East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Music for Writing


Music was mentioned in a comment to one of my rambling “I’a writer, look at the way I do it!” posts a few weeks back.
I said I’ll write more on the subject of music and writing.
Here we go.
While it is not one of my favorite writing tools, I do use music when writing.

Music has, for me, three main functions :

  • as a distraction filter (for me, it works far better than Focus Writer and other such software)
  • as a soundtrack for my stories and for specific scenes
  • and as a tool to help me define characters.

Let’s see…

1The first, and the most obvious, function of music playing while I’m writing, is to create a curtain, cutting out distractions, and possibly give my writing a rhythm.
Now that I live in the country, admittedly, the “musical curtain” thing is not so urgent and necessary as it was when I wrote back home in Turin, but it still helps. And if I am on a roll, my typing picks up speed and synchs with the music, which is nice.
For this sort of musical curtain, I normally tune in to the Buddies’ Lounge web station and podcast.

1286961904_charlie-haden-best-of-quartet-west-2007The second function music assolves for my writing is working as a soundtrack. Once again, music can provide rhythm for a scene, suggesting ways to cut from one point of view to the other, or helping design an action scene.
As a soundtrack, music also provides suggestions about certain places – LA in the ’40s? I go for the Charlie Haden Quartet West. Italy in the ’50s? It’s a good excuse to crack up the volume on some vintage Caterina Valente.
A much more exotic locale?
Let’s see what we have in terms of World Music…

And of course, soundtracks work great as soundtracks.

Finally, I often go back to a game we did when I was in high school, and try and associate a song with a person, one of my characters, in this case.
I try and find that character’s theme, if you will.
And I don’t mean a song the character might like, but a song that reminds me of the character, that helps me visualize her, that gives me a hint of the voice, the tones, the attitude.

An example I made in the past … but that was on my Italian blog!… an example, I was saying, is the way I used a song to try and define the sort of dynamic between the two main characters of a story I was writing.
iuetgdThe story in question, Beyul Express, was an experiments in many ways – it was an attempt at hacking out a 40.000 words story in a week following Lester Dent’s formula, it was an attempt at historical adventure, it was an attempt at an Hawksian romance: two lead characters, man and woman, bickering and trading double-intendres as they go through a series of adventures. Sort of what they did in The African Queen, sort of  what they did in Moonlighting, sort of what Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom could have been, had they cut the kid part and written a better dialogue.
Anyway, I had this odd coupple – an Italian adventurer and a Chinese revolutionary – and they are in Shanghai in the ’30s, there’s a lost treasure, various factions, weird bad guys, and various shenanigans ensue, and all the while, they are brabbling over silly stuff.
And as I was looking for a balance, I remembered this one

Can you hear it?
The two characters – the western braggart and the level-headed oriental woman – as they trade barbs, clearly on the same wave but also cheerfully at odds?
Well, I do.

And the effect of the song was such that right now the story is going through a deep revision, and I’m changing the original structure; the story was told from the point of view of the male lead, but now the finished story will alternate points of view.
This will allow me to use to the fullest the two voices that the music helped me define.
It will be much more fun .

So, normally, for me, researching a story means also writing down a track list – soundtrack, themes, the works.
My published works may be few, but I have an impressive record collection.

Anyway, this is how I use music when writing.
Does anybody out there use music in a different way?

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

3 thoughts on “Music for Writing

  1. I use music just like a soundtrack, but I really like the idea of using it to describe characters.
    I will try, it sounds very enjoyable! 🙂


  2. Very interesting post! I love this kind of “I’m a writer! Look at the way I do it!” posts. 😀
    In fact, for me, music is quite a distraction when I write. This is why I never listen to as I write, maybe just before, or when I want to inspire in me the suggestions that then (music off) I jot down on paper.
    In any case, I have almost always listened to music without text, only instrumental: I have a prodigious memory of hearing, almost autistic, so that the words come into my head and do not go over, distracting, or worse, causing me severe headache.
    Lately, however, I really like to be inspired by the music of Satie (Esoterik in particular), Gurdjieff and Ed Alleyne Johnson.


  3. Pingback: Soundtrack for a new project | Karavansara

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