9 Great Albums To Accompany Your Writing Process

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Do you listen to music when you write? If so, have you ever felt the music you listen to while hammering out those first drafts distracts you from the work at hand? Have you ever struggled to find the perfect album for the mood or atmosphere of your piece? Perhaps you've never put on a record while working, simply because you just don't know where to start.

Let me help, if I may. I don't accompany my writing trysts with music on every outing. My brain is particularly sensitive to distractions, so sometimes even the most inoffensive background melodies will take my mind down back alleys and side streets. On the other hand, my brain often travels light years in a matter of seconds, causing ideas to ricochet around my skull like stray bullets. In these instances, music can help me focus, particularly if the sounds coming from my desktop speakers or headphones match the tone of the story I'm writing; moreover, if the composition moves, if it crests and falls rather than drones, I can ride those musical waves and carry my plot along (a neat subconscious trick for curing writer's block).

Speaking of that creative malady we all suffer from time to time, if I select the appropriate album or playlist before beginning my first draft, and I consistently listen to that music throughout the writing process, when I begin to feel stuck or unmotivated, nine times out of ten it's the music that pulls me out of the funk and gets me going again. There's science behind this, the emotional connection our brain forges between music and events; according to research conducted by Petr Janata, associate professor of psychology at UC Davis' Center for Mind and Brain, music appreciation and memory processing both occur in the medial prefrontal cortex, thus causing our minds to permanently bind music and memory together (read more about Janata's research at Science Daily).

So, as you can see, there are lots of benefits to playing music while you write. Here are some of my favorite albums, arranged by mood/atmosphere (and labeled with coffee roasts, because why not?). You'll find that all my selections are absent of lyrics. Words in music are an instant distraction for me when I'm busy with other word-based tasks, so I avoid them. If you don't share this particular affliction, the musical world is your oyster.

Okay, enough introduction. On with the show…


Dark Roasts (For Horror/Dark Fantasy/Transgressive, etc.)

1. Sonic Youth—'Simon Werner Disparu Soundtrack'

Full disclosure: Sonic Youth is my all-time favorite band, and they have a breadth of instrumental, writer-friendly music spanning thirty-plus years. Highlights include two other soundtracks (Made in USA, Demonlover), select outtakes from the Dirty Deluxe Edition, and of course, their series of self-released SYR recordings (of which, Simon Werner Disparu was the last). So why focus on this particular record? Two reasons: 1.) it's a bit of wound-salting on my part—the album was Sonic Youth's final release before disbanding in 2012; and 2.) it offers the band's distinct dark undertones and swelling compositions without getting too noisy (and if you know Sonic Youth, you know they can get noisy). Excellent music to write to all-around.

Buy Simon Werner a Disparu from Amazon.com

 

2. Rockabye Baby!—'Lullaby Renditions of Björk'

The concept behind the Rockabye Baby! series of albums is a simple one: take popular artists and render them in the soothing, music-box tones that put babies right to sleep, but spare mom and dad from grating or overplayed nursery rhymes. Everybody wins. Now, I don't have kids myself, but I enjoy these albums largely because they make great background music for reading/studying, and of course, for writing. Also, the anonymous artists behind the music never completely baby-fy the tunes, leaving in the dark undercurrents of the more strange and unusual artists (Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, The Cure, Smashing Pumpkins, etc.). Their take on Björk's greatest hits is no exception, ensuring that while baby may sleep tight, s/he may also dream of red-eyed plush animals coming to life and chasing them in the woods. A great companion to your next dark fantasy tale. (Side note: this album also pairs well with Neil Gaiman's twisted children's novel Coraline. Try it.)

Buy Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions of Björk from Amazon.com

 

3. Nine Inch Nails—'Ghosts I-IV'

Nine Inch Nails—AKA Trent Reznor and a rotating cast of musicians—made a pretty big splash during the "alternative music" craze of the 1990s. Perhaps their biggest hit was "Closer," a song featuring the line, "I want to fuck you like an animal" (and yes, Rockabye Baby! covers that one). As Reznor's musical sensibilities changed, Nine Inch Nails began exploring different territories, and Ghosts I-IV represents some of their best instrumental soundscapes. A collection of short, brooding compositions—some quiet and atmospheric, others loud and cacophonous—this record inspires scenes of slow-building dread culminating in explosive releases of tension and aggression. Listen to Ghosts if you're writing tense, psychologically-driven dark narratives.

