Do you listen to music when you write? No way!

Today I’m taking part in a themed blog splash run by Elaina James as part of the project she’s doing with Mslexia. Elaina’s blog series follows a lyricist with stage fright who has the chance to perform one of their songs on stage. She invited a group of us to write about our own relationships with music.

I’m not a huge fan of music. I realise this makes me a complete philistine, but there you have it. I find it hard to distinguish good music from mediocre. I appreciate that classical music is good, but really, I doubt I’d be able to sit and listen to it for too long without needing to go do something else. I envy those who can put some music on and just sink into it. I’d fidget.

I know what I like, but that’s not the same as appreciation. My CD collection is full of silly music – Spike Jonez, Max Raabe and the Palast Orchestra, 44 Leningrad, The Shirehorses and an awful lot of Tom Lehrer. The things these have in common is that they’re funny – some a parodies (The Shirehorses songs are ludicrous parodies, whilst Max Raabe is sublime) others are elaborate jokes set to music. Tom Lehrer is just genius.

I write in silence. If I’m forced to have something on in the background while I work, I’d choose something without lyrics because words from outside my head would distract me.

On the other hand, I’m happy to listen to pop music when I’m driving. This is largely because some pop music has fantastic lyrics. Taylor Swift, for example, is a poet who sings. So is Jarvis Cocker. I hear words and they immediately paint pictures in my mind. Words can evoke emotions in me in a way that music cannot.

The first short story I ever had published was inspired by a song lyric. I was lying on the floor, with my notebook and pen, in the middle of something when the song Burning Bridges by Status Quo (yes, I realise this reveals how old I am) came on the radio and I had a sudden, very vivid image of an old man crossing a rainbow bridge. Since I’d spent most of my childhood in Sri Lanka by that point, I don’t think I’d ever seen a real rainbow bridge before, but there it was, in my imagination.

I started writing. Eventually, I ended up with a short story about an old man remembering the days when he and his late wife sat by the bridge and how, one day, he’d carved their names into the brickwork at the base of it. Over the years their names had disappeared, covered over or worn away with time, but he knew they were there. Just like she was still there with him, even though she’d died many years ago.

I wrote it, did a swift line edit and sent it off to The Sun newspaper in Sri Lanka (a more respectable publication than its UK counterpart!) and it was published. They paid me a 100 rupees for it too (in those days, a paperback cost about 300 rupees, so they paid me a third of a book). I was about fourteen at the time. I didn’t have another short story published in print until I was in my thirties.

So there you go. Songs as inspiration. Maybe I should listen to music a bit more.

Please do pop over to Elaina’s blog on Mslexia and have a look through her series. It’s fascinating.

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7 thoughts on “Do you listen to music when you write? No way!

  1. Thanks for joining in with the blogging event Rhoda. I have to admit I am quite similar, in that I prefer music with words too. They are clever tiny short stories emphasised by the music that carries them along. I studied music at A-level so to me classical music, whilst beautiful, always reminds me of the lessons where we analysed a piece of music until that magical quality of pure musicality was torn apart by breaking it down into its components.

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  2. Sometimes I do have background music, other times I can’t write properly as it becomes a distraction. Mind you, grooving around the kitchen to a bit of Bowie, Roxy or Prince can be a welcome break from word-hammering.

    But I don’t mind chatter, or phones, as I worked in newspaper and magazine offices for over twenty years, so you have to get used to that level of noise 😉

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  3. I listen to music more now when I write than I used to, but largely through necessity. We are a busy household of six with not much space. I don’t have the luxury of tucking myself away in a room, so I sit in the middle of the chaos with big headphone on and listen to music. This lets everyone know I’m working, so they tend to leave me alone, and it creates a bubble where I can shut out the noise. What I do, however, is put a familiar song on repeat. This way, I am not anticipating lyrics or distracted by the next song that comes on. In a way, the music becomes irrelevant. There are times when I so need silence – editing, for example. And there are also times when I put a particular type of song that compliments the emotions of the scene I am writing.

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  4. The lyrics of Cole Porter songs are well worth a read (or listen). Best to listen to the original 1930s recordings and not the souped up big band swing along desecration of 1950s rat pack singers.

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