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Music to my Manuscript

It always starts the same.  The soft plucking of a single guitar string that eases into a tentative harmony.  Then a clear, wistful voice says, “hello.”

It’s the first line of Jason Mraz’s song, If It Kills Me, and it happens to be the first of 49 songs that comprise what is oh-so-cleverly dubbed Writing List in my itunes playlists.

There are emotional places, both deep and high that are much more easily accessed by music than by words or thought alone. Movie people figured this out a long time ago. This is why Psycho (the original) is so terrifyingly suspenseful. Why Pride & Prejudice (the remake) is so sweetly stirring. Why The Patriot makes me want to run up a hill waving a flag.

I mean, I have running music, mostly angry people yelling about stuff. It seems they feel my pain. I have worship music that draws my heart to its knees before God. Why wouldn’t I have writing music?

If you’ve never tried a Writing List, I encourage you to do so.

Here are some things to think about.

1) What do you feel?

I have a lot of songs on my ipod that aren’t Writing List worthy.  I love them, but they don’t pull my emotions strongly in any direction. Or they might pull my emotions in the wrong direction.  Though I love to run with Jimmy Eat World, I don’t think it would inspire a very good romance. And Miranda Lamber cracks me up, but nobody in my book shoots their abusive husband, or parties real hard.  I listen to these songs while I drive or run, and save the most soul-stirring melodies for my writing list. And I save my writing list for when I’m writing. Anything listened to too often becomes blah. Except maybe the sound my phone makes when I get a facebook update…

2) What is the chief emotion of the scene you’re writing?

You’ll want to choose songs that elevate that emotion within you. For example, if I’m writing a fun scene, Jason will suck away the joy and the Plain White T’s get to cut to the front of the line with their whimsical tunes.  If I’m writing a heart-wrenching moment, Dave Barnes’ When A Heart Breaks will truly break my heart every time and I can mourn along with my protagonist.

3) Words, or no words?

Some people will fixate on lyrics and end up typing them. Wise men say only fools rush in….just kidding.  But, as you build your list, test drive lyrics versus scores and see if it effects your focus.  Movie scores are great writing music for many of the no-words folks. But when I hear the soundtrack to Harry Potter I can’t stop thinking about flying on brooms…

3) Songs that are strongly attached to personal memories: liability or benefit.

There are some songs for all of us that evoke a strong emotional response due to what we were doing when we heard that song or who we associate that song with. If its a song that draws you to a time when you were in the same emotional place your protagonist is, you may have found an amplifier for your emotional writing. However, watch out that you don’t catch yourself putting your character in your shoes instead of the other way around. If I find my Seattle barista heroine cruising around Little Rock in a company car, I’m in trouble.


My compilation began three years ago and has grown over time as I find songs that stir my soul. It has grown over time, and will continue to, I’d wager.  Some of the tunes have directly inspired scenes. Others are so evocative they draw me to that soul-place where my character is waiting. I know some fellow writers prefer to write in utter silence, but for me, music is essential.  If you’ve not tried writing to music before, give it a shot. Search your music library for those songs that make you heave a sigh or want to kick down a door and write a scene. You may find the emotion you’ve spent hours trying to craft is flowing all around you.

So, what about you? What’s your favorite thing to listen to when writing?


  1. Jenny Miller09-15-11

    Hey, good blog. I can so relate to this. I’ve done both in my writing career, and I can’t say which one is better.

    I used to have a writing list, one computer ago. Then I got a new one, and I can’t transfer them all to it. I simply don’t have all the cds I had back then. I’m sure there is a simpler way than that to transfer my music library to my new computer, but I’m not techy enough to know it.

    Unfortunately, I’ve listened to all of those songs so many times that they’ve become stale, and I’m not sure I want to transfer my library to my new computer. They just don’t inspire like they used to, and I mostly write in silence now.

    Music does help me concentrate, motivate me, and spur me on–if I’m in the grove to start with. Otherwise, I find it’s a big distraction, which is why I write in silece at the moment. I miss that, so maybe one day I’ll build my tunes back up.

  2. Debbie Archer09-15-11

    Hmmm. What’s my favorite thing to listen to when I’m writing?

    The sound of crinkly paper tearing as I rip open a bag of M&Ms. Now, that’s music!

    Ya know, since you mentioned it – and you did a REALLY great job of mentioning it – I think there must be a direct correlation as to why I enjoy writing after I walk. I walk to my favorite music. I even jog (stop that gigglesnorting right now!) in the graveyard. Great place to go for peace and quiet.

    I plug myself into my music the entire time, and when I come home I can’t WAIT to get to the keyboard. Once I GET to the keyboard, I gotta have me some silence. I’m one of those. Maybe it’s b/c my heart’s still trying to calm itself down. Dunno. But once I sit down, calm down, and, um, rip open that bag of M&M’s I can write up a storm!

    I think you’re right. There is something about music that sparks creativity regardless if it’s before or during the writing session. There’s also something about graveyards that will do it. All those wonderful names just waiting for people like us to pair them up with the perfect character.

    Hmmm. Maybe we should have a grab-ur-ipod-and-walk-around-the-cemetery meeting in October. Anyone??? I’ll bring the M&M’s!

  3. Kimberly09-15-11

    I’m down for that! I bet the stories are thick there. And it is Halloween….

  4. Sheila Covey10-05-11

    Debbie I love walking through cemeteries!

    Kimberly, I listen to music that relates to the time period I’m writing in, unless I’m working out a problem then I want classical music.
    Also, I’ve started a contemporary, and when I work on it, I listen to the sounds of Alaska.
    And, I like to turn up the volume so I can’t hear anything beyond my office door!

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