Music to Write By: 10 Top Authors Share Their Secrets for Summoning the Muse

J.S. Bach

Bach: “I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.” (Image used with permission of Dave Grossman: )


Writing is a hell of a way to make a living. It only seems easy to those who haven’t tried it. I’ve somehow managed to survive that way for the past 20 years or so — for richer and for poorer — and still don’t know how my favorite authors, journalists, and bloggers manage to pull it off with such verve and panache. Sometimes, being a writer feels like getting paid to pull a rabbit out of a hat over and over again — but each time it has to be a new breed of rabbit, “miraculously” emerging from a different style of hat.

Days under the spotlight that I reach into the fraying dark with sweaty fingers, and feel warm fur, are good days. Other days, it’s nothing but hat in there; but I say “Voilà!” with a practiced flourish anyway and hope the audience doesn’t notice that the alleged rabbit is just a tattered old stuffed thing, a patchwork made to twitch by sleight-of-hand.

But writers have their secrets and rituals for courting the fickle favor of the Muse. For some, it’s sitting in a certain chair at the right time of day — or getting out of familiar surroundings to type busily away in a café filled with people that might someday be readers. For others, it’s a brisk walk in the open air. Or it’s potions; woe to the poet who finally decides to undertake her epic sestina sequence only to discover that her cupboard is bare of aged Sumatra.

And for many writers, one way to evoke that elusive flow-state of inspiration is music.

Not, mind you, just any music. I love me some Elvis Costello, but trying to eke out an apt phrase while being throttled with the thesaurus of his post-coital tristesse would be impossible. A writer needs a soundtrack that arouses the desire for articulation while denying its consummation by anyone else’s genius.

In my own search for the perfect music to write by, I’ve been through many phases. For a while, Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way did the job. Recorded just before Bitches Brew established voodoo funk as the tenor of the times, In A Silent Way was the freshly electrified Miles band with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, and others swinging madly — but in a magisterially laid-back groove. It strikes just the right mood and tempo for my work: both meditative and locomotive, as if the music is always going on somewhere, even after the album ends.

Miles Davis

Miles Davis: “Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there.”

These days, while I’m confined to my glorious prison-cum-monastery for months working on my book NeuroTribes: Thinking Smarter About People Who Think Differently, Steve Reich’s astonishing Music for 18 Musicians is helping me stay on track. I still remember the first time I heard 18, walking into Recycled Records on Haight Street in San Francisco in 1979 and asking the cute music geek behind the counter (who is now my friend on Facebook — life is wonderfully strange) “What is this music?”

It sounded like electronic music, but was played on all acoustic instruments. By way of Balinese gamelan and African drumming, Reich found a way to do with marimbas, pianos, and human voices what Bach did with lutes, flutes, and chamber orchestras: use math and precision (in this case, pulses of strict time cycling in and out of phase) to reveal the source code of the Universe as blissful symmetry, “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations,” as the Vulcans say. Voilà!

If you ever get the rare chance to see 18 performed live, don’t miss it. It’s one of the great experiences available on the planet. And Reich’s “Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ” is similarly radiant, but only about a quarter as long.

Like anxious stage magicians, writers are constantly peering into each others’ hats to try to learn each others’ tricks. Here, I make that process explicit by asking some of the best writers in the business — in genres ranging from non-fiction, to long-form journalism, to poetry, to science blogging — to tell my readers about the musical wiles they employ to seduce their Muse. By hearing great writers talk about what they listen to while they do their work, we learn a lot about how they feel about the craft of writing itself. I’m grateful that master craftsmen and craftswomen like David Quammen, David Dobbs, and Carl Zimmer (three of my favorite science writers), August Kleinzahler and Jane Hirshfield (two of the greatest poets in America, whose work couldn’t be less alike), and ace science bloggers like Ed Yong were generous enough to share their secrets with my readers.

To my fellow writers: May your dapper old hat be filled with a clamoring of rabbits, leaping through your fingers as your readers gasp, grateful to be amazed one more time.


John Schwartz

Photo by Steve Boxall (, used with permission.

