What Music Inspires You To Write?

Sally Cooper asked a great question on her blog: “What music inspires you to write?” Here’s what I think.

I’m always looking for new music to write with…I’m usually listening to minimalistic stuff (Riley, Reich, Cage, Feldman), or to new classical music. these last few days, it’s been Alfred Schnittke‘s complete string quartets (played by kronos quartet) which have me all but hypnotized; it’s also been Michael Finnissy‘s “Lost Lands” (played by topologies). A hundred years ago, I studied composition with Finnissy & I still hear his actual voice and see him move around the piano when I listen to this. (He’s like his music: most gentle, witty, immensely informed.) It influences my writing in ways much deeper than I care to know. When my students ask about what music I like I ask them to imagine cats being tortured & that it’s not a pretty sound. They invariably say “Aww, surely you’re joking” but when I play them a sample, they realize I wasn’t.

This is for fiction. For non-fiction like this, I listen to more digestible music, like Regina Spektor, or I let P J Harvey shake me. Another recent discovery is Martin Grubinger’s “drums ‘n chants“: jazz & gregorian chant sung by Benedictine monks. Modern jazz is usually not my thing but…there’s always been moondog — about whom i’ve written a story now shown at Fictionaut — who blends jazz & voices & god knows what he heard through his viking helmet. Good man, I love him and all he stands for, a splendid freedom, from a great distance.

For some reason, there’s no serious writer story about the serious writer and his music. But there’s no one on “The Serious Writer And His Hamster” at Pure Slush. It’s musical in a spherical kind of way (on the orb of creation, all paths cross eventually: sound, touch, smell…).

So what on your turntable? Which sounds keep your wheels spinning (if any)?

[the illustration above is a score by michael finnissy (from: english country tunes – one of the hardest pieces written for piano that i know, here performed by the composer) that suggests some of what’s hanging in the air when i listen to this while writing. it’s not harmless, nor is it easy to dance to. the score, like the music, has got so much texture, it’s a little like standing in the middle of a traffic island, which may be my ideal place to write. sometimes it gets tiresome, then i will switch the music of altogether.]

10 thoughts on “What Music Inspires You To Write?

  1. In the past I’ve banned all distractions from my office, but recently I’ve found that music does indeed inspire rather than distract. The problem–and the inspiration–is the lyric. At times it is as though I catch a word here and there that fits into my narrative. My musical tastes are varied but peculiar. Alison Krauss and Nickle Creek tend to get my cogs turning. Um, yes, it’s bluegrass. 

    • it’s my privilege as a german that i can completely turn off english lyrics in my head if i want to. though i’d rather not have to. bluegrass is great in the right moments. the longer i write the more i’m aware that we’re firing and living on all channels all the time. that’s perhaps the true miracle of creation, its totality. 

  2. what works for me is to listen to music long before i write. soak it up, let it filter and reach the recesses from whence i sense poetry stirs.  long drives on back roads, no traffic, neil young singing comes a time. anything with a mandola or a viola works well, too.  (but when i write, i need silence . . .)

    enjoyed your post. i’ll head off now to read about the serious writer’s hamster.

    sherry o’keefe

    • sherry, you make a good implicit point here: the writing of course starts long before the page is filled with words…i tend to listen to audio books now on those “long drives on back roads” (of which we don’t have that many here on our densely populated continent, or so it seems in comparison with the US anyway) but of course, you’re right. thanks for coming out to comment!

  3. I have never listened to music as I wrote.  I hear the music of words in my head and that’s enough.  I’m not sure I could write with the distraction of music, even classical. I need complete silence with only the errant cat or two wandering about.

    • interesting about the “words in my head”! i live in a very noisy (by german standards, not by london standards) large city & it would be hard to come by complete silence. like some others here, i enjoy being wrapped into anonymous sounds, street sounds e.g. and in the mornings during the week i write in a cafe after dropping my kid off at school.

  4. Late to this post Marcus, but I tend to listen to music that runs the gamut of genres, however I can’t write to classical or uber-slow tunes. I usually get geared up to loud, brash music. For whatever month I’m writing I usually make a mix for that month…and then later down the road, it’s a nice little memory to revisit that mix and what I was writing at the time – who and where I was.

    • hi jules! i like that—anchoring memory including writing memory with the mix for a month…something to publish alongside your multimedia memoirs when the time is ripe…

  5. Interesting question and one I’ve yattered on a few times about on the blog.  I used to work in a newspaper office where there was constant (mainly rock) music and so I have learned to blank it background sound almost entirely if need be.  Now I tend to use music as oracle – I put the iPod on shuffle and see what happens.  It’s spookily synchronistic.  I used to Write in silence.  Some things have to be written to the scent of silence.  Whereas others call for soundtracks.  What those are varies hugely.  

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