Mark Danger Powers

drummer • educator • author

What Do You Listen To While Writing?

Do you listen to music while writing? I, for one, have a difficult time keeping my mind from dissecting the intricacies of any song that’s playing while I’m in the creative, yet focused, mode that I require while sitting down to write an article, formal letter or blog post.

I’ve heard other bloggers mention the importance [to them] of writing to music. But, why can’t I? Perhaps because I’m a drummer. Or perhaps I’m choosing the wrong music. Subtle rhythmic phrases and sonic snippets catch my ear and it’s suddenly necessary for me to shift my focus. Analyze what I’m hearing. Figure it out. Understand it.

What do those writers listen to? I decided to find out and sent the following little direct message to several friends and fellow bloggers out in the Twitterverse.

Do you listen to music while writing?
If so, favorites? If not, why?

Here’s what they had to say:

Maren Kate – Escapingthe9to5.com
I listen to white noise while working and writing, not sure why but it helps me focus on the task at hand and is oddly calming. There is an app called “brain wave” for iPhones *probably Androids too* that I use the most – they produce a few different 99-cent apps and they’re great.
@marenkate

Jenny Blake – LifeAfterCollege.org
Absolutely! I wouldn’t have it any other way. I will listen to anything, but lately I’ve been on a major mash-up kick — I highly recommend Bootie’s Best of Bootie 2010 mix (plus bonus tracks). My other albums du jour: Britney’s Femme Fatale and Adele’s 21.
@jenny_blake

Jonathan Fields – JonathanFields.com
Stevie Ray Vaughan
@jonathanfields

Tyler Tervooren – AdvancedRiskology.com
I don’t typically listen to music at all while I write because I prefer 100% of my focus to be on the task at hand (that’s why I stow myself away and ignore all inputs), but occasionally I’ll break that rule and listen to some instrumental tunes, which is a nice change in pace. I can’t do music with vocals because lyrics seem to occupy the same brain space as my own words, and it gets too crowded and messy to write something meaningful.
@tylertervooren

Sean Ogle – SeanOgle.com
I almost always listen to music when I’m working. I’ve found it not only makes me more creative, but it makes the work more fun. I try and mix up the type of music. Lately I’ve been listening to more upbeat electronic music. It tends to get me pumped up, while not being extremely distracting. I’ve found Grooveshark and Pandora to be invaluable for what I do. I hardly have any music on my computer anymore, between those two services I not only have a wide variety of genres available at my fingertips, but get exposed to new music on a daily basis.
@seanogle

Nate Damm – TheWayThatYouWander.com
I don’t listen to music while writing, I find it distracting. What I do use are nature sounds, and I use them all the time. Stuff like rain, river and storm sounds. I actually started a business around that idea, NatureRelaxingSounds.com, because I like using them so much. I find they give me great focus, especially when there are other things going on around me. I know lots of people like using music, it’s just not for me.
@whereisnate

Tammy Strobel – RowdyKittens.com
Most of the time I write in the OmmWriter. I love the OmmWriter because it promotes distraction free writing and it has built in music too. If I’m not writing in that program, then I’m either listening to Fleet Foxes or Ludovico Einaudi. For me, listening to music is soothing and it helps me get into the writing groove.
@rowdykittens

Ryan – RyanGoesAbroad.com
I have no set routine for listening to music. But I admit I like listening to classical (Beethoven, Mozart, Bach) if I need to be super productive. But since I am in Colombia and am learning Spanish, right now I listen to Colombian music, hoping that the Spanish will somehow seep into my brain and stay there…
@ryangoesabroad

Lauren Rains – TheMadToLive.com
Since I was a young baby my parents decided that it would be important for me to learn to fall to sleep with rock n’ roll playing in the background. And since then, I’m pretty much unable to get anything done productivity without some tunes playing in the background. Silence turns on my ADD and creating good work is lost.

Favorites to listen to:
• Explosions In The Sky – Instrumental rock that helps me to really focus and think deeply.
• Bruce Springsteen – I’m a die-hard Boss fan. The storytelling in his lyrics always get me thinking and inspire me. Thunder Road is my favorite song.
• Techno Music- Yes, I for some reason have a weird thing for Techno music. I think its loudness helps me focus on the details in a quick and dirty way.
• Miley Cyrus – Party in the USA always gets my traveling juices flowing… NOT.
@LaurRains

Jonathan Mead – IlluminatedMind.net
If I do, it’s definitely ambient or instrumental only.
@jonathanmead

Dave Bruno – GuyNamedDave.com
Nope. No music while writing. Music takes up too much of my mind.
@guynameddave

Tessa Zeng – ExperiencingRevolution.com
My answer is yes! I’ve been experimenting with work flow lately, and I’ve found that certain albums get me into the right mindset. I tend to like surreal, dreamy stuff – like the American Beauty soundtrack or Ellipse by Imogen Heap, the latter of which has been working wonders in unlocking my novel manuscript. I also have a playlist literally called ‘Epic- Get Things Done’ with Metric, Girl Talk, Something Corporate, etc… but that generally only works if I’m already in a defiant take-no-prisoners mindset, haha.