John Schwartz

John is a reporter for the New York Times and the author of a new book about raising his gay son, Oddly Normal.

Asking about my taste in music is scary; like the playwright in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, who agonizes over his choices for “Desert Island Discs,” knowing that it could kill his reputation if people knew that his musical tastes ran to The Monkees singing “I’m a Believer” and the Crystals singing “Da Doo Ron Ron.”

But I can’t resist. Music is one of the sustaining parts of my life; when I think no one can hear, I’ll sing along with “I’m a Believer” — which is, after all, a wonderful song! — and with everyone from James McMurtry to Moxy Fruvous, the Austin Lounge Lizards to Joe “King” Carrasco. Much of my playlist reflects my Texas roots, but I love anyone whose lyrics inspire me to write more vividly, to pack more in, to be smarter.

But I don’t write with music on. I’m too easily distracted. I wrote my latest book, Oddly Normal, from an Adirondack chair in my living room, mostly in the silence of the house after the rest of the family went to bed. If I could type in a sensory deprivation floatation tank, I would, except I always fell asleep in those. Music is for the sidewalks and the car, at least when I’m not listening to audiobooks. It all keeps me a little sharper than I otherwise would be. It keeps the muse amused.

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield

A current chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Jane also uses a great deal of science (biology, physics, paleontology, geology) in her seven books of poems, most recently Come, Thief.

When I was young, I always wrote with music on. This probably had something to do with growing up in New York City: there was a lot of background distraction I wanted to block, and I had to make some privacy for my ears in that crowded existence. What I listened to was all over the map, Judy Collins, classical Spanish guitar, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. Then a few years of living without any music at all (I was in a monastery deep in the wilderness, without electricity or heat) ended that habit. Now I write only in silence, and want for the background of my writing awareness a John Cage-like sound-space that governs itself. But some number of my recent poems take household tasks as a starting metaphor–they mop the floor, clean mushrooms, cook soup, wash doorknobs–so I offer some of the music I put on these days when housecleaning: David Byrne’s Look Into the Eyeball, anything by Habib Koite & Bamada, Bob Dylan’s Modern Times, Gillian Welch’s The Harrow and the Harvest.

David Quammen and Tasmanian devil

David Quammen

David is the author of a new book on the next human pandemic, Spillover.

Music to write by?  I’d love to give you some juicy personal choices but the fact is: I write in silence.  Closed in my cave of an office, lined with books, very little window, no distraction by the beautiful mountains of Montana, no background music.

But I always turn on the CD player, or my Pandora app played through decent speaks, for cocktail hour.  Sit down in a chair with a martini, my wife and dogs nearby (she has red wine, they go it dry), and for about an hour each evening we read together…and listen to music, if it’s not backyard season.  What’s our background music for reading and thinking and chatting?  1) Gregorian chant 2) Chopin 3) Andres Segovia 4) Gregorian chant.  You get the idea.  I love other sorts of music too — my Pandora list includes the Gram Parsons station, the David Bromberg station, the Chopin station. etc… My favorite of all musicians is Louis Armstrong, and he makes for great foreground listening, also background for dinner parties…but too distracting for reading.  Oh, Chet Baker instrumental albums: also good for reading.

Carl Zimmer

Photo by Tai Shimizu (, used with permission.

Carl Zimmer

Carl writes frequently for the New York Times and blogs at The Loom and Download the Universe.

Music doesn’t mean much to me when I’m doing the dreary chores involved in assembling a story–reading papers, playing email tag, going through transcripts while sitting in a grubby airport. But there comes a time when everything’s in place–the outline is in good shape, the information is all ready to be deployed, the introduction is taking shape in my mind–and then I open up a new document and hit some music. If I am trying to explain something complicated and want to get across the beauty of science’s complexity, I may put on some Bach or Thomas Tallis. But when writing is working out, it brings me as much pleasure as reading can, and I want music that speaks to some other part of me–I think that fifteen-year old who got a mix-tape from a friend and discovered the greatness of a band for the first time, or who had his heart broken for the first time, or who actually got something right for once.

iTunes, it turns out, lets you create a PDF of a playlist. This is NOT an authoritative, complete list of my work music. It only reflects a month or so when I’d listen to music and say, this is something I want to work to. [Click list to embiggen].