Buy Ghosts I - IV from Amazon.com


Medium Roasts (Sci-Fi, Modern Fantasy, Hard Fantasy, Weird Lit-Fic)

1. Tortoise—'It's All Around You'

Tortoise's music is quite cinematic, in the sense that their songs fit right at home on film soundtracks (I actually saw them perform a live score to Nosferatu in Chicago a few years back), but also that their music feels infused with beats, emotional arcs, and epic reveals. This cinematic nature colors the band's fifth album, It's All Around You, front to back, with perhaps the standout example being "Crest," a song that evokes images and sensations of Kubrickian space exploration, of human heartache eclipsed by the wonder of infinite stellar landscapes. Really, Tortoise's entire oeuvre offers intergalactic tinges, so load up their discography when you sit down to write that science fiction masterpiece (though Millions Now Listening Will Never Die lends itself to horror quite nicely).

Buy It's All Around You from Amazon.com

 

2. Zöe Keating—'One Cello X 16: Natoma'

Whereas Tortoise makes perfect (dark) sci-fi music, Zöe Keating's first full length solo outing (she was previously a member of the rock cello band Rasputina) brings to mind the imaginative, magical universes of hard fantasy as conceived by J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and Robert Jordan, amongst others. There's an old-world-blended-with-the-speculative feel to her sweeping classical compositions, which she creates by looping and electronically manipulating her One Cello (see what she did there). You could view her method of creation as a corollary to the act of writing: authors sit down with nothing but a pen or a typewriter and their imaginative minds, and from these two simple tools they create entire worlds populated with fleshed-out, living/breathing entities (if they're doing their job right); similarly, Keating brings nothing but a cello, a computer, and her brain to the table, and from this she becomes an entire orchestra unto herself. In this way, Keating's a kindred spirit, and thus her music lends itself quite easily to any writing experience.

Buy One Cello X 16: Natoma from Amazon.com

 

3. Amon Tobin—'Out From Out Where'

Listening to Out From Out Where, the fifth album from Brazilian electronica superstar Amon Tobin, I'm inclined to either write scenes involving grizzled spaceship crews lost adrift in the outer reaches of the galaxy, or drug-pumped kids getting fucked-up in neon-surreal dance clubs; either sadistic torture scenes set in murky, leaky cellars, or gangland executions in the desert. In case it isn't obvious, Tobin explores a range of sounds on this album, with the one unifying factor being the darkness/creepiness lurking through each track. No matter the genre, so long as your piece is a bit off-kilter and weird, Out From Out Where will keep you on track.

Buy Out From Out Where from Amazon.com


Light Roasts (General Lit-Fic, Comedy, Romance)

1. Ulrich Schnauss—'Faraway Trains Passing By'

While Amon Tobin uses synths, drum machines, samples and loops to render grittily haunting/amped-up tunes, Ulrich Schnauss employs the same instruments for the opposite effect. The German musician and producer creates light, understated beats layered with mellow synth drones and quiet melodies. This music floats along like time-lapsed footage of clouds, just rhythmic enough to keep you working without compelling you to dance. If your seriocomic slice-of-life tale isn't too serio, Faraway Trains will provide the perfect soundtrack. Though really, this album and most of Schnauss's work is so soothing and unobtrusive, you could listen to him during almost any writing session. An added bonus: this particular album cuts through surrounding noise really well, so if you're trying to work while someone watches a certain grating TV show nearby (Family Guy), you won't even hear it.

Buy Far Away Trains Passing By from Amazon.com

 

2. Thelonious Monk—'Alone in San Francisco'

When I discovered jazz music back in college, this was one of the first records I bought. Since that time, it's lent itself perfectly to numerous occasions—breezy Sunday afternoons, after-party comedowns, study sessions, make-out sessions, and of course, writing. Those of you only familiar with with the broad instrumentation of Straight No Chaser should know that this album's title isn't merely an existential statement on the artist's mental state; Monk is literally alone here, playing some of his most famous piano tunes solo. Also, if the title suggests isolation and the depression that can follow it, it is only a suggestion. The recordings presented here, even the "sad" songs, are played with a bubbly exuberance that instantly puts you in a good mood. I see nothing but happy stories embedded in these songs, and I'm the type of person who envisions torture scenes set to "Whistle While You Work."

Buy One Cello X 16: Natoma from Amazon.com

 

3. Explosions In The Sky—'The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place'

EITS’s entire catalogue doesn’t remind me of anything. What I mean by that is, their swelling post-rock landscapes don’t necessarily conjure images of space ships, alien beings, fantastic beasts, magicians, witches, or any horrific monsters; rather, Explosions capture excitement, joy, heartache, sadness, and all manner of human emotions. To me, this music represents the full scope of life and death. High dramas about familial strife or breathtaking/heartbreaking relationships could be culled from this album’s movements. That isn't to say you couldn't use "genre" tropes like monsters, supernatural entities, or killers; rather, even if you're writing a story about two serial killers who fall in love, this album can help you contrast scenes of brutality with tenderness and passion.

