Pump Down the Volume: On Writing With Background Music

September 28, 2015 | 5 books mentioned 13 5 min read


As I write this, I’m listening to the new Beach House album. This is not because I like the new Beach House album (although I do), or because it gives me the chance to say so, thus making me sound slightly cooler (although it might, in a desperate sort of way) or because I’m plugging the record (although it is great, if you enjoy the band’s drunk-on-a-beanbag effect).

I’m listening to it because I’m writing — an activity that for me, in recent years, has demanded musical accompaniment. Far from being a background diversion — something to make kitchen chores a little less soul-killing — I’ve come to believe that the music I listen to while writing bears a definite, if ineffable, relationship to the words that wind up on the screen. This paragraph might not carry the woozy dreaminess of a Beach House song — but how would it have sounded if, while typing, I’d been listening to Public Enemy? Or Def Leppard? Or nothing at all?

covercoverIn 1999, Nine Inch Nails’s The Fragile was released to a flood of media attention. This was when a new CD could seem like a cultural event, and, as such, though I didn’t particularly care about Trent Reznor, I read dutifully about the album. And although I’ve largely forgotten The Fragile — I think it gave me a headache — one nugget from its publicity blitz has stayed with me: Chuck Palahniuk was quoted as saying that he listened to Nine Inch Nails as he wrote Fight Club.

I remember being sort of shocked by this, not because it didn’t make sense — one can certainly picture Palahniuk in a dim little room, gritting his teeth at the monitor, bashing out his story as Reznor screams at him — but because until then, I’d thought of writing as a monastic pursuit. Writing, to me, was Philip Roth in a cabin somewhere, the only sounds the tapping of his fingers and the wind rushing through the trees. That was the ideal. To write, you needed calm, and for calm, you needed silence.

Perhaps the image of Palahniuk mustering a novel against the shriek of industrial noise helped to change my view. Because not only do I no longer believe it, I’ve gone in the opposing direction: music is now as central to my writing as an idea and a comfortable chair. I now feel almost unhinged if I try to write without something playing to whisk my mind along. Music has become a brace that props up my thoughts, fences them off, prevents them from slipping away. Silence has come to feel like an unfamiliar field, with too much space to roam.

Along with Beach House, Boards of Canada — makers of beat-driven, dystopian electronic music — has lately been my brace of choice. Such sounds somehow hem me in and push my focus outward, into whatever I’m writing. When I need less help, some sort of jazz usually does the trick — with something buoyant like Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts scores reserved for the easiest days.

Which brings me back to my original question: what is that music — Boards of Canada’s creepy soundscapes, John Coltrane’s hard bop, Snoopy’s dancing tunes — doing to the words?

covercoverI went online in search of answers, and was at first encouraged by what I found. A number of sites have devoted space to the topic, with pieces ranging from the listy (“10 Top Authors Share Their Secrets for Summoning the Muse”) to the self-helpful (one Goodreads thread, “Listening to Music While Writing,” sits under the “Struggling Writers” heading). There are endless suggestions for albums that will not only “summon the muse,” but keep her with you: In a Silent Way, Music For Airports, anything by Philip Glass. No mention of Nine Inch Nails.

The cumulative effect of these posts was the feeling that, with the correct music, you can become the next Joyce Carol Oates, effortlessly meeting your daily quota of words. It’s a tempting narrative, and one that fits with the Internet’s culture of simple solutions: If you’re having trouble with that short story, just put on some Brian Eno. Your latent genius will be unleashed.

coverBut mixed in with all this good feeling were numerous studies and papers the results of which were both consistent and surprising. A New Jersey Institute of Technology study found that “background music significantly disrupted writing fluency, even though no response to the music was required.” The explanation: “music may increase cognitive load because the brain has to handle the additional information.” A University of Windsor study found that its subjects’ “time-on-task was longest when music was removed.” Another, from Indiana State University, on the “Mozart Effect” — the idea that classical music can somehow boost intelligence — found that “playing background music in the creative writing class had a significant improvement on the student’s behavior, but not a significant improvement on the student’s writing.” In other words, music can provide the inner calm that I used to imagine in my Philip Roth fantasy. It just won’t help me write the next American Pastoral.

Time’s Annie Murphy Paul, in a synthesis of such studies, provided the most concise blow to my assumption of music’s benefits: “Playing music you like can lift your mood and increase your arousal — if you listen to it before getting down to work. But it serves as a distraction from cognitively demanding tasks…when you need to give learning and remembering your full attention, silence is golden.”

And on and on. If the science is correct, my Eno-loving peers and I may be deluding ourselves as to music’s utility. We’re most likely being too romantic. “Writing can get lonely,” a Quora contributor wrote, “but when Moby is in my ears, it feels like he’s on the journey with me.” It’s a charming sentiment. But maybe we’re being too eager to make an unappealing task seem less so — the ice cream cone after the doctor’s office — without any thought to the consequences. Maybe Boards of Canada is less of a brace and more of an anchor, slowing down a part of my mind that otherwise would be free. There’s no way to prove that the things I’ve written would have been better had they been written in silence — but what if they could have been, even just a tiny bit? Though I’ll never know, it’s unsettling to think about.

