How music playlists can help you write

It seems like music playlists are big among writers. I’ve seen people spend inordinate amounts of time coming up with the perfect soundtrack for their characters, especially in the roleplaying world. It’s as inspiring to them as art and maps are to me.

I can’t write through any kind of distraction, though; I need total silence. I would blame the ME but I think I’ve always had that tendency (though not nearly as bad as it is now).

Writing Playlists


On those rare occcasions I actually can listen to music while working, it has to be instrumental. I once went looking for the soundtracks for Assassin’s Creed and Mass Effect on YouTube but accidentally discovered an entire sub-genre of classical music instead.

It’s called “trailer music” (because it’s the stuff they use in movie trailers to make all the explosions sound exciting) or “epic music” and it is perfect for motivation on those slow-start days. My favourite piece of all time has to be John Dreamer’s Brotherhood, but his Rise comes in a very close second for motivation.

My Epic Playlist never fails to get my creative juices flowing. I like to listen to it when I’m starting a writing or world-building session. (I have to turn it off to really focus, but it’s a great way to get into the creative swing.)

Triggering Memory

You’ve probably already read how music can trigger memory the same way that scents can. Students are encouraged to chew a certain flavour of gum for each subject (e.g. cherry for Chemistry and blueberry for English Lit) and then chew that same flavour when they take the test because it triggers the same area of memory they were accessing the first time they tasted it.

In the same way, listening to the same set of songs can trigger the portion of memory you were accessing the last time you heard them. Thus, music playlists can be a wonderful tool for setting the “mood” for a writing session. (Something fast and discordant for a fight scene, perhaps, or a soft tune for romance.)

Repeating those songs before (or during) your next writing session can put you right back in that same mind-set and remind you where your head was at when you left off — which is doubly important when you take year-long breaks from a story.

Get those creative juices flowing

I already explained why I can’t listen to music when I want to do anything else, but as a creative person I feel like I need to regenerate every now and then and music is essential for that — especially if it’s the right kind of music.

I have the occasional singing session where I let loose. I put my headphones in, turn everything up full blast, and sing my lungs right out of my chest. It’s freeing in a way nothing else can be. (It’s exhausting, too, but at least it doesn’t require use of my arms or legs like my guitar did.) Singing with such wild abandon gives my brain a chance to wind down and open up, and it gets my blood pumping.

For these singing sessions, I have multiple playlists that involve a lot of powerful vocals: anything from ABBA to Queen to Celine Dion to Annie Lennox and a bunch of musicals in between. (I grew up listening to ’80s power ballads, what can I say?) If it gives my voice and lungs a work-out, it’s probably on there.

I’m not a bad singer. I’m not a great singer, either, but it doesn’t matter what you sound like. What matters is that you ratchet up the volume and give your lungs a good spring clean.

Dance along if you can, or wibble in your bed if you can’t. Do it in the shower or while you’re vaccuuming the house. (I used to spend Sunday afternoons singing full blast while jiggling around the ironing board.)

Sing until your throat hurts and your blood is fizzing like you stuck your finger in an electrical socket.

You’ll feel better. You’ll feel free. You’ll also feel like you’re about to keel over and die, but the words won’t be so reluctant to come when you next sit down to write.

(I’m not accountable for any murders that occur because you decided that 4AM was a good time to start caterwauling. :P)

Pre-Writing Motivation

For NANOWRIMO 2011, I created a playlist full of Billy Joel and STEPS. I have no idea why because neither of them were even remotely appropriate for the story or the characters I was writing, but they were still somehow the perfect balance of motivation, rejuvenation, and a necessary distraction to give myself a much-needed break between sessions.

Since then, my Guardians playlist has morphed and been replaced several times. It’s become less “eclectic pop/ballad” and more of the trailer music I mentioned before. Even so, I still return to my 2011 playlist once in a while when I need to remember the tone of the first book and the mood I was in when I wrote it.

Does music work for you?

What’s your stance on music playlists for writing? Do they help or hinder you? Do you spend too much time finding the perfect soundtrack instead of writing?

What kind of music do you prefer as motivation? Is it different from the music that inspires you? And do you have a playlist for every character and/or story, or just the one to get you in the writing mood?

How music can help you write
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