Carl Zimmer's playlist

Carl Zimmer’s writing playlist (click to embiggen!)

David Wolman

David Wolman

David is a contributing editor at Wired and the author, most recently, of The End of Money.

A writer friend of mine–a real talent–once told me he only listens to classical music when he’s writing. Songs with lyrics tend to interfere with his inner voice. I remember thinking: Damn, that’s a real literary guy kind of answer. I want that answer.

But as my neighbors can attest, that is not my answer. I need to get pumped up to write, which means I listen to some decidedly un-relaxing tunes, often the same ones over and over again. And who knows? Maybe loud music helps my writing because the prose has to compete. Without tempo and sharp diction, the words will be overwhelmed. It’s as if the music provides both a challenge and a warning: DO NOT BE BORING. With that, I give you the most recent iteration of my playlist entitled “Write The Book!”

“Paper Planes” by M.I.A.
“The Funeral” by Band of Horses
“Sleepyhead” by Passion Pit
“Time to Pretend” by MGMT
“Helena Beat” by Foster the People
“In This World” by Moby
“Bad (live)” by U2
“Amsterdam” by Peter Bjorn and John
“Free Your Soul” by Supercar
“Next Exit” by Interpol
“A Little Soul” by Pulp
“Rez” by Underworld
“Fix You” by Coldplay
“Janglin” by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
“Number 1″ by Goldfrapp
“Atmosphere” by Joy Division
“The Bends” by Radiohead (or anything from that album)
“Torn & Frayed” by The Rolling Stones
“I Will Follow” by U2
“Temptation” by New Order
“All These Things” That I’ve Done by The Killers
“Universal” by Blur
“Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve
“Girls” by Death in Vegas

Ed Yong

Ed Yong

Ed is a vagrant scribe, Web miscreant, and science writer for Discover at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Lux Aeterna — the movie remix.

I need something with no lyrics, that’s dramatic but not too fast. Like the auditory equivalent of fourth gear.

David Shenk

David Shenk

David’s most recent book is The Genius in All of Us.

For reasons that no one wants to hear about, I spend an awful lot of time obsessing on this question: The perfect music for just the right mindset to create just the right paragraph. For every twenty minutes of music that I actually listen to, there may be four or five hours collecting it, pruning it, backing it up, setting up a streaming server, choosing the right headphones…

Most of the 8000 hours on my hard disk is useless (or actively harmful) to writing. I can’t listen to Bruce or Elvis or the other Elvis and come up with any worthwhile sentences. I can’t listen to Aimee Mann or Wilco or Martha Argerich or Richard Thompson or The Frames. I can’t listen to the very best-crafted songs or the most resonant voices or the sweetest melodies or the most blistering guitar solos. Way too distracting.

But I can listen to some of my very favorite stuff, including:

– Keith Jarrett, solo or trio, preferably the longer pieces that wander off in search of something genuinely new.

– Yo La Tengo, the louder, completely unapologetic pieces

– Philip Glass, the hypnotic pieces (i.e., all of them)

– Grateful Dead, usually everything in a ’73-’82 second set, up through Space and the ensuing Jerry ballad. (When “Sugar Magnolia” comes on, I’m done for the day. No good sentence has ever been written to “saw my baby down by the river, knew she’d have to come up soon for air.”)

What does Yo La Tengo’s “Pass the Hatchet I Think I’m Goodkind” have in common with a 43-minute “Dark Star” from Cleveland 1973? There’s something entraining, even hypnotic, in all this stuff. I think it usually has either an overwhelming percussive quality or an improvisational humility and powerful openness, or both.

