The Music in My Head

January 22, 2010 | 3 books mentioned 12 5 min read

coverI’m obsessed with music. There has rarely been a time in my life when this hasn’t been the case. Listening to music is one of the great pleasures of my life, seeing Leonard Cohen live in concert is my version of a religious experience, and discovering a new artist whose work I love makes me indescribably happy.

I’ve long been interested by the interaction between music and memory: the way certain pieces of music can become indelibly imprinted with fragments of the past. I think we all have songs like this: R.E.M.’s “How The West Was Won and Where It Got Us” snaps me back to Toronto, night, walking along Danforth Avenue in the winter of 1997; it was my first winter away from home and I liked to go for long walks after school with New Adventures in Hi-Fi on my walkman. The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” transports me to a particular party ten years ago in someone’s back yard, one of those magical long summer evenings with friends, that song playing again and again on the mix tape. I’ve been traveling fairly frequently lately, and when I arrive in a new hotel room one of the first things I do is plug in my laptop, open iTunes and fill the anonymous room with familiar music. I’m enamored with The National, but I’ve spent so much time listening to their albums with my husband that I find that I can’t listen to them when I’m traveling alone; their music makes me miss him too acutely.

coverMost of us get tunes stuck in our heads on occasion, for hours or days; we are at times unable to stop ourselves from tapping our feet in response to a steady rhythm, even if it’s not the sort of thing we normally listen to; our brains sometimes present us with specific memories in response to specific songs. It seems clear that we’re hardwired for music, or that music is hardwired for us. “Our auditory systems,” Oliver Sacks writes in Musicophilia, his book on the interplay between music and the brain,

our nervous systems, are exquisitely tuned for music. How much this is due to the intrinsic characteristics of music itself—its complex sonic patterns woven in time, its logic, its momentum, its unbreakable sequences, its insistent rhythms and repetitions, the mysterious way in which it embodies emotion and “will”—and how much to special resonances, synchronizations, oscillations, mutual excitations, or feedbacks in the immensely complex, multilevel neural circuitry that underlies musical perception and reply, we do not yet know.

It’s a fascinating book. Sacks recounts tale after tale of music and neurology: epileptics whose seizures are triggered by churchbells; patients suffering from dementia who return fleetingly to lucidity when classical music is played; people with Tourette’s Syndrome who are freed from their involuntary outbursts only while they’re playing the piano.

Might our neurological alignment with music be used to our advantage? This idea isn’t new—you’ve probably heard of the Mozart Effect, but decades before Dr. Frances Rauscher and her colleagues published their 1993 article in Nature describing how exposure to Mozart’s double-piano sonata K448 temporarily increased spatial-temporal reasoning in their test subjects, the Bulgarian psychotherapist Dr. Georgi Lozanov was publishing books describing a method for learning foreign languages that he dubbed “Suggestopedia,” wherein students were exposed to 60-beat-per-minute baroque music—he claimed his technique allowed students to achieve fluency in foreign languages at near-superhuman speeds.

But new or not, the idea of using music as a tool is something I’ve been thinking about lately in relation to writing. Like a great many writers in this overly wired age, I sometimes struggle with focus. I’ll pause the writing to Google something (let’s say, oh, “spatial-temporal reasoning”, for example), and half an hour later I haven’t come back to the open Word document yet; I’m Googling something else or answering emails or updating my website or checking to see if anyone’s said anything interesting on Twitter in the past hour.

A while ago I began wondering if I might use music to my advantage somehow. Because if music exerts the sway over us that I think it does, if it might trigger not just memories but changes in one’s spatial-temporal reasoning ability, if in certain cases it can cause seizures and briefly neutralize Tourette’s syndrome, then perhaps, I thought, I might use it to help me ignore the distractions of the outside world and stay the hell off the Internet while I’m writing my third book.

The generalized and ever-present temptation of the Internet aside, it seems to be a universal fact among writers I know that publication makes you suddenly, exponentially busier. I’m not complaining, let me hasten to add, but there are just far more emails to respond to, more deadlines, and more vaguely career-related/shamelessly self-promotional tasks to be performed than there ever was in my pre-publication life, and it’s alarmingly easy to get caught up in the vortex. There are a lot of days when it’s easy to become so focused on working on the career that working on the next novel seems like a bit of an afterthought, as if the writing of novels weren’t kind of the whole point here.

coverIn his book On Writing, Stephen King writes of the use of music in his workday. He listens “to loud music—hard rock stuff like AC/DC, Guns ‘n Roses, and Metallica have always been particular favorites—but for me the music is just another way of shutting the door. It surrounds me, keeps the mundane world out.”

I can’t personally imagine writing to Metallica, but I think he’s on to something here. Closing the door to my office is no longer enough for me, so I’ve been employing a new strategy over the past few months: an iTunes playlist, the songs chosen for their inobtrusiveness and steady quiet beat.

