Regardless of what makes you tick, we all seem to be universally moved by one thing: music.
We use our favorite songs to get pumped up for competition, stay motivated through a workout and drown our sorrows after a breakup.
It’s no surprise we turn to music for inspiration when we’re ready to get creative, too.
“I wrote my first book while listening to the music of Leonard Cohen and Evanescence,” says writer Paula J. Braley. “When I read it over, I can hear the music in my head.”
What kind of music is best for writing is a constant source of debate and angst among writers. You need something energizing — but not overpowering. Inspiring — but in the right tone. Motivating — but not distracting.
The topic has come up several times in The Write Life Community group on Facebook, so I pulled together everyone’s recommendations — and a few of my own — to inspire your next writing playlist (and your next masterpiece!).
1. Music to get you in the mood to write
For those days when you don’t believe in yourself or anything you’re working on, turn on a get-positive playlist to drag yourself to work.
Mine is called “Girl Power.” I know that’s cheesy.
It’s what I need some days to remind me I’m awesome and worthy of achieving the goals I’ve set.
My “Girl Power” playlist includes danceable numbers like “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake, “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift and “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. I’m also all about feel-good throwbacks like “In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry.
Writer and filmmaker Andrew Butts recommends “In One Ear” by Cage the Elephant. “Not only is it a high energy ‘let’s get moving’ song,” he says, “but for creatives, its general message is ‘f*** the critics.’”
That’s a good way to get yourself out of bed and straight to work.
Freelance writer and YA author Lauren Tharp says, “For positive music, I usually turn to ‘Go for Gold’ by Kyle Patrick. Also: ‘Good Day’ by The Click Five.”
Freelance writing guru Carol Tice says her get-positive list “is more old school,” including:
- “Good Day Sunshine” by the Beatles
- “I Can See Clearly Now” by Jimmy Cliff
- “Sing Sing Sing (With a Swing)”
“Seriously” Tice says of that last song, “if you don’t need to get up and dance to that, you’re in trouble!”
She also says, “‘San Francisco’ by The Mowglis cannot be beat for positivity.”
2. A soundtrack for your novel
The most popular response to a “best music to write to” question is usually “It depends.”
A lot of writers choose music based on the mood of what they’re writing.
“For fantasy,” says Lidy Wilks, “I listen to Peter Gundry [and] Vindsvept on [YouTube]. Romance, [it’s] R&B and slow jams.”
“If I’m pondering a scene or wanting to listen to something for motivation, then I’ll pop something on appropriate,” says Sean-Michael Alton Kerr. “Some Sia if I want a strong character moment, Amon Amarth for an epic battle scene or some classical music to just calm down my mind before starting in.”
David H. Fears gets into his characters’ heads through song. He says, “In one of my mysteries, my main man kept hearing ‘Body and Soul’ by Billie Holiday, so I often played it while editing those sections.”
Chandi Gilbert, on the other hand, uses music to tap into her own head: “I was writing a personal essay about me being 13, so I played the top songs from 1994. It really set the mood and took me back to where I needed to be! It’s amazing how a few notes of a song can instantly transport you back to puberty.”
“When I was writing my romance,” says Anna Górnaś, “Alter Bridge and their guitarist, [Mark] Tremonti, made me write a LOT.”
Di Read says, “For my Roman-Britain novel, I like ‘Celtic Twilight’ I and II. For my tarty novella, I like Clannad’s ‘Robin [the Hooded Man]’ and Enya.”
Here are more mood-setters recommended by the community:
- Zaki Ibrahim (especially the album “Eclectica”)
- “Sunshine” by Floetry
- Dave Matthews Band
- “A Serbian Film” soundtrack
- “Watch Me” by Labi Siffre
3. Folk, Americana and folky pop music
Folk used to be my go-to genre for writing, because it’s mellow. Some writers agree.
“I usually listen to indie or folk when I write for my blog, because I’m usually calmer and the words flow a little better for me,” says Heidi Carreon.