If I’m being honest (which I feel compelled to be in Steve’s presence), there’s also an exception to all this: a guilty pleasure that is slick, melodic, and embarrassingly thin. For some reason that I still cannot fathom, but I’m sure speaks ill of me, I am often able to do quite well with Pink Floyd’s 1994 album The Division Bell. I know — it’s not really Pink Floyd. Roger Waters is long gone. I don’t argue that it begins to touch Animals or Meddle as a creative work, but somehow I can write to it. Inscrutability is a good thing.

Priscilla Gilman

Priscilla Gilman

Priscilla’s memoir, The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story Of Unexpected Joy, was chosen as a Best Book of 2011 by the Chicago Tribune and The Leonard Lopate Show.

While writing The Anti-Romantic Child, I created an extensive playlist that I wrote about here for Poets & Writers magazine.

Recently I’ve been finding great writing inspiration in the British composer William Alwyn’s “Lyra Angelica,” a concerto for harp and string orchestra. It has many moods and tones, and both wrenches and uplifts me, soothes and galvanizes me in ways that I’m grateful for.

A few more songs/pieces that invariably help me to get my writing groove on:

“Franklin’s Tower,” the Grateful Dead — to free my mind.

“Sodom, South Georgia,” Iron & Wine — to help me delve deep.

“Blue Ridge Mountains, ” Fleet Foxes — to help me distill inchoate and confusing emotions into precise words.

“Very Slowly” from Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland — we had my new husband’s parents come in and Benj walk my Mom down the aisle to this at our recent wedding and it somehow epitomizes family to me.

“Here Comes the Sun,” The Beatles — when I need to cry!

August Kleinzahler

August Kleinzahler

August was born in a cross-eyed hurricane and is the author of Music: I-LXXIV, published by Pressed Wafer. He was the winner of the 2008 Lannan Literary Award for Poetry.

I don’t play music in conjunction with my writing, for which I require silence to hear the music in my own head and in the word-sounds and cadences, etc.

I don’t use music “to get in the mood” for writing. That said, music, most assuredly percolates into the writing, but in ways that are somewhat mysterious to me, or, at least, unconscious.

Months go by where I can’t listen to jazz, only to, say, early Baroque chamber ensembles or Bach keyboard. I listen to Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” a great deal, and I especially enjoy the recordings where the artist employs several keyboard instruments, i.e. piano, harpsichord, fortepiano and organ. (I am an unrepentant timbre queen). Robert Hill on the Hanssler label, who employs all four instruments, and Pascal Vigneron & Co., I forget which label, and only available on MP3, which omits with fortepiano.

Then, one day, as recently happened to me one morning at the Weehawken Sheraton, I turn on the radio and hear Bud Powell playing a trio version of “Reets and I,” a late career date, perhaps in Stockholm, early 60s, and it was as though those ivories he was banging were situated in a vertical row up and down my sternum. This is a kind of joy within me approaching ecstasy. I am a great believer that what one pours, as if through a funnel, into one’s head — eyes, ears, etc. — works either as a nutrient or a toxin, at least with regard to one’s “soul” or “spirit” or “art.” I am as fastidious and strict as an ultra-Orthodox Jew or a Salafist Muslim about just what goes down that funnel, and how, under what circumstances, and when.

David Dobbs

David Dobbs

David is working on his fourth book, The Orchid and the Dandelion, which is about how genes and culture shape temperament, behavior, and evolution.

I listen to music only about a third of the time that I’m actually writing, usually just to get in the right mood — and so I’m not distracted, in that first hour, by the silent sound of me trying to write. So I might listen for 20 to 80 minutes, then quit once I’m enough into the story that the music becomes distraction rather than muse. If I’m really going well, the music dies and I don’t realize it.

What to listen to? Usually it’s from the list below. The choice at the time depends on my mood, how well I’m working, and/or whether I seem to need calming or stimulation.

My playlists:

Bach’s English Suites, the recordings by Wolfsam Rubsam on Naxos. These suites are wonderfully orderly, like all Bach, and driven with an especially clean melodic energy. Just what you need to keep a roll going; not so good if you have to climb a fresh hill. I like listening to them when revising, or when, as Hemingway advises, I have left my writing the day before in a state of clear motion so that it is easy to pick up.

