Top 5 Musical Choices to Write By

A couple of weeks ago, I posted the following on Twitter: “Why do stormy summer afternoons always seem to go better with David Byrne’s The Forest?” One of my long-time friends soon replied, “Nearly everything goes better with David Byrne’s The Forest. It’s one of my favorite albums to write to.” And I thought, of course! I, too, frequently choose this CD when I’m writing.

But that got me thinking about what other musical go-tos I have. When it comes to choosing what to listen to while I write, the selection can have profound effects on what I turn out, so having the best music playing is a must. What I’m working on can sometimes dictate an appropriate musical choice—something that sets a certain mood or evokes the right setting or emotions. Other times I might just want something to shut out the noises of the rest of the world and help me focus on the page in front of me.

However, several CDs have stood out as recurring choices. Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, I think of musical selections based on the whole CD. I’m that old. Actually, I’m old enough to think in terms of the vinyl album, and sometimes I revert to that terminology, but the CD is so much more convenient in many ways (even when I’m actually playing all my music from digital sources on my computer). My point is that, although I do create playlists or play random from time to time, I’m much more likely to select a specific CD/album to listen to in its entirety.

My top choices are largely, though not entirely, instrumental, as that presents less possibility of distraction (i.e., I’m not going to find myself singing along instead of concentrating on what I’m writing). See what you think of these, and let me know if you have any great favorites of your own that help you get in the zone for writing.

5. Fire in the Kitchen, The Chieftains

CD cover for Fire in the Kitchen, The Chieftains & various artistsThis CD has Irish legends the Chieftains performing back up for various Celtic music artists of Canada. The featured artists include names such as Natalie MacMaster, Ashley MacIsaac, the Barra MacNeils, and it was the first place I ever heard Great Big Sea. The collection is a great taste of Celtic music, at times sublime, at times raucous and reeling. It’s that variety in the music that makes this a good choice for writing for me—a reminder, perhaps, of the constant need for tension, one thing playing off another. About half the tracks on the CD include vocals—but some of those are in Gaelic, and since I have no understanding of the tongue, the singing ends up just sounding like another instrument in the mix.
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4. Divinities: Twelve Dances with God, Ian Anderson

CD cover for Ian Anderson's DivinitiesThis CD is a bit more subtle and consists primarily of flute and keyboards. Ian Anderson is best known for his work as front man for classic rockers Jethro Tull, and if that’s all you know of him, this solo work might come as a surprise. Entirely instrumental, the tracks that make up this one are heavily influenced by and evocative of Asian, particularly Indian, culture. And of course it features a healthy dose of Anderson’s unique flute playing style. I find this particularly good music when I’m working on any writing in the fantasy genre.
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3. Fantasia 2000 (Disney movie soundtrack)

CD cover for Fantasia 2000 Disney movie soundtrackAlmost any classical music can serve as a background to writing, but what I like about the selections from Fantasia 2000 is that it’s the sort of music that tells a story even without the visuals that the Disney animators provided. It’s music that going somewhere: it has a goal, a purpose, momentum. It’s telling a story; I’m writing and trying to tell a story—these things go well together. Over the course of the CD, you’ve got a variety of musical styles, alternating through calm, restrained passages and loud, thundering sections. That diversity helps keep my brain awake and actively creative.
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2. Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd

CD cover for Pink Floyd's Wish You Were HereSometimes writing calls for rock and roll. As I wrote in “Writing Rocks: How Stories Come Together,” writing about a fictional band got me listening constantly to a real band, Voyager, for that particular story. Sometimes, a story can call for a particular band or type of music. But if I’m looking for some rock, maybe a little psychedelia, this Pink Floyd gem works better than anything to help my writing shine on. Although this CD has some good songs for singing in the middle, much of it is instrumental—and I’ll often find that if I get in the writing zone, I won’t even notice when those songs pass by.
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1. The Forest, David Byrne

Now we’re back to The Forest. This truly is my default choice; when nothing else seems appropriate to help me on my way to writing success: The Forest. I’ve been listening to this CD for more than 20 years, and it never fails to inspire. The music is orchestral and instrumental, with occasional vocalizations or chanting; only one short song has a sung lyric. The whole composition is dramatic and theatrical (owing to its roots as part of a theater piece). Yet no description of the music will accurately capture it: You just have to listen.