It’s equally unsettling, though, for me to picture a future in which I write in a totally quiet room, with no one “on the journey with me.” The idea is as unappetizing to me as Palahniuk’s habits once seemed. So what, then, to do? On the one hand, I have my habits and experience, my comfort with routine. On the other, studies that show that music is, at best, a nonfactor, and at worst, a hindrance. Hovering over both is the thought that I’m being unserious, the kid who can’t get a flu shot without the promise of a mint-chip cone.

I’m not sure what to do. I’m now listening to Miles Davis’s Someday My Prince Will Come. I’ve listened to this album, while writing or reading, close to 200 times. It’s delicate and warm, gentle and easy. I’ve got the volume turned down low.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

is a staff writer for The Millions and an associate editor at MAD magazine. Find links to more of his work and follow him @Jacob_Lambert.


  1. I’m not a writer, I’m an editor, but I can’t work and listen to music — it’s distracting. I want my total attention on the task. If it’s an interesting piece of music, I can’t do that. If it isn’t interesting, why would I have it on?

  2. Two different parts of the brain. Absolutely put music on to set the mood before you sink into a creative fugue state. You won’t hear it then. So no harm, no foul…

  3. Aren’t all the negative studies based on kids studying or whatever? Writing is not about learning or remembering, it’s about creating. See no reason why music would impair this.

  4. I write for a newspaper and also write books and magazine stories. I listen to music all the time while I’m writing. It actually KIEEPS me from getting distracted. I think the key is to listen to something you’ve already heard and like. Don’t play new music. So I have a number of different Spotify playlists that I can choose from, ranging from jazz to soul to funk to garage rock to hip hop, and the one that fits my mood is what I play. I have to admit, though, if I’m on a tight deadline, I’ll play something loud and aggressive — and it always helps.

  5. I listen to music while writing most of the time, and find that music helps me stay in the zone of a scene or a character. If I don’t have music and find myself poking around on Twitter or staring out the window or (worst of all) suddenly inspired to clean something…putting on the right music brings me back to the work in progress.

    There’s no such thing as “writers”–we are each individual, with individual wiring. For some of us, music is a hindrance; for some it’s a way to shut out annoying sounds; for some it’s an important scaffold for the work. It’s up to the individual writer to find out what works for that writer. Ignore advice: do your own experiments.

  6. I’ve worked as a professional musician and a professional writer for decades, and there’s no way I can work with music going because I start recognizing chord sequences, etc. I’ve a really developed ear at this point. So it’s like having a really distracting person shouting highly detailed but absolutely irrelevant information in my ears while I’m trying to concentrate.

    Even setting aside my specific situation,though, I really don’t see how it helps anybody’s concentration.

  7. I tend to find that music tends to help me write, especially the first draft, and often end up making playlists that inspired the story. Most of my playlists are organized by emotion specifically for that purpose, so that I don’t have to hunt around for songs that set the mood for whatever scene I’m trying to write that day. As a result of listening to music so much while writing, there are now certain songs that are permanently linked in my mind to particular sections of my stories.

  8. I think the rhythm of a piece of music can help set the rhythm of a piece of prose. Jeff Noon’s Needle in the Groove came witha playlist as well as dedication and the choices (e.g. Autechre, Plastikman) fit the novel well.
    Myself, it has to be instrumental music. Words get in the way.

  9. For me, music helps to isolate me from everything else. Aside from going to my writing space and closing the door, a really good pair of ear buds with music is vital. Depending on what I’m writing and the tone of the piece, or just my mood, I tend to go with classical film and video game scores. If I really need to drown out everything else, I’ll play louder rock with vocals that has a nice enough melody that I can ignore the lyrics.

  10. It’s funny you mention Philip Glass. His compositions have not only been a major accompaniment to my life and writing, they have actually influenced my writing. As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to realize how much I aestheticize my experience, especially when I’m alone: walking down city streets, riding in a car, reading and even writing – there’s always been a soundtrack. I also have moderate tinnitus, and I can’t tell (and no longer care) whether my compulsive tendency to listen to music all the time is either the cure or the cause of this condition. It’s probably both. Writing for me, as a writer, is all about creating a “mood-space” from which to write, and music has almost always been the main facilitator of this process. Ambient music widens the frame, repetitive music (like Glass’ work) can create an almost trance-like state (Hart Crane would, apparently, loved playing Ravel records over and over as he wrote), and rock or rap can facilitate a more engaged headspace. One thinks along with the music. As a poet, perhaps my writing is more spontaneous than that of a writer of fiction, more the product of humors and “moods” and seemingly self-suggested turns of phrase, but I still feel like music abets more than disrupts writing, at least in my own experience.

  11. I’ve actually flipped on this. I used to do great with music playing while writing, like say in my mid to late 20s. Then, suddenly, I needed silence and it’s continued to this day. I find it’s hard to retain the total meaning of the words when re-reading something if music’s also coming in. It’s a distraction. But I can understand using it to drown out the rest of the world, getting into that meditative state, because that’s what I think I used to do with it.

  12. Regarding: “Aren’t all the negative studies based on kids studying or whatever” and the idea that writing is about creating, not learning and remembering. That scientist was speaking about experimental psychology studies that are mostly done with college students. But the conclusion of those studies is: When you seek to do a cognitively demanding task, you need to give that task your full attention. If your writing isn’t cognitively demanding, then output will not be impaired by you dividing your attention.

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