“I listen to folk/Americana music,” says John Skewes. “The writing and stories help me as a sort of fuel. But I turn it all off when write. I need the quiet to hear the voices.”
More folk recommendations from the community:
- Iron & Wine
- The Franklin Electric
- Ray LaMontagne (especially the album “Til the Sun Turns Black”)
- “Just Breathe,” covered by Willie Nelson
- Neil Young (especially the album “Harvest Moon”)
- Mumford and Sons
- Andrew McMahon
- The Head and the Heart
But folk has one major flaw for writers: It’s heavy on the lyrics. Most writers said they absolutely can’t write to music with lyrics playing… lest the words creep into their prose.
4. Instrumentals, like jazz or classical
When you really get into whatever you’re working on, the world can fade away.
The scene you’re writing starts to play out in your mind as if it’s projected on a screen in front of you. The soundtrack swells like the orchestra that drives Willem Dafoe through a crime scene in “The Boondock Saints.”
When that doesn’t come naturally, try setting the scene.
“If I listen to any music at all while writing,” says Debra Walkenshaw, “it must be classical or meditative with no words.”
Linton Robinson says, “The idea of listening to words while writing seems nuts. I just love internet jazz stations.”
But it doesn’t have to all be music that’s older than your grandparents. Modern experimental music like Blue Man Group or instrumental covers of contemporary songs can do the trick, too.
Some instrumental recommendations from the community:
- Chris Botti (especially the album “Italia”)
- Blue Man Group
- Gregorian chant
5. Electronic music
I don’t enjoy classical or orchestral music much. It doesn’t put me in the right mood for most of what I write (i.e. not epic stories). So I was thrilled when my colleague Susan Shain made this recommendation: “When I’m writing, I like electronic.”
She turned me onto the genre for writing, and now it’s one of my favorites.
Electronic spans musical styles, so you can probably find something you like. And while some of it has lyrics, many of the songs distort or edit the vocals so much you can’t get attached to the words.
And it’s just the right energy to drown out a noisy office, coffee shop or house full of kids while you write.
- Pretty Lights
- Big Gigantic
- Thievery Corporation
6. Music in a foreign language
This is the most exciting recent addition to my writing playlist: music in any language but English.
This works for me, because it lets me listen to the style of music I want — whether it’s pop or folk or whatever — without fixating on the words. Pick a language you don’t speak, and search for your style of music.
Here are a couple I like (I’d love your additional recommendations!):
- Zaz (French)
- Jane Bordeaux (Hebrew)
- Buena Vista Social Club (Spanish)
7. Video game and movie soundtracks
I love this recommendation from fiction writers! What better way to get into the scene you’re working on than to play music meant to accompany a story?
Pick a movie or video game in the same genre — or that has the same mood — as your book, and find its soundtrack. Or if you just want something in the background while you work, tune into an online music station dedicated to soundtracks.
Soundtrack recommendations from the community:
8. Ambient noise
I once asked my coworkers what they were listening to at work, and I was surprised to learn it was just…noise. Literally, they pop on noise-cancelling headphones to drown out the sounds of the open office, then tune into the sound of, well, sort of nothing.
That is, they were listening to white noise. Some prefer gray noise, white noise’s less staticky cousin. (Sound comes in an array of colors — they did not teach me that in kindergarten.)
I’ve since learned this isn’t uncommon. White noise or calming ambient sounds can clear your head and help you focus on what you’re writing, even when you’re surrounded by the chaos of coworkers, kids or a coffee shop.
Author and self-publishing expert Joanna Penn even listens to the sounds of rain and thunderstorms to slip into her alter ego, J.F. Penn, and craft her bestselling thrillers.
For anyone who loves working in a coffee shop for the hustle and bustle around you, try turning on Coffitivity. It recreates the chatter of customers, clang of cash registers and whirring of espresso machines that power writers everywhere.
Noise makers recommended by community:
What can music do for your writing?