Bach’s Lute Suites, recorded by Sharon Isbin on guitar. Other than a few Neil Young albums, Sticky Fingers, and “Kashmir,” I don’t think I have a recording I’ve listened to more often. It opens with a lovely cascade of notes that can chute you down a wonderful Zenlike channel. I confess that once I’m going, I often turn this off after a half hour or so, when it starts to seem jangly and intrude. That’s a good sign; it means I’ve got enough going on the page that I don’t need more stim.

At that point — or when I need to just color the aural landscape, rather than drive myself through it — I’ll go to some gentler stuff. Most commonly I’ll play one of two iTunes “genius” playlists, 100 songs each, that iTunes’ Genius algorithm pulled together from tunes I named. The first builds from “The Man I Love,” a gorgeous jazz standard, a ballad, recorded in this case by the trumpeter Enrico Rava with drummer Paul Motian and pianist Stefano Bollani. The other playlist is built around a recording of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, and, again, drummer Paul Motian, who’s a genius. Motian plays his kit so gently he could put babies to sleep.

I also listen to a lot of slow Charlie Haden, especially his album Heartplay, with the guitarist Antonio Forcione, and Jasmine, with Keith Jarrett.

Another rung down the distraction/stimulation ladder and I’m into background/ambient terrain. Here also I rely on two staples:

First, a shuffled play of Brian Eno’s ambient albums, such as Music for Airports; second, an ingenious iPod app Eno made called Trope. You tap and rub the screen for a moment, fingerpaint-style, to set the texture for a Music for Airports-like ambient soundscape that will play indefinitely. I’ve done some great planning and some of my better writing lately with that going. The one danger is that the fine ambience and healthy relaxed Zenlike state it produces can convince you you’re getting good work done when it turns out … well, you’re not. A couple times I fell asleep.

When that happens, I get up, turn the volume up to 11, and put on some Led Zeppelin: “In The Evening,” for its hunger; “Fool in the Rain,” for the triumph of Jimmy Page’s solo; “The Ocean,” because it’s in 15/16, reminding me of the power of structure; “Kashmir,” for like reasons; or, if I’ve actually done especially good work done and feel like the king of the world and figure maybe it’s time to go downstairs and visit my wife, “I’m Gonna Crawl.” Because it works.

Brian Eno

Brian Eno: “Set up a situation that presents you with something slightly beyond your reach.”

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25 Responses to Music to Write By: 10 Top Authors Share Their Secrets for Summoning the Muse

  1. Pingback: Woven Words | HerCanberra

  2. Lelouch says:

    I typically write to black metal. Usually Emperor. Makes for nice, Lovecratian stories.

  3. Sara Synnot says:

    Wow, screen or visual writer here and music is about *the* most essential tool for me to get writing, stay writing and advance my plotlines in minutes. Mostly because it puts me in a meditative state perfect for receiving drop-down images, accessing and developing characters’ emotional states and overall atmosphere, assembling a visual story frame by imagined frame (which often ends up with a soundtrack!) and enabling greater receptivity to my own emotional memory when I am utilising my own experiences. Also strongly recommend movement-based practices like 5 Rhythms for getting you out of your intellect, letting go in order to be receptive, and allowing stillness, pace, and delirium in the body to flow through into writing that wasn’t there before!

  4. SusanB says:

    I am a classically trained musician, and writing is an important aspect of my professional and personal life. I cannot concentrate on my writing when music is playing. It amazes me that so many people can.

  5. Pingback: Writing To The Beat | The Penn Ave Post

  6. Maryn says:

    Fantastic post, Steve. And very intriguing to see what so many friends are listening to. (Related: Elizabeth Moon is a commenter? I bow in awe.) I am in the company of those who say they have to write in silence — when I worked in newsrooms, I was infamous for wearing big red construction-style earmuffs on deadline, to block out the chatter — but if I had to choose getting-in-the-grove music, it would be Miles. Nothing after “Sketches of Spain,” though.