CD cover for David Byrne's The ForestI will always remember the first time I heard this music. It would have been the summer of 1991, around the time the CD came out. For an evening’s entertainment, three of my friends and I went to the Tower Records in West Covina. Upon entering the front doors, we each went our separate ways to look for our various favorite artists. After half an hour or 45 minutes, we began to regroup. And we all commented on this strange, bizarre, yet somehow wonderful music that had been playing overhead on the store sound system all the while. It was like nothing we’d ever heard, and certainly like nothing any of us were listening to before.

That changed that night, of course. And thankfully so. I was writing and listening to The Forest back in 1991 and am still pleased to do so today. Give it a try and see what it inspires for your writing.
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Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins

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5 thoughts on “Top 5 Musical Choices to Write By

  1. Devin L. Ganger

    For writing I tend to prefer instrumental tracks. As a gamer, I find that good game soundtracks (or movie soundtracks) help keep me in the flow. And the advantage to digital collections is that if there’s one or two songs on the album that don’t fit, I just create a custom playlist without those songs. SOLVED.

    Games:
    Halo (particularly the Halo 3 soundtrack)
    Mass Effect (the main ME, ME2, and ME3 soundtracks; there’s a bunch of additional albums for ME2 but the songs there are too repetitive or choppy for good flow)
    Bastion (a few singing tracks, but they have a great sound that isn’t the typical orchestral feel. In fact, I discovered the music first and my wife liked listening to it so much she bought the game to play it)

    Movies/TV:
    The Hunt for Red October
    Tron Legacy (adore this album SO MUCH, but who doesn’t like Daft Punk + orchestra? Adagio for Tron is the most heartbreaking song on the album)
    Star Trek: Deep Space 9 collection (4 albums) is surprisingly listenable
    When I’m in a somewhat dark mood, the Eurythmics 1984 soundtrack album fits the bill.

    Music with Vocals:
    Loreena McKennit “The Book of Secrets” — I don’t like a lot of her Celtic work because it’s, well, whiny Celtic work, but this album is a fusion between Eastern/Mediterranean/Celtic and there’s only one song on the album I don’t like (the poem “The Highwayman” set to music; she does a great job on it, I just can’t stand the poem). There are several tracks on this album that actively put me in flow if I just let them.
    Enigma “MCMXD A.D.” — just a nice lovely beat that can stay nicely in the background, and even though the lyrics are provocative (I’m told the portions in French are, ahem, lewd) it’s easy to ignore them and just write along on the beat.
    Just about any album by Allison Krauss and Union Station. The collaboration by Allison and Robert Plant is also a fine, fine album.
    Surprisingly, Lyle Lovett’s “The Road to Ensenada” is a gorgeous album to work to. He’s mellow and crafts exquisitely balanced music.

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  2. bkwins Post author

    Thanks for the suggestions, Devin. I’d agree that soundtracks are often good writing music–they have that instrumental yet storytelling quality. I’ll have to check out some of your other selections that I’m not familiar with.

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  3. Catherine

    Although not always, I usually listen to opera when writing. The same one over and over and over. I do the same thing with albums, too. I think I probably tend to play an album that the characters are likely to listen to, not something that makes me want to write to it.

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    1. bkwins Post author

      I’m not a big fan of opera, but maybe I just haven’t heard the right operas. I like that idea about listening to what your characters would listen to. Seems like a really good way to get inside your characters when writing them.

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  4. Pingback: Synchestra: Unleashing the Transdimensional Space Goat on America’s Wickedest Street | The Weird World of B. K. Winstead

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