’m working on now, there’s been a lot of Portishead, Faithless, and Cat Power.

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