Sound Track


My friend Damien recently posed this question on her blog: When you write, do you listen to music or do you need silence? A week ago I would have answered, Silence! Today my reply is: It’s complicated.

It used to drive me crazy when my kids listened to music while they did their homework. How could they concentrate? Wasn’t the distraction making them stupid? And when I saw other writers (on Twitter, say) discussing the play lists they’d assembled to listen to while they worked, I felt like they must be undermining themselves. Without absolute silence, I couldn’t properly hear the voices in my head. My pro-quiet view was bolstered by media reports of studies that showed, for example, that people who multitask actually have more trouble switching off distractions than folks who just do one thing at a time.

But take a minute to look and you’ll find all sorts of studies that paint a more nuanced picture.

It’s true that if you listen to purely instrumental music while taking a reading comprehension test, you’ll do better than if you listen to songs with words. But not that much better.

However, if you’re a people person, you’ll get a better grade on that musically accompanied test than if you’re someone who prefers to be alone.

Ask a bunch of students to do a “selective attention test” while listening to their favorite background music, and music majors will do better than their peers from other departments.

And just as music affects different people differently, its effects vary throughout the writing process.

Writing isn’t just one activity. It’s several. Brainstorming and free writing entail one kind of thinking, and writing the first draft, another. And still other mental functions come into play when it comes time to edit and revise.

When I’m in the earliest stages of a project, when I’m casting around for interesting ideas and associations, total silence can be paralyzing. I need my thoughts to be as uninhibited as possible. Just the right amount of distraction can keep my conscious, critical mind busy, so the intuitive, creative part of my mind can have free rein. I sometimes think of this approach as tricking myself into writing. It’s like I’m telling my brain, Don’t worry, I’m not really asking you to work. We’re just listening to a little music and writing some junk down.

The distraction doesn’t have to be music. When I was writing short stories as an undergraduate, I got some of my best work done while riding the Five-College Bus. The hum of a coffee shop works – and the background sound of half-heard chit-chat also helps me create a compelling voice and realistic dialogue, maybe because it activates the conversation section of my brain.

But at some point I need to turn off the background noise. For me, each successive stage of the writing process requires cranking up my concentration level another notch. The closer I get to the final product, the more quiet I require.

I’m at the rough, first-draft stage of my book. I have mapped out the general shape of it and sketched in, in very broad terms, what needs to happen in each chapter. Now I’m going through the rough sketch chapter by chapter, writing an approximation of the sentences that will end up on the page. It’s an in-between stage, half exploration and half fulfillment. I’m not trying to write as quickly as I can, but I do want to keep up a good clip. I don’t want to get bogged down in details, because I need to get to the end, so I can step back and see the book as a whole.

One of the biggest challenges for me right now is not to get snagged on too many specific sentences, and to keep my inner critic at bay. Some days, the best way to do this is by putting on some music. I’ve tried listening to radio and I’ve tried Pandora. Both worked okay. But the announcements and ads were a nuisance. And some of the music that came on just annoyed me. After reading so many people touting their playlists, I decided to give it a try.

I think of my iTunes playlist for my work in progress as the musical equivalent of sitting in the international terminal at JFK. Maybe with a little construction going on in the distance. It’s a mix of purely instrumental music and songs with lyrics. But almost none of the lyrics are in English, and very few the instrumentals are songs with lyrics I know. The pieces tend toward the slow and atmospheric, and the texture is eclectic, with an emphasis on sounds I don’t usually hear in Western classical music or jazz. I’ve thrown in a few songs I know well and love. They pop up unexpectedly – little rewards, like coming across a macadamia nut in mix.

Serious music lovers would argue that this is a terrible way to treat music. I agree. But it’s also a seriously good way to get some writing done. At least for me. And for now.


Here’s a sampling from my playlist:

Bahram Sadeghian “Chaharmezrab” from Dosthah Nave

Matt Haimovitz “Rhondo Variations” from Anthem

Radiohead “Pyramid Song” from Amnesiac

Habib Koite “I Ka Barra”  from Muso Ko

The Beatles “Sun King” from Abbey Road

Low Anthem “Charlie Darwin” from Oh My God Charlie Darwin

Ned Rothemberg “Minutia” from Inner Disapora

Sergio & Odair Assad “Agua e Vinho” from Saga Dos Migrants

Grateful Dead “Attics of My Life” from American Beauty

Amalia Rodriguez “Foi Deus” from The Story of Fado

Evelyn GlennieDream of the Cherry Blossoms” from Light in Darkness

Phish “Guelah Papyrus” from A Picture of Nectar

Gogol Bordello “Sun Is On My Side” from Trans-Continental Hustle

Frederic Chiu “Standchen” from Schubert-Liszt Transcriptions

Robert Shaw Singers Rachmaaninov Vespers

Iron and Wine “The Trapeze Swinger”

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3 Responses to “Sound Track”

  1. Amalia Gladhart Says:

    I think I’m at a similar place, manuscript-wise– decided the shape and chapters were rouged-out enough, it was time to start filling in those prickly blanks. But I generally like quiet, if I can get it. I’ve learned to write through lots of life commotion, so contrasting silence, when I can find it, is delicious. Still, sometimes I sing to myself.

  2. Ruth Horowitz Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Amalia!

    My kids are grown, I work at home all day alone, with nothing but silence. Maybe that’s part of what accounts for my liking a little background noise now.

    I rarely sing to myself. But I have been known to print out a scene and walk around the house reading it aloud, as if delivering it before an audience. That’s my secret, though. Don’t tell anyone!

  3. MaryWitzl Says:

    Our flat is large and we can only afford to heat one room at a time. So I write in the room everybody is in, yakking away and listening to music. I’ve gotten used to this over the years. When the kids are off at school, the silence isn’t always helpful. I DO sing to myself, and I read aloud too. The only way I know if a final draft is okay is if I can read it aloud without getting trapped on phrasing or cringing at what I’ve written.

    Love Habib Koite.

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