Listening to Music While Writing: a Necessity or a Distraction?

This is what happens more often than not when I'm listening to music while writing.

Image courtesy of flickr user The Smurf.

I know that for many authors, listening to music is a great way to get into the “zone,” to fade out the real world and focus on the one they’re creating. And I’ve had moments when listening to music while writing really did seem to get the words flowing. But I’ve also had a lot of times when I’ve used music as a distraction.

You know what it looks like: “Ugh. This dialogue is messy. Wait, what is this song?” Followed by a complete disruption of writing to find out the song title/artist before skipping it — which often devolves into spending the next three hours devising the ever-elusive PERFECT WRITING MIX.

Does music help you write?

My answer is: it depends. It depends on my set of mind, what I’m writing, what I’m listening to. Whether the words are flowing or I’m fighting to get them on the page. I’ve noticed it tends to help me more with writing that I find easier (blog posts, journal keeping, proofreading), rather than writing that is more challenging, creative or slippery (plotting, trying to get a scene right).

I’m a bit torn about listening to music, because I love it and my first instinct is always OF COURSE when the question of, “Music?” arises. And when music works with my writing, it works really well. But when the writing gets hard, the music I have on tends to become an out, a distraction I can latch onto to avoid facing the challenge in front of me.

So, what do I put in my ears while I’m writing?

I’m always looking for alternatives to music. Some things I’ve tried or that might work better than just putting iTunes on shuffle:

  • Putting on instrumental music that matches the mood of my work. Jazz and classical are my favorites.
  • I have a couple of tried-and-true mixes full of songs I’m always in the mood to listen to. If I’m feeling like I want music but don’t want to be left with a “WTH am I listening, Pandora?!?” moment, I’ll pop on one of these babies.
  • Ear plugs. Jussayin’.
  • I heard (though I can’t find a source to confirm this) that early Stephen King used to write at a desk next to the washing machine. A nice, out-of-the-way space with built-in white noise! Personally, I love writing at laundromats.
  • Listening to a white noise generator has proved helpful for when I need to focus/block out my surroundings. I’ve tried White Noise Lite on my iPhone, and it’s quite satisfactory. You can even mix different sounds—I love the idea of creating tracks similar to what my character might be hearing (people talking on a train, or crickets chirping on the beach). What a perfect way to put myself in the scene!

Does music work for your writing? Do you have tips for listening to music while writing?

2 thoughts on “Listening to Music While Writing: a Necessity or a Distraction?

  1. Great question! I cannot listen to music while writing unless it’s instrumental…anything with words distracts me. I haven’t tried white noise, but can see it would be helpful for eliminating distractions. As a teacher I sometimes had students who swore they could read and write better while listening to music. Because of my own experience it was hard for me to believe at first, but I did witness a few occasions that really convinced me– everybody’s different. Very interesting post!

  2. Some time ago, I didn’t use to listen to music while writing.

    I don’t know when or why I began to do that, but I did notice that in my case, it makes me concentrate more on what I’m writing, it lets my feelings and thoughts flow more easily, specially when that music’s atmosphere is similar (or the same in some particular cases) to what I’m writing.

    For example, I generally write Sci-Fi mixed with a post-apocaliptic and dark atmosphere. What does the trick for me is Progressive Metal, specially instrumentals, but sometimes songs with lyrics do the same.

    I’m obviously a particular case, and this is a very personal subject, of course.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *