How does listening to music affect the way you write? Can some music help you write better?

WHILE I’M TRAVELING I can listen to any kind of music and still write.

When I lived in Buenos Aires for example, I used to write in buses playing all different music. 80s Depeche Mode type of stuff to Rock Nacional to cumbia. It didn’t matter. I could keep my head down and write.

But for some reason when I’m at home writing it always matters. It completely matters. When I’m writing at home certain music just seems to shut down my concentration. Unfortunately I can’t reduce it to simple categories like “music without lyrics” or even specific genres like “breaks” because there’s always exceptions of what’s “allowable,” even within sub-genres.

For example, I can write while listening to certain reggae music, say raggamuffin-sounding stuff by Damien Marley, but it can’t be any of the pre Jam Rock-era Damien Marley. If not I’ll end up thinking something like “damn those cheesy synth tones; what were the producers thinking?” and the flow is broken.

In general though what seems to work is music that either keeps “pushing forward” (like straight-up house or drum and bass ) or sort of “billows out” like a lot of Charles Mingus tunes or most dub (Lee Perry, King Tubby) as well as most ambient. If something can be characterized as “ultra-smooth” it probably works. Jobim, for example. Most Bosa Nova.

But then I can’t listen to most funk (which is the root of “pushing forward”) unless it’s like an instrumental track from the JB’s. In a similar way I can’t listen to anything “classic” from high-school / college days such as Blood Sugar Sex Magic-era Chili Peppers or Neutral Milk Hotel or Pixies, Radiohead, Sublime, or R.E.M.

Most hip hop doesn’t work either. I end up trying to “get on the mic” or something, deconstructing the lyrics and typing in the same bpm as the track.

And there are certain kinds of music that never work. Any “high lonesome sound” bluegrass like the Stanley Brothers. Anything I first heard as a little kid from dad’s record collection like Hank Williams. Anything by Billie Holliday or Edith Piaf or Patsy Cline.

Finally, there’s the “x-factor,” which overrides everything.This is when I’m in that mode where I don’t really care about what I’m writing but the words just come out. Which ties back in to my original observation–that when I’m traveling it doesn’t matter what music is playing, I just write.

Something about this seