The soundtrack of my muse

The soundtrack of my muse

music notesWorking in an office as I do, it can often be particularly difficult to focus, uninterrupted and without distraction, on a piece of writing. This is why the iPod is the greatest ever invention for office-based writers. Stick those white buds in the ears and not only does it signal to everyone around you that you are not to be disturbed, but the right choice of music can block out the noise and help you get into that elusive ‘zone’.

Of course, the choice of music is crucial. Writers will often select music to fit the mood or atmosphere of the writing they are trying to produce. Hence, when I found myself writing articles about Christmas even though my desk calendar clearly displayed that it was only July – such are the planning deadlines for magazines – a playlist of carols helped me find the festive vibe.

When writing a screenplay or producing fiction, I often create playlists of tracks as a tailored movie soundtrack to my muse. So many ideas for stories come to me when listening to music, it only seems practical to place that music into the writing process in search of further inspiration.

However, music with strong lyrics can sometimes interfere with the words as they try to form in my brain. If I’m trying to conjure up just the right word or phrase to add the subtlest nuances to a line, having someone singing a rapid fire assault of different words into my ears can only be a handicap. It’s like those friends who, when you’re trying to remember a phone number or perform a calculation in your head, start randomly throwing numbers at you to deliberately put you off. Oh, they always think that’s so funny!

Hooked on Classics

So instrumentals are the solution. Classical gets a good work out on the iPod. A bit of Holst or Vivaldi or Debussy usually works extremely well in ironing out distractions and serving as a neat backdrop to my thoughts. However, classical does have a nasty habit of having that second or third movement that suddenly ramps everything up a gear. Holst’s Planets Suite is fantastic and I adore every note, but after Saturn has glided past with the softest of themes caressing my ears, suddenly Uranus comes in with a huge, jarring blast of the horns and I’m jolted out of whatever sentence I’m writing.

When listening to music while writing, I am only according it part of my attention. That’s the point. In fact, on a good day, I should be surprised when I discover that the last track is finished and I can now hear the idle gossip going on behind me. It should be enough to create mood and block out other sounds without ever becoming distracting in itself. So music that demands attention just doesn’t work for me.

Hence, movie soundtracks.

A soundtrack for my brain

I recently had a discussion with my father, a retired music teacher and still an active musician in a local orchestra, about the merits or not of soundtracks. He had, if I remember correctly, just heard part of a concert of music from Doctor Who. The BBC has done many concerts of the award wining soundtracks of Murray Gold over the years – most recently as part of the BBC Proms concert series at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Yet, Dad was telling me how completely uninspiring he had found it. “It’s just so boring. No really life in it at all. Repetitive and bland music.”

Of course, as any soundtrack composer will tell you, that is exactly the point. A movie soundtrack should sit behind the scene being played out on the screen – enhancing it but never intruding on it. The viewer needs to be aware and informed by the music without ever being distracted by it. Themes become repetitive as they relate to themes or characters in the film. The Doctor is about to do his heroic bit? Gold will compose something around the familiar ‘Doctor’ riff used in virtually every episode. The Daleks come on? The choice of sounds, tempos and choral backing will give it away to the audience even before a single sink plunger is visible. A good soundtrack is a way of communicating the excitement, fear, danger, joy or whatever to the audience in a form of musical shorthand, constantly enhancing and supporting the story.

Therefore, I think no one was more surprised than were the movie composers when, decades ago, people started asking for recordings of soundtracks so they could be enjoyed separately.

For my purposes – and I suspect many other writers, artists and creative types who need to find that ‘zone’ on a regular basis – soundtracks are therefore the perfect accompaniment. They sit in the sweet spot between being too boring or too obtrusive, creating aural moodscapes without ever requiring all of my attention.

And so, drumroll please, as I reveal my three favourite movie soundtracks from the last three years.

Hand me the envelope please

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert FordThe best soundtrack of 2008 has to be The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. (I previously used this film as an example of how to write dialogue.) It was not unusual for this one album to be played over and over through a writing day – never boring, always melancholic and wistful.

Moon Soundtrack2009 saw a brilliant, yet under rated, soundtrack from a severely under rated film – Moon. (See my review). Moon was scored by Clint Mansell. Those of you of a similar age and eclectic underground musical tastes may recognise Clint Mansell as ex of Pop Will Eat Itself – masters of grebo indie pop in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Gone are the megaphones and cheesy samples, replaced by an extremely moving electronic score. Grebo grew up.

Inception soundtrackThis year may not be over yet, but I doubt another soundtrack will grab me as much as Hans Zimmer’s score for Inception. Zimmer is a master of the genre having many gold statues cluttering his studio. Dynamic, powerful and pacey, Zimmer manages to create a soundtrack with Inception that knows when to PARP on those horns and bring in the power without ever doing a ‘Uranus’ on me. He allows the swells and high points in the music to ebb and flow rather than come smashing in, ratcheting up and down the moods instead of smacking you about the head with them.

Writing this just now I realised something else. These are not the only soundtracks on my iPod by a long way. Yet, if you were to ask me which was my favourite film in each of the last three years, the above three choices would easily be my undoubted choices. Coincidence? You decide! Maybe a soundtrack does more than we think in creating a complete and satisfying film.

So, there you have it – my top tips for musical accompaniment to the writer’s muse. Ironically, when working from home where I am surrounded by more music than is probably healthy, I more commonly find myself writing to the sound of silence – supporting the idea that the iPod is more to keep the office out than the muse in.

What do you choose to listen to when writing?


  1. This was so enlightening, and brought substance and awareness to the unconcious works of my mind. It just never dawned on me that certain music was ushering me into a zone, and that why I would suddenly sit down a write a page. It also brought to my attention to realize the songs that catapulted me out of my writing state or frame of mind. Thanks. I also wanted to say that there are muses in this world that inspire us in other area of our talents and we too become muses for them. These r treasured friendships…


  1. […] For more suggestions on how to use music while writing, jump over to Copywrite and read The soundtrack of my muse. […]