Buy The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place from Amazon.com


These nine albums only scrape the surface of the options out there. Real quick, I'll give a shout-out to an iOS app I rather like, Songza, which offers mood and occasion-based playlists; so if you need "studying music," or "reading music," there are a ton of options. Nothing specific for "writing," but the aforementioned categories work quite well. Check out "Horror Movie Scores" and "Electronic Film Scores" for some particularly good writing music. The app is free, and you only have to put up with one ad every 24 hours or so. Check it out.

What do you think about the music I've discussed? Do you hear it the same way I do? If not, let us know what you see when you close your eyes and absorb these sounds. Also, tell us what albums or playlists you love to put on while you're writing away.

Christopher Shultz

Column by Christopher Shultz

Christopher Shultz writes weird, dark fiction. His stories have appeared both online and in print, including most recently in Apex Magazinefreeze frame flash fiction and Grievous Angel. In addition to LitReactor, he has also written for Ranker.comCultured Vultures and Tor.com. At times, he dabbles in digital art and photography. Christopher lives in Oklahoma City with his fiancée Lauren and their two mostly well-behaved cats. More info at christophershultz.com.

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Comments

Clayton Blue's picture
Clayton Blue from Arizona is reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides November 15, 2013 - 12:36pm

ummmm... ok computer?

 

Clayton Blue's picture
Clayton Blue from Arizona is reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides November 15, 2013 - 12:36pm

ummmm... ok computer?

 

TwistedPaper's picture
TwistedPaper from Poland is reading "The Book of the New Sun" by Gene Wolfe & "Seven Wonders" by Adam Christopher November 15, 2013 - 12:44pm

great article! thanks!

my absolutely favorite album for writing is Glitch Mob "Drink the sea"

Kelby Losack's picture
Kelby Losack from Texas is reading Muerte Con Carne; The Summer Job; Bizarro Bizarro November 15, 2013 - 1:11pm

Circle Jerks, Nirvana, DMX, Eminem, and Against All Authority. Entire catalogues at a time. Oh, and Meat Puppets recently. NIN is really great to write to, definitely. And Neutral Milk Hotel. I'm always listening to music. haha

big_old_dave's picture
big_old_dave from Watford, about 20 miles outside London, Uk November 15, 2013 - 1:19pm

What? No mogwai? Booo....

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts November 15, 2013 - 2:12pm

Great list there, top notch writing tunes.

I usually play old favorite albums with good lyrics or really percussive oriented stuff while writing. My current heavy rotation for different projects: J Dilla - Donuts, Unwound - Leaves Turn Inside You, Phonem - Hydro-Electric, Cul de Sac - Death of the Sun, Poison Idea - Feel the Darkness. And usually always some Sun Kil Moon or Steve Reich.

Simone Bellenoit's picture
Simone Bellenoit from Massachusetts is reading Bone In The Throat November 15, 2013 - 2:39pm

I AM SO HAPPY ZOE KEATING IS ON THIS LIST.

 

(Also: Woob and Max Van Richter for Sci-fi/fantasy stuff, and Ludovico Einaudi for everything else)

Jeff's picture
Jeff from Florida is reading Another Side of Bob Dylan by Victor Maymudes November 15, 2013 - 2:36pm

Hmm, diggin' "Out from Outwhere".

You can only resort to Vangelis so many times. 

 

Suzanne van Rooyen's picture
Suzanne van Rooyen from South Africa is reading Silver Dream World by Neil Gaiman November 15, 2013 - 3:14pm

Yip, NIN's Ghosts and Explosions in the Sky are regulars on my Writing playlist. Some other good writing bands include Tides from Nebula, God is an Astronaut, This Will Destroy You and If These Trees Could Talk

Sean Stallard's picture
Sean Stallard from Tecumseh, ON is reading The Brothers Karamazov and A Lover's Discourse November 15, 2013 - 3:43pm

Moonface has great emotion and musical presence in his music (Moonface=Spencer Krug). The recent all piano and voice album, Julia with blue jeans on, has helped with my writing process as of late. Also their Marimba and shit-drums, Organ music not vibraphone like I'd hoped, and the song "lay your cheek on down" from the album heartbreaking bravery

Kimber's picture
Kimber from Atlanta November 15, 2013 - 4:36pm

Man, what I wouldn't give to be able to listen to a variety of music while writing. My only option is instrumental. I can't have words coming into my brain at the same time I'm trying to push them out of my brain. It's... inconvenient. Does anyone else have that issue?

Kelby Losack's picture
Kelby Losack from Texas is reading Muerte Con Carne; The Summer Job; Bizarro Bizarro November 15, 2013 - 5:02pm

Kimber, that's why I like fast punk and gangsta rap. The words blend together at a certain point and almost become instrumental, like a cacophony of white noise. Aggressive white noise. But sometimes I prefer Bach. 

cshultz81's picture
cshultz81 from Oklahoma is reading Best Horror of the Year Volume 8 November 15, 2013 - 11:48pm

I absolutely have that problem, so much so I sometimes find myself typing the lyrics, rather than my own words.

