Music to make masterpieces by…
Since my youth, and yes, I know that’s going back a bit, I’ve always preferred a bit of background noise when trying to concentrate. And when I say noise, I mean music.
Music has always helped my brain get, and remain, focussed on any task requiring the use of what passes for my intellect. I don’t always hear every note or lyric. Indeed a whole album can play out and all I’ve consciously heard is the first few bars of the first track. But just having it playing away in the background has maintained my concentration. I know if there’d been complete silence while I worked, my mind would have wandered.
I contributed a guest post on this topic on writer, Roz Morris’s, blog back in 2014 and this is a more in-depth look at the subject.
The ancient past
When I was studying for exams, both as a high school pupil, and as a university student, my *portable record player would be belting out my latest *LP. By the time my final exams loomed, my *hi-fi-stereo-cassette player would be doing the job. It would play *compilation tapes consisting of favourite tracks from several LPs (or from Radio 1’s Sunday night Top Twenty in the *Hit Parade show) as I tried to commit to memory the names, facts and figures I’d be required to regurgitate in the exams. Thank you Beatles, Stones, Bowie, Pink Floyd, 10cc, Carole King, Janis Ian, Simon & Garfunkel – to name only a few.
And then, around twenty years after that, whilst studying for my Masters, it was my *CD-Walkman that provided the background music. Yes, it was mainly The Verve and The Lighthouse Family who got me through the writing of my thesis on Early Literacy and How Children Learn to Read.
*if the asterisked terms mean nothing to you, ask your parents or grandparents for an explanation. They refer to music related artefacts from the electronic Stone Age of the twentieth century, many years B.I.(Before Internet).
The present day
And nowadays, music still has an important role in getting me started and keeping me on task when at my writing desk. Now of course it’s played from the music folder on my PC. And I have playlists dedicated to my writing.
Unlike in the past when music aided my learning and studying, it now gets me in the writing zone and keeps me there––and it also inspires me.
For each of the three novels I’ve written to date and for the one I’m currently working on there’s a specific set of tunes.
So no matter how heavily procrastination, self-doubt, or lack of inspiration are weighing on me, just those first few notes of the first track of the relevant playlist gets me started. It transports me instantly into the atmosphere of the story or the head of a particular character. And although, just as it was when I was studying, I don’t consciously hear every note or track the music in the background keeps me in the writing zone. Indeed, at times when my concentration lapses and attention strays, it is focussing on the music that gets me back to composing those sentences. And even more than that it can be a part of a lyric or a musical theme that actually provides inspiration. For example it might clarify for me what motivates a particular character, or how they might be feeling. It might also help me set the tone or describe the mood or setting for a particular scene.
How I think it works for me
The background music isn’t acting like a tone poem or movie soundtrack in reverse; that is where the music is written in direct response to a story or a movie in order to enhance it or reinforce its depiction.
It’s not that I hear a character and their story in a song and then write a longer novel version about that character. And neither am I transcribing and interpreting an entire instrumental piece into a chapter or novel. (The copyright issues alone would put me off, quite apart from it being quite beyond me and it not being what I’m using the music for).
No, it’s more subtle than that – or maybe subtle isn’t the right word. It’s probably, at least partly, something as simple as a Pavlovian response. It’s about how the music makes me feel, it’s about the psychological effect, a sort of conditioning almost. So when I hear that song, I really can’t help but be transported right into the heart of the work-in-progress. And then maybe we’re into more subtle psychological territory with the background melodies, harmonies, cadences and rhythms keeping the brainwaves synced––or something–– and maintaining the concentration.
Do you find music helps or hinders you when you’re working?
My Musical Muses
Below I’ve included a few examples of the many tracks that have helped me to get my three novels written and to maintain progress on the new one.
Change of Life
My first novel had a fifteen track playlist and included:
This Woman’s Work by Greg Laswell
Gossip in the Grain by Ray LaMontagne
And I love you so by Don McLean
When writing my second novel I sometimes used the Change of Life playlist as well as the dedicated fifteen track set which included:
Man of the World by Fleetwood Mac
It’s Getting better by Mama Cass
Not Ready to Love by Rufus Wainwright
The Silver Locket
For my novel for children, it was a twelve track list and if you thought the others were eclectic, this set is a very weird mixture.
On Battleship Hill by P J Harvey
Even the Ravens Mourn Over You by Peter Ostroushko http://www.peterostroushko.com/
Michaelswood by Catriona McKay & Chris Stout
Baba Yetu by Lucas Richman, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra & Soweto Gospel Choir
And for the work-in-progress, which is a sequel to Displacement, there’s the biggest yet playlist of twenty-one tracks which includes:
I Still Care For You by Ray LaMontagne
Make You Feel My Love by The Military Wives
The Ashkovan Farewell by Ungar & Mason