After listening to the playlist on a long endless loop through months of work on my third novel, I’ve increasingly found that I focus more easily when I’m listening to it. It’s partly that it helps to shut out the world, but I’ve come to realize that it’s also a trick of memory, an association forged between music and action. I believe this must be more or less the same function as those strange firings of neurons that make me think of a summer party when I hear “Bittersweet Symphony,” a winter night when I hear New Adventures in Hi-Fi, my husband when I listen to The National: after writing to this playlist for a while, these particular songs all make me think of my third novel.

It keeps me on track, even though in periods of intense writing I no longer hear it: I’ll put it on and begin writing, and then a while later I’ll come to and realize that an hour’s gone by and I’ve missed my favorite song. It’s mostly subdued electronica with a little classical music thrown in here and there, Underworld and Vivaldi and Radiohead. The earlier business of the day, the emails and research and promotion, can be performed to any particular music happens to strike my fancy; but when I hear the soft opening notes of Underworld’s “Glam Bucket,” I start falling back into the world of the new novel again.

[Image credit: elisasizzle]

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a 2014 National Book Awards finalist. She is married and lives in Brooklyn.


  1. I use the radio at work to keep me focused on my work and not be distracted by all of the other goings on. I mix up the music depending on what I need at a given time. Usually it’s classical, but if I find myself lagging or getting sleepy, I’ll turn on some alt rock and get myself fired back up.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful essay, Emily. I am usually listening to music on headphones when I’m writing–I find it quickly removes me from the real world and into a more emotional state I need to be in, to write. I am moved by the music, and then I feel capable of moving the reader. Fever Ray is my recent obsession–mostly because her music is a little scary, and it embodies perfectly the mood and tone of my new book. Also, she’s a badass, and she makes me feel like I, too, can be a badass.

  3. Yes. I like music that makes me feel like I, too, can be a badass. This may or may not be why I listen to the Pulp Fiction soundtrack while I’m cooking dinner.

    I’ll have to check out Fever Ray — she sounds interesting.

  4. All through high school and college I listened to music while studying. It had to be music I was very familiar with and knew all the lyrics to, because otherwise it would be distracting. It always felt as if that background music occupied the part of my brain that was easily distracted, leaving – I guess – the rest of my brain to concentrate on the task at hand. In working life, I find this works also.

  5. I find that writing to music (post-rock, like Do Make Say Think or Explosions in the Sky, or classical, especially cello) helps me focus, but only during the initial drafts of a story. When I write later drafts, I need to be able to hear the rhythm of the story itself, and for that I need absolute silence; I sometimes even wear earplugs. Neurotic, I know.

    In some ways, it is analogous to writing under the influence of drugs or alcohol. I can understand (although I don’t do it myself) how being under the influence could help silence those nagging insecurities or aid in nailing a story’s voice. But for the precision required in later drafts, I can’t imagine being anything but sober (and in silence).

  6. I used to be able to listen to music during both the drafts and revision. Now it sort of distracts me. It’s like Devon is saying, being able to hear the rhythm of the story. But like Emily is saying, when I used to do it, music would basically create this trance-like state in which the story almost wrote itself and the outside world was way outside of that. I don’t know what happened there. The last long work I wrote, I was able to get into the trance without the music. It had been four years between novels and something changed, I guess. It may just depend on the particular work, but I can’t say.

  7. Hi Emily, as a fellow music obsessive I really enjoyed this article. Interesting too that so many of the bands I like – The National, Radiohead, Explosions in the Sky etc – were referred to either in the article or in the follow-up comments. Despite loving music with a passion (I realised the other day that I have four stereos in my very small house!) I don’t normally write to music. Sometimes I’ll play something specific if I’m working on a scene, e.g. if I’m looking for some aggression in a particular passage I’ll play some Sonic Youth, or if I’m working on the final paragraph of a long piece I might play something like Jonsi and Alex’s ‘Riceboy Sleep’ album. But apart from that it’s silence, because I end up getting too distracted, unless, like you, I play the same music over and over until I’m no longer consciously listening to it (though no doubt it’s still having an effect on the words I produce!). But thanks again for this thoughtful essay. Cheers, Nigel PS Thanks for the tip on Sach’s ‘Musicophilia’, I’ll have to go read that. PPS Anyone interested in Fever Ray should also check out her work as The Knife – brilliant stuff.

  8. I’ve had some luck with the website; the soundtrack to the film adaptation of “Tony Takitani” is also a favorite. is my go-to, though, both for writing and when wearing my “therapist” hat.

  9. Nigel, thanks very much – glad you liked the piece. Writing to music is relatively recent for me… I wrote my first book mostly in silence, except on those pleasant days when I was just inputting changes.

    Devon – you’re not alone in this; my husband’s a writer too, and he always writes with earplugs.

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