  7. Bill Stewart says:

    I’m as much of a Deadhead as some of the authors who mentioned them, but I’ve found that the long jammy meditative pieces don’t always help when I’m working; I’ll periodically notice that I’ve been off in space for 10 minutes. And anything with lyrics that I listen to interferes with other verbal activity, though there’s a lot of music out there where the lyrics are ignorable and fade into the background with the instrumentals after a few hearings.

  8. Music is the ultimate writing killer for me. Silence is necessary – I must hear my inner voice and nothing else.

  9. Pingback: I’ve got your missing links right here (17 November 2012) | Not Exactly Rocket Science | My Blog

  10. Nick Oliva says:

    Great article! I’ve written numerous blogs, two books-one a novel and another non-fiction-and most of time when sitting down to write deep emotional passages I would put on Mozart or Brahms which seemed to put me into a very relaxed state. At other times I could just keep the television on with the cacophony of CNBC talking heads and the volume low or listen to Sirius jazz station “Watercolors”…. Having had the privilege to have studied with Steve Reich in the 70’s and played his music along with him as well as writing my own “process pieces.” I understand fully about the time-bending rhythmic rushes..especially if I was the one changing that rhythm rather that the person keeping it steady…I do so miss playing that stuff but it takes very disciplined percussionists to pull it off..It’s Gonna Rain his first piece I recreated using on the first digital delay processors instead of the tape loop he did and had it cleaned without all that messy signal to noise degradation, that was a trip….ah, the memories…thanks so much for putting me into a recall mode…that Balinese drumming rush was outstanding! Gives me another reason to go to Bali and hang out….

  11. Pingback: Gimme Johann, Gimme Jimmy: Music to Write By | Zeppelin Site

  12. Angelabsurdist says:

    You are absolutely corrrect about phases. There was a time in my life when only Robert Johnson worked for me when writing.

    Heavy metal helps me get angry and motivated.

    Bitches Brew by Miles, John Cage, Flamenco, the list goes on and on.

    Silence too.

    Thank you for this post.

  13. Josh Ingram says:

    Po Bronson’s ’96 (?) novel Bombardiers was written entirely under the influence of REM’s End of the World as We Know It. Four months writing (in intervals), he said in an intro to a second edition, shut in a cramped closet with that song on repeat. Not too big a fan of the song but the novel’s amazing. The tenor of the song is reflected in the prose. If there was one song I could listen to on repeat while writing, it’s ‘Limelight’ by Rush. Shameless plug.

  14. Matt Carey says:

    I found in college that my musical tastes interfere with work. I like music that makes you pay attention. Between that, pops and hiss, and flipping records every 20 minutes, I had to change. CD’s were wonderful for reducing noise and giving me more time at a sitting. I am not a big fan of compressed music, but the opportunity to set a player going for very long stretches helps a lot.

    Lately I’ve become addicted to downloads, though. My library allows 5 free per week and I’ve been focused on trying different things, but with an eye for music I can work to.

    Miles Davis (with tips from one of my favorite people), Chet Baker, Arturo Sandoval, Billie Holiday,more contemporary jazz singers, to British Brass Bands, classical guitar, and, lately, mariachi.

    But, more importantly, I’d gladly send you a gift card for the music service or vendor of your choice if that will help get your book out sooner (I can’t wait :-) )

  15. Pingback: A playlist das músicas preferidas pelos grandes escritores-música para ler e escrever | MAURO CONDÉ (malucomg@)

  16. A. Marina Fournier says:

    When is NeuroTribes: Thinking Smarter About People Who Think Differently likely to be published?

    I went into linguistics in college because I wanted to learn more about why people said things they way that they did (more psycholinguistics than not)–and learning about people who think differently (as in some of your blog posts), and how they think is a near parallel for me.

    Last year, my son had an English assignment where he was supposed to show where the person with autism in the text was unusual. He couldn’t see, one by one, any unusual difference. I pulled over the assignment in order to read it, and then asked him if people had problems following his own thinking. He was sort of puzzled, so I used an example from my exerience.