Unfortunately, no one seems to agree on the absolute best music to write to. What you pump into your speakers or headphones depends on the mood you’re trying to set and what kind of work you’re trying to achieve.
Are you drowning out a noisy office or livening up a dead-silent home? Are you writing a blog post, a romantic scene or an in-depth piece of journalism? Do you need motivation to get started or inspiration to shape your character?
I hope these community recommendations give you a few ideas to get started next time you’re staring down a blank playlist.
(Note: Unless otherwise cited, names and pronouns of community members are based on public Facebook profile information.)
What kinds of music do you listen to for inspiration while you write?
About the Author: Dana Sitar
Dana Sitar is a freelance blogger and a writer at The Penny Hoarder. Say hi and tell her a good joke on Twitter @danasitar.
Filed Under: Craft
“The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
What research and Lantern have to say about the best music to listen to while writing
One of my first memories of music is hearing the theme from the Pink Panther, by Henri Mancini. I’ve been a jazz aficionado ever since. I can happily listen to John Coltrane’s wall of sounds, the danceable rhythms of Aroura Nealand, and the scratchy recordings of Jelly Roll Morton from the 1920’s.
When I put my music collection on shuffle, there is a lot of jazz, but there is also anything from The Bangles to the Descendents, The Meters to Muddy Waters, and Raul de Barros to field recordings of Balkan folk music
When it comes to working, though, I find the best music to listen to while writing is something much more hypnotic. Just like mental space is important while you are writing, aural space is important, too.
Finding the best music to listen to while writing often takes me far away from my usual listenings into territories that I don’t otherwise explore.
Music is part of the writing process
For a lot of writers, hitting a zone is an important part of the process. You hit a rhythm and settle into a groove. Distractions are far too easy to come by, so atmosphere is an essential element in creating this groove.
For the most part, this means finding a way to shut out those distractions. In fact, a study by Florida International University found that listening to music helped children with ADHD focus in the classroom and complete their work. Another study from Stanford University found that music helps us organize information.
Some music can be distracting
Music with lyrics makes concentration more difficult, according to a study published in Work: A Journal of Prevention, Assesment & Rehabilitation. Jay Parr, BLS Program Manager at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and a creative writer, would agree. “I can’t have lyric vocals out front, as working with language is a very auditory process for me, even when I’m writing or reading silently.”
“Extreme syncopation is also distracting for me, unless it’s woven into patterns (a la old King Crimson instrumentals). Sometimes way-out-front instrumental melodies will also distract me.”
He tells me that, for him, the best music to listen to while writing is “classical/romantic, electronic ambient, instrumental (/light) jazz, other unobtrusive instrumental music (what I call “wallpaper”), or nothing at all.”
[Tweet “The @LanternContent crew share their writing playlists. And they’re very different!”]
Here in the Lantern office, it is not unusual to find several of us tapping away at our keyboards with earbuds in. What do these folks find is the best music to listen to while writing? Here’s what they say, plus a few writing playlists they’ve shared.
At different points in my life, I’ve been totally immersed in music, and in other times, I can’t listen to anything. I’ve been in one of those blank periods lately. But I have found a new artist that has inspired me to listen to more music and especially listen while working: Nils Frahm.
The best way I can describe his sound is a mix of classical and electronic bliss.
I can’t listen to music when I write. I need to be 100% focused on the writing. However, anytime I’m working on graphic design projects, or I’m pulling analytics for our clients, I will listen to music.
I also will peek in on Hype Machine and check out what’s popular.
Jazz, classical and acoustic music is usually my go-to when writing. I try to keep most of it upbeat, that way it still gives me that “I’m exercising to my workout music” feeling while I write.
I get pretty distracted by words and repetition, so I find that all three are agnostic in those areas.
