Columns > Published on November 15th, 2013

9 Great Albums To Accompany Your Writing Process

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.

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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.)

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

About the author

Christopher Shultz writes plays and fiction. His works have appeared at The Inkwell Theatre's Playwrights' Night, and in Pseudopod, Unnerving Magazine, Apex Magazine, freeze frame flash fiction and Grievous Angel, among other places. He has also contributed columns on books and film at LitReactor, The Cinematropolis, and Tor.com. Christopher currently lives in Oklahoma City. More info at christophershultz.com

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