Writing to music: do you tune in or tune out?

skullcandy headphones

Loves the pretty Skullcandy

I like writing to music a lot, but there are plenty of scribblers that disagree with me (as verbosely as you’d expect) and it makes me wonder why there’s such a divide.

One of the reasons I like listening to music is that it acts as a way to cancel out the ‘real world’ sounds. This means that I’m safe in my little, pre-chosen musical capsule and don’t have to worry about intrusions.

The other is major reason is that I can use the music to help me set the mood of the piece I’m writing. To be honest, I know a few people who are able to use this device far more successfully than me – but I do find listening to specific genres of music can help you channel the particular tone you’re going for.

I can see why people like to avoid it, especially listening to music with lyrics – they can try to creep their way into your sentences after all and I sometimes have to switch to instrumental pieces if my grip on a story is feeling shaky – but I can’t imagine how I’d manage without the help of some kind of music.

What really interests me are the people who say they just can’t concentrate at all when there’s music playing, the ones that basically need total silence and isolation to let their words flow properly – my question to them is, how do you manage to get the peace and time you need in the noisy world we live in?

I’m also really curious in general, how does it work for you? Do you need tunes to get typing or are you a silent scribbler?

16 thoughts on “Writing to music: do you tune in or tune out?

  1. I actually never thought about this, thanks for bringing it up 🙂
    However, when I’m writing (not stories, I don’t write stories, but papers, poems, rants about miscommunicated blog comments 🙂 ), I can’t listen to music.
    It’s too distracting, the changing of chords, the guitar solos, the constant change in rhythm.
    It’s interesting how you like to block out the ‘real world’ sounds.
    Those are the kind of things that comfort me.
    Ironically, I’m listening to music as I’m typing this now, and I keep misspelling things, and forgetting what I’m talking about :).
    I really just think it’s about the way we’re wired, how we think.
    Ya dig?


    • Yup, I dig it Daisy – I guess some of us are just wired at a different frequency. : )

      I find the real world sounds put me on edge rather than comfort me. Actually, maybe this is just a sign I’m some kind of (not very secret) control freak.

      Hmm, thinking about the comment you made about music making you forget what you were thinking about, I’m wondering if that’s something I like it for – it helps me cut out all the other things I’m thinking about – so it’s just me, the music and the story. Thanks for the input!


  2. Something just occurred to me while reading Daisy’s response above when she mentioned chord changes, solos etc… maybe it’s possible that people who are musicians in particular find it difficult to listen to music while writing because to folk who really know music and how it works it’s very engaging to listen to.

    It’s worse when it’s music you really love because then you just end up listening properly to every note and change, anticipating your favourite parts that come up.

    I have had some music I don’t know on before and, while it’s definitely not as distracting, I prefer none. Maybe while music is more effective at blocking out everyday sounds for you, well, some folk are better at blocking them out themselves. I never think about outside noises when I’m writing, I’m pretty much always totally engrossed in the story.

    Oh, I’ve got it – your concentration sucks. Ha! 😛


    • You are so mean! But yeah, also right, my concentration tends to scatter – it’s one of the reasons I’m always working on more than one story at a time and my notebooks work in a very un-linear fashion.

      Talking of music you love, I try and avoid working to that ever so that I don’t spoil it for myself. If I am concentrating, then whatever I’m listening too will eventually turn into white noise (unless it’s shit, then it’ll just annoy me)

      On the other hand, I find some music so evocative that I really enjoy feeling inspired and writing along with it. Also, I might choose a particular album and then only ever listen to that while working on a specific story – as a sort of audio aid. Maybe being more knowledgeable/sensitive to the mechanics of music would change the way I fell about it – but considering that I can tune out lyrics from some of my favourite writers – I dunno. I guess I’ll never find out – unless I get magic music powers! *wants*


      • I WANT MAGIC POWERS TOO. At least I get to write about them daily atm.

        That’s interesting about the album for a story thing. I guess you’ll always think of it as the soundtrack to that story. That’s kinda cool 🙂


    • “you just end up listening properly to every note and change, anticipating your favourite parts that come up.”

      I agree with that, wholeheartedly, and that’s probably the root cause of my inability to concentrate when music is playing.

      I’m a musician myself, and when I listen to classical (I play cello), I get more distracted than any other type of music with lyrics.

      It kinda makes sense now 🙂


      • Hmm, a theory is being born – now I wish I could do a massive survey and find out how musicians and non-musicians react to music when doing something else creative. For example, I also always listen to music when drawing and for some reason assume that would work for most people, but maybe I’ve been assuming wrongly?

        Also, Kit, could you write me some magic powers please?


      • I definitely believe being a musician has something to do with it. Once I got into the guitar proper every pop/rock song I heard I was picking it apart in my head, noting down the chord progression and listening to the twiddly bits going “ah that’s what they’re doing there”. Which was kind of a bit eh cos it spoilt the music somewhat.

        I think once you learn how to tune into music in that much depth it definitely becomes something more. Not in terms of enjoyment but I guess just in a technical understanding sense, which in turn makes it engaging on another level.

        Though sometimes there’s stuff that you just can’t help but connect with emotionally. Like if I hear Vaughn Williams’ The Lark Ascending I pretty much have to stop what I’m doing to listen. The same would go for a few other classical pieces I’m sure. Which is part of the reason I can’t listen to it and write at the same time. It’s one or the other. Or dinner. 🙂


  3. Oh God, no music=no writing! 🙂 I’m one of those addicted individuals and if I don’t have my headphones on, there is no way that I’m getting those words down on paper.
    The strange thing is, I can pretty much write anywhere, anytime. My only thing is music… But of course not just any kind of music, I have this playlist that I update regularly, specially made for my “writing time”. How weird are we haha?! 🙂
    But I had people asking me how I am able to concentrate when I’m listening to music. I suppose it’s different for everyone but music is pretty much the key that opens the door to my creativity…


    • hehe, can we go with, umm, ‘quirky’ instead of weird? 😉

      I think we’re outmnumbered here, but I’m glad I’m not the only one who needs music!

      As for wiritng anywhere at any time, I’m jealous of that! Anywhere I can kind of do, anytime, really not so much.


  4. I’m the same as zombiekit – if I listen to music while writing, I end up bobbing my head and toetapping and forgetting all about writing. The low level bustle of a cafe is my favourite noise backdrop, but a quiet day at home is good too. 🙂


    • Hiya Eimear, yeah I agree with you about cafe noise – it can be awesome. But sometimes it’s the other conversations in the cafe that are my problem, I can help seeking them out and trying to listen in!

      I wish I was better at writing at home, for some reason I find it difficult – maybe because that’s also where I keep all my books!


  5. Pingback: The substitutions of a stationary addict « Lynsey May writes down the night

  6. Lynsey! You need to change your settings so your comment threads are longer than three replies. I can’t remember how to do it but it’s in your control panel.

    Oh and you don’t NEED to do it… but it’d be nice ^_^


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