Thanks for the recommendations, I'll have to look those groups up.

Benjamin Joseph's picture
Benjamin Joseph from Southern U.S. is reading Knockemstiff November 16, 2013 - 6:06am

I will add anything by the Kronos Quartet for strange/dark fiction.

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading A truckload of books November 16, 2013 - 5:51pm

I've noticed that while working on longer works, a soundtrack sort of asserts itself and I pretty much listen to it nonstop. If not for headphones, my family would hate a lot of bands and albums I really love.

 

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list November 16, 2013 - 7:13pm

I've never heard any of these albums :(

I create playlists for each of the stories I write. Most of my ideas are inspired by songs because I listen to music on my lengthy commute to and from work. The playlists grow as I hear new songs that feel like they were made for the story I'm working on. There has only been one story that I listened to a single album while writing.

Matthew Graybosch's picture
Matthew Graybosch from New York is reading William Hazlitt's Life of Napoleon November 16, 2013 - 8:15pm

For writing science fantasy, I favor the following.

  • The Protomen
  • Act II: The Father of Death by the Protomen
  • Beyond the End of Despair by Galneryus
  • Evil Abounds by The Worshyp
  • April Rain by Delain
  • Deggial by Therion
  • A Night at the Opera by Blind Guardian
  • Surfing with the Alien by Joe Satriani
  • Scheherazade and Other Stories by Renaissance
  • The Universal Migrator by Ayreon
  • Come Clarity by In Flames
  • Alive in Athens by Iced Earth
  • Birds of Fire by the Mahavishnu Orchestra
  • Apostrophe by Frank Zappa
DerekGreen's picture
DerekGreen November 17, 2013 - 11:01am

Meteora by Linkin Park

Percy Dlamini's picture
Percy Dlamini from South Africa is reading Everything is Illuminated, The Time Traveler's Wife, The Shadow of The Wind November 21, 2013 - 2:37am

I listen to Bring me the Horizon, Chelsea Grin, And Bullet for My Valentine when i read AND write. some other Deathcore bands as well.

there's something about the intensity of the music which whips soothes my inner human-puppy. it helps me focus a lot.

plus everything i read and write has dark content anyway. if a song is too clear and quiet, my mind wanders.

i enjoyed this coloumn. i'll give some of the songs a swing. 

Percy Dlamini's picture
Percy Dlamini from South Africa is reading Everything is Illuminated, The Time Traveler's Wife, The Shadow of The Wind December 3, 2013 - 1:53pm

woaw... The "post-rock" band: This Will Destroy you.

To be more specific, their album: Young Mountain.

imagine what it would be like to travel on another planet, backpack travel, forget about oxygen and atmosphere. nothing but you and the blackest sky you've ever seen. on top of it all, you miss somtehing, someone, so deeply, it's almost physical. so you walk on, and every couple of hours, you witness an earth-rise. nothing special about that though, thanks to that deep, oppressive feeling you just can't seem to pin down. 

I f#cking love this band.

mattmyth's picture
mattmyth from Rotorua, New Zealand is reading Child of God by Cormack McCarthy January 26, 2014 - 12:00am

New Zealand band 'Shepherds of Cassini' is an essential writing album.  

 

http://shepherdsofcassini.bandcamp.com/

James Pickell's picture
James Pickell September 4, 2015 - 8:28pm

How on earth does anyone write to Sonic Youth or NIN?  Great bands, but to write to?  I was thinking more on the lines of ambient, jazz, or classical.  Miles Davis and Gil Evan's "Sketches Of Spain", Jordan de la Sierra's "Gymnosphere: Song Of The Rose", and anything from Bach and Beethoven would be my best recommendations.   

 

Jenny Lane's picture
Jenny Lane from Los Angeles, California is reading Erica Jong September 14, 2015 - 7:42pm

Some old blues on vinyl will do. All the crackles and pops? Heavenly. By the way, James Pickell, Miles Davis is what's up! With all the crackles and pops. Or not!

James Pickell's picture
James Pickell February 8, 2018 - 10:07pm

I listened to these albums back to back and wow, what a great list!  I got a lot of writing as well as drawing in.  Thanks Christopher!  You're the Man!  I've got this list bookmarked now.  :) 

James Pickell's picture
James Pickell February 9, 2018 - 12:55am

Oops!  I forgot, that Sonic Youth album was amazing for writing and so is the NIN!  Didn't think it would be!  LOL!  And yes Jenny Lane, Miles is what's up fo sho!  :)