I’d listen to jazz 24/7 if you let me, but I’m listening to a ton of Hozier lately too. My other playlists are pretty schizophrenic; there’s probably a hundred different songs on them and none are by the same artist. It ranges from Barcelona and Ben Folds to Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift. I’m more of a song collector, I just add music to my playlist as I hear and like the songs somewhere. Yes, I still use Shazaam a lot.
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Want to find out what Amanda thinks is the best music to listen to while writing? Check out her Spotify playlist.
No playlists, but here are the albums I’ve been listening to the most while I work lately:
- “Traces of You” by Anoushka Shankar
- “The Best of Ravi Shankar” by Ravi Shankar
- “Inspiration Information 3” by Mulatu Astatke and The Heliocentrics
- “Release the Green Lover” by Raquy and the Cavemen
- “A Go Go”, “Up All Night”, “Bump” by John Scofield
- “Uninvisible” by Medeski, Martin and Wood
- “The Best of Sun Ra” by Sun Ra
- “Throw Down Your Heart” by Bela Fleck
- “Dirty Money” by Antibalas
- “Rage” by Lettuce
I prefer to listen to instrumental music while I work. Lyrics throw me off from my writing.
I also listen to a lot of the sound I create with my project Binaural Beat Brothers ft. Resonant Phibrations. We use a lot of binaural beats, gongs, and didjeridoos, which I find relaxing and focusing. I typically listen to pieces that include binaural beats created for alpha wave entrainment, creating a relaxed yet alert state.
This music is pretty similar to the music I listen to while I’m not working, although I will listen to music with lyrics when I’m not writing. This includes a lot of Bob Marley, Iron and Wine, Paul Simon, Phish, and Grateful Dead.
For me, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to writing. There are times that I need to write without any noise and times when I must write listening to music. Now, I’m not your ordinary music-listener while writing.
I know most of our colleagues prefer listening to songs without lyrics, but I’m definitely a lyric girl. I grew up singing and acting, so listening to tunes usually pumps me up, and when I choose to put my music on in my headphones at work, it’s usually because I need some motivation (or well, I’m distracted by other things going on in the office, and I need to concentrate).
The toughest part about listening to music while I work is that I generally want to sing along. I put my music up real loud and tap my feet on the floor while tapping my fingers on the keyboard. Mary tells me that sometimes she can hear me quietly squeak out a few lyrics, but I can’t be sure of that!
The music I listen to at work is quite the mix of old school hip hop, alternative, classical, country, R&B, and oldies. It is the same type of music I like to listen to on a daily basis – I enjoy a mix of things!
Want to know what Erin thinks is the best music to listen to while writing? Check out her Spotify playlist.
I like to listen to different things while I work, usually it’s tunes that I have stuck in my head on the way in from work. The things I listen to while I work are the same things I listen to in the car.
Listening to music helps me tune out the background noise of others working or the a/c. I sometimes get distracted so the music helps a lot.
And since you’ve waited so patiently, here’s mine:
Tips to create your own “music for writing” playlist on Spotify
- Get a free Spotify account. Find an artist you like either through the search function, or feel free to start with one of our suggestions. One catch, with a free account, you do get commercials every so often. The premium upgrade will get rid of commercials, and also lets you access your playlist offline.
- Create a new playlist. Look to the right of a title of a song you like; you will see three small dots. Click on those dots and a menu will pop up. About halfway down, click the “Add to playlist” selection. You will have the option of adding the song to an existing playlist, or creating a new playlist.
- Add to your playlist. There are two ways you can do this. You can search for specific artists or songs, and add them. Or, you can start with an artist you like, for instance, my playlist begins with Tortoise. At the top of the page, you will see a circle with three dots inside – just to the right of the “play” and “follow” buttons. Click the dots, and then click “Start artist radio.” As the station plays, you can click to add to your playlist whenever you hear something you like.
Like music but hate writing? Get in touch. We’ll help you get your blog groove going.
Do you have a favorite playlist for writing? Share your link in the comments!
Filed Under: Company NewsTagged With: best music to listen to while writing, writing playlists, writing tips