In Part II of our two-part series, we continue to examine songs that are particularly helpful when it comes to writing. Specifically, writing scenes. It could be a scene in a novel, dialogue for a play, a piece of creative nonfiction, a screenplay, a letter to a friend recounting something important in your life – but the idea is that you’re trying to capture a mood, a feeling, a tone. Oftentimes when I write, I run the scene through my head like a movie and I think – what song would be playing here?
The Underdog – Spoon
Every writing session, for me at least, includes a healthy dose of vacansopapurosophobia (that might not be a real thing). There’s something undeniably daunting and exciting about a blank page, and to swing yourself over to the correct side of that teeter-totter you need to get irrationally cocky. This song is a perfect blend of catchy instrumentals and good old fashioned generation-bashing lyrics.
Half Asleep – School Of Seven Bells
Once you’re off and writing, you need someplace to go. For me, the best mental state for creativity is when you’re, wait for it, half asleep. Out of reality enough to silence a little of your internal critic, still aware enough to be sharp and playful. The awesomely-named School Of Seven Bells has music that fits that state like a glove. This whole album is solid; I picked this song because the chorus is triumphant.
Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8, ‘Pathetique’ – Hiromi
This is a cooler, a comedown song. It takes some context. If you know Hiromi, you know she plays at a million miles a minute, notes cascading out of the piano like a runaway train. The last time I saw her live, she played three such songs in a row, and the whole place was almost out of breath, overloaded. Then she started this number. The downshift, the elegance, the smooth playfulness… it was pure pleasure. My brother and I looked at each other with huge, impossible grins. Right at 0:31 where it goes from classical to jazz, I could have melted. I’ll always remember that moment, and I’ll always use this song to go to that place.
Burden of Tomorrow – The Tallest Man On Earth
This guy has some of the most evocative lyrics outside of a Waits/Dylan song. This simple song has deceptively complex guitar work, and while Kristian Matsson’s voice isn’t for everyone, I’m a big fan. And the lyrics…
Ah, but rumor has it that I wasn’t born,
I just walked in one frosty morn,
Into the vision of some vacant mind.
Oh once I held a pony by its flagging mane,
And once I called the shadow in the turning game
But I will fight this stranger that you should fear
So I won’t be your burden of tomorrow dear
Talk about evocative… for me, these are the kind of lyrics that suggest rather than declare. In my mind, that’s what the best writing does as well.
Heysátan – Sigur Rós
This song is all about the mood it conjures. It’s just intensely, achingly beautiful. Love and tragedy supervene on this song. This is a big gun to pull out, and I don’t do it often or lightly, but when a scene demands that level of grief, romance, and depth, this is where I go.
The Hungry Rock/The Sleuce Gate/Evening Comes Early (Reels) – John Doyle
Sometimes you hit a wall. You’re trying to form a thought, to make it coherent, or to find the perfect word. Whatever the situation, when the gate is down, the lights are flashing, but the train isn’t coming – use this. It’s a musical palate cleanser; just close your eyes, put on headphones, and pay attention. You could let this song wash over you in the background as you did something else, but you’d be missing the true pleasure here. If you honestly focus on it, follow the winding, up-and-down guitar line, and stay with it, you’ll see what I mean. The rhythm of the notes, the punctuation of the musical sentences, the subtle changes in a repeated phrase… you’ll come out of it refreshed and ready to write.
I’m Still Here – Tom Waits
Truthfully, you could make an entire list of Music for Writing of just Tom Waits songs. Here’s one that will quietly break your heart with little fanfare. If you can inject even a tenth of the pathos of this song into your writing, you’re on the right track.
Operation Ground and Pound – DragonForce
Doing a quick 180, this one is fairly self-explanatory. At some point, you’re going to want to write a fantasy novel, and at some point in that novel, you’re going to want your main character to have an epic sword fight with twenty demons while his dragon-army battles evil wizards all around him while the moon is slowly exploding above them, well, you’ll probably want to write that scene while you listen to this song.
Hora Ca la Usari – Taraf de Haïdouks
The one will drive the point home. Sometimes you just need to blast on through it, the frenetic, almost hypnotic beat and half chanted, half shouted words will get the job done.
Desoto – Jeremiah McLane
A song featuring accordion and concertina shouldn’t be this lovely. As far as writing goes, this is the perfect late-night journey song. It’s dark out, no one is around, and you’re creating worlds in your head. That’s kind of absurd, and you have to laugh at it a little even though you have to embrace it completely. It’s absurd, but it’s a good thing. It’s joyful. This song captures that.