I do write without music a lot too, but more because I already dove in and forgot than anything else. Words have a magnetic ambiance of their own, you know 😉
@teezeng

Earl – WanderingEarl.com
I do indeed listen to music while writing, every single day. It’s always instrumental and typically traditional Indian music (lots of sitar and tabla). I love putting on a long, 45-minute track from Ravi Shankar, such as his performance at the Monterrey Music Festival in the 60’s! And when I tire of Indian music (which is rare), I replace it with banjo/mandolin music from artists such as Bela Fleck.
@WanderingEarl

Matt Koenig – 1yearSabbatical.com
I really struggle with writing so I typically don’t listen to music because I find it to be too much of a distraction and a mental block. However, it’s the opposite when I switch over to photography and am post-processing my photos. I always listen to music then. I’ll listen to a whole range of musical genres from classical to classic rock to contemporary Christian.
@1yearsabbatical

Pamela Slim – EscapeFromCubicleNation.com
Why yes I do! Favorites: John Legend, Mary J. Blige, Robin Thicke
@pamslim

Joe Wilner – ShakeOffTheGrind.com
I listen to jazz and folk music while writing lately. Some Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, or as of recently, the Avett Brothers.
@shakethegrind

Mars Dorian – MarsDorian.com
Sure thing. I luv listening to Angels & Airwaves and Supercar (pop band from Japan) when creating my magic. Their music elevates my spirits and help me create outstanding work!
@marsdorian

—–

Hmm . . . looks like I may need to start a new playlist and try out a few of these suggestions!

How about you . . . do you listen to music while writing or doing your other creative work? Share your faves in a comment below!

(photo by skippyjon)

25 Comments

  1. I’m the same as you Mark – if I listen to anything rocky, or with a good beat while working, it’s too distracting and I want to play along on my guitar.

    For work where I need focus, I tend to listen to classical music, that I’m not too familiar with. Or, some meditative or binaural beat ‘music’ is also good, the more formless it is, the less inclined I am to become distracted by the music.

    Great post by the way, and a great selection of different opinions!

    • Yeah, I suppose that something rather “formless” might be cool to try. The percussionist in me just gets wrapped up in the rhythms! Thanks for the comment, Tom!

  2. Hey Mark!

    This was an awesome post! It’s really cool to see how all of us who do similar things have such different methods. Some silent, some nature sounds, some instrumental, some rock n’ roll.
    I wonder what forms these habits as we grow up and suddenly it’s just how we do our work, ya know?

    I have to say I’m with Jonathan Fields on the Stevie Ray Vaughan though!

    What about you though Mark ?

    • Thanks, Lauren- super glad I tracked you down to contribute to this! I’ve often tried putting tunes on while writing but, like I mentioned at the beginning, I’m so distracted by little rhythms and sounds that I always end up having to turn it off. However, I might be giving some of the more free, ambient suggestions a shot soon!

    • @Mark – This was a really great idea for a post and really turned out well! Looks like you got a wide variety of input from some really good writers. Great job!

      @Laur… Miley Cyrus?? en serio?

      • Thanks a ton, Ryan . . . for checking it all out, and especially for your input!

  3. If I need to concentrate I put on iTunes radio in a foreign language. I find that I can use it much better for background music that way when I’m not caught by words. (Adiemus for the same reason.)

    • Hmm . . . interesting idea. I’m usually more engaged by the percussion than the voice, but I can totally see how [if the lyrics are what grab you] music in a foreign language might be just the trick! Thanks for this, g!

    • Whenever I’m concentrating on anything (writing, reading, homework), I need it to be absolutely quiet – both aurally and visually. Sometimes white noise will work; rarely instrumental music; NEVER music with words! My mind prefers to go with the music and I spend my time singing along instead of concentrating on my work. 😉

      • Yep- I get completely lost in it, as well! I’ve never even considered white noise, but so many people keep mentioning it. Think I may have to give that a try . . .

