Writing to a Soundtrack: Music as a State of Mind

Category: Writing

Life doesn't come with a soundtrack, but haven't you sometimes wished it would? How many times have you turned up the volume on your headphones and moped down a rainy street to Everybody Hurts? Or attacked the huge pile of rubbish bags by the kitchen door while humming the Rocky theme song?

Music is a sort of shortcut to self-expression and that's exactly why I try and hi-jack it when writing. Of course, before you can start picking out a soundtrack to work to, the big question is whether you're one of the 'silent writers' or not.

These are the creative souls that really need complete and utter silence and solitude to get their words down. Despite the inconvenience this obviously causes, I can’t help admitting I'm kind of jealous – it seems like the kind of thing a serious writer requires.

But the empty, echoing chambers of my own brain don't like it when there's nothing but the two of us and background noise is my saviour. The low buzz of a library can be great and cafes will often do, but there's nothing like music to drown out the real world.

By finding the right kind of music and by setting some routines, a soundtrack can be one of the best writing buddies there are. Not only can songs help you quickly switch into a particular mood or mental space but they also offer the opportunity to get some good brain conditioning going on, by listening to the same set pieces every time you sit down to write.

This is pretty easy when it comes to long stuff, especially when you're not easily bored. I like to pick a specific album or artist and listen to them on repeat for the entire time it takes to write and rewrite a novel. Fever Ray and Bon Iver will never be the same again for me, but they were a worthy sacrifice and to be honest, each is now imbued with a whole new set of meanings for me.  

For people who like a bit of variety in their audio diet, there's the crafted soundtrack, which is basically the writer's chance to make a mix tape dedicated to their characters instead of their crushes. Take all of the things you feel about a story you're about to write or are writing and hunt out every song that suits it. Guaranteed, when you listen to that mix tape again, you'll get a rush of nostalgia for the fictional world it helped create.

Soundtracks aren't only useful for the noisy writers, plenty of silent types like them too, they just tend to use them as part of their preparation rather than as an accompaniment. Like gazing at a mood board or making a pot of tea and dropping in a lump and a half of sugar then stirring three time anti clockwise or whatever little pre-writing ritual it is that does it for you.

Choosing songs that seem to embody the mood of the piece you're writing is the name of the game; unfortunately, finding the perfect combination of chilled out tracks or blistering ballads to suit your characters can sometimes take, well, a while. All that YouTubing and Spotify browsing does sometimes have a habit of cutting into your creative time. But hey, no one said creating a musical – or written – masterpiece was easy. 

Lynsey May

Lynsey May lives, loves and writes in Edinburgh and recently completed her first novel, Draigton’s Summer of Miracles. Lynsey received a 2012/13 New Writers Award.