    I’m in a small conversation group. Someone says something that triggers a tangential thought (almost *anything* can do that to me!), which triggers another, reiterated a few times, and something *I* happen to think is related to the topic at hand (or is that, at mouth, or at mind?). I say whatever it is I have come to, and am accused of non-sequitur statements. To refute this claim, I carefully explain all the routes which have brought me to the statement I’d made, only to have people still not “get it”, which is darned frustrating. It’s crystal clear to me–why isn’t it to them?

    That, he understood. So I said that that was our way, and many bipolars’ way, of thinking. We both tend to hate working on projects where the grade/reward is determined by the overall effort of the group, and their work. We’ve either been quicker to figure things out, or others are not carrying their own weight in the project.

    So we went through the exercise again, and he realized that the cumulative behaviors, each not too unusual, added to show someone who thought differently from the neurologically typical.

    My son doesn’t always see the difference in behavior of those on the autism spectrum, and if he does, thinks nothing of it. I didn’t teach him that: it came on its own to him. If I had anything to do with it, it was modelling acceptance of difference.

  17. A. Marina Fournier says:

    The problem I have when lettering or writing essays is that, all too often, what words come in the ear go out through the pen or keyboard. I can listen to songs in languages I don’t understand/speak, or instrumental music, and work just fine. Actually, I can just be answering email to have lyrics come out my fingers instead of the words I was meaning to write!

    When lettering, I need all the help I can get to avoid distraction and acheive concentration, and for that, instrumental music can help a lot.

    Rachael, you beat me to it–my instant response was merely Vulcans! Not Klingons, who seem to think that Shakespeare wrote in Klingonee.

  18. Pingback: The Best Music to Write By: Give Us Your Recommendations | Open Culture

  19. Fantastic article, demonstrating the diversity of taste among all writers!

    I’m also a big fan of 18 Musicians–still kicking myself for missing a performance in Sydney earlier this year thanks to being on tour elsewhere. My most-played musician while writing, however, is the other Steve R: Steve Roach, whose “Structures From Silence” has lifted me into the writing state literally thousands of times, in hotels, in airports, while kids played noisily or TVs blared in the background. Give me that track and a pair of noise reducing headphones and I’m guaranteed to find 28:33 of flow.

  20. Great post.
    The next should be: music to run.


  21. I write fiction best to music; nonfiction doesn’t seem to benefit as much from having music playing, though I still use it sometimes. (This, for instance, has Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore in the background. Make your own judgment. I keep stopping to listen more closely to Pavarotti being soulful.) Music of writing choice: classical orchestral/instrumental and occasionally choral, esp. if our choir hasn’t sung it recently and it’s in a foreign language, so the meaning of the words doesn’t bleed over into my fingers. Very few operas work for writing; operas are for relaxation, though orchestral compilations of opera music may work. The selections must last long enough, and have sufficient structure of a kind that helps my writing…so Bruch works, but not Bruckner. Quite a lot of music I like when not writing does not work for writing (a frustration to musicians I know, who keep insisting that their faves will, and a frustration to me, because I’d like to hear that other music during working hours too.)

    Periods range from early music through early 20th century, and composers (including Anonymous) are somewhere over 100–most of the familiar ones have something that’s suitable, but also the less-well-known. 20th c. music mostly doesn’t. (Philip Glass shuts down the word-stream immediately. Some Prokofiev works; some doesn’t.) Most books have their own set of works (demanding an ever-increasing personal library of music), with characters within the book, as well as situations, having “best music” choices.

    The output suggests that writing to music works for me. Sometimes now I just play the music in my memory rather than hunt for the CD–but if it becomes hard to write, then external music helps a lot. (24 novels, 40+ short fiction works.) Talking to other writers, it’s clear that those of us who write to music use very different music even when we are writing similar scenes (haven’t found anyone else who wrote a large complex space battle to Bach’s “Magnificat” or intense personal interactions to Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.”)

  22. Rachael French says:

    Dude. Vulcans, not Klingons. Klingons have no appreciation of diversity. They’re a lot like Republicans that way.

    • Steve Silberman says:

      Indeed! Worst mistake in 20 years of journalism. That’s what I get for blogging at midnight. Corrected, thanks.