  4. I use music in the creative stage. When writing for final production or working on a lecture, silence is best (although the tinnitis in my right ear makes white noise important).
    Now that I am working on my drum kit and lessons, I find that the music I listen to has taken on new meaning – I notice the way music fits together so my favorites for reading or writing have become more distracting.
    Current favorites are Steve Gadd Live at Voce, Stanton Moore, and Paul Simon’s new one.

    • Yeah . . . to a drummer, how could Gadd or Stanton not be distracting? 🙂 You’re the third here to mention white noise. What do you use to generate it?

  5. I tend to listen to music when writing, but it can’t be anything new or too interesting. Foreign language won’t work, I try to pick out the words (this is how I’ve kept up some of my Spanish). So pop (Britpop works really well), stuff I’ve had forever, or music without words as long as I already know it. If it’s new or intricate or just really interesting musically, I can’t do anything but listen while it’s playing.

    We did a test in science class years ago where the teacher had us do problems to silence, rock, and classical. I did best on the classical (it was Holst’s The Planets), second to rock, and worst with silence. I will frequently come to after being seriously focused and realize I’m singing along to whatever’s playing. Apparently I need something to distract part of my mind while I’m seriously focused.

    • Awesome that your teacher had you do tests that way! Sounds like that’s pretty much in-line with some of “The Mozart Effect” concepts. Maybe we should run a similar experiment with a group of bloggers. 🙂

  6. NO MUSIC. Lol, just ask my girlfriend. I flip out. Shut down. I worship music, but I can’t have it while I write. I can tolerate instrumental, but I prefer absolute silence.

    • Understandable. At this very moment, I hear music playing upstairs, and am having difficulty focusing on what to reply to your comment! Thanks, Chase!

  7. It depends on what I am writing. For me if I am writing fiction I listen to my Red Sparrowes station on Pandora. There is something about them and Mogwai that hits the part of my brain that kicks off my creative side. Other times when I am writing articles I listen to completely different music – Deadmau5 in particular. It absolutely depends on what I am writing and sometimes when it works I’ll loop it. I spent almost half a day listening to Soma by Smashing Pumpkins because it put me in the right place. I love this topic.

    • There’s no way I could write to something like Smashing Pumpkins. The Billy Corgan/Jimmy Chamberlin combo, way too easy to get sucked into listening more closely to.

    • Wow, while writing? Not for me- not with those drummers! Far too many incredible rhythms to dissect and steal! I’d never get anything written 🙂

  8. Wow—pretty interesting to see the variety in this list. Generally I like to stay as clear as possible while writing so if I listen to anything it would be something to induce alpha state—pan flute and nature sounds or select classical tracks at 60 bpm. Really like Tessa’s and Earl’s suggestions though. No way I could listen to anything with lyrics and expect to write.

    • I’m with you on that- my ears try to track the lyrics, which disallow other thoughts to stay straight and cohesive in my head. Seems like nature sounds, white noise and Classical are all popping up from a few different people. Might have to give each if them a fair trial. Thanks for the read and comment, Lach!

  9. If I’m working on graphic design projects or making jewelry, I gotta have my tunes, preferably loud 🙂 Music is one of my biggest motivators, and I’m often inspired to write after hearing a lyric that moves me, but for the most part I need quiet when I write so I can get in the right groove.

  10. Mark,
    I too do not write and listen.
    I get inspiration through listening to music, reading, movies, and such things.
    When the pen is out however, I need my mind for myself.
    I have tried working creatively with other people’s thoughts/gifts floating around and I can’t.
    The more inspiration on either side of the balance, the more I have to choose one or the other.
    This is not the case when working with other creators though. Teamwork seems to be the opposite.
    Bands as an example, playing in a great band brings out my very best.
    An interesting side note: throughout my schooling I needed LOUD music playing while I worked.
    It helped me focus and gave me energy to keep going.
    Something changed though as I have developed into my current self.
    Thanks,
    J.

  11. I love music. Singing onstage is one of my favorite things to do.

    That is why I can’t listen to most music while I write.

    I focus on the lyrics even when I don’t mean to. The emotions I have attached to the song distract me.

    While writing, total focus is what it takes for my best work to come out, so I do whatever is necessary to eliminate distractions.

    If there is too much going for me to function, like my partner and daughter running through the house like wild animals, I put my headphones in and turn on classical music. A few of my favorites include Schubert, Beethoven, and Brahms. Respectively, The Unfinished Symphony, The Moonlight Sonata, and The Hungarian Dances are excellent.

    Additionally, there are several soundtracks I find compelling to write to. Rachel Portman’s Chocolat is positively inspired/inspiring.

    Intense emotion in music can lead me to producing my own masterful work. More often than not, the peace in silence is a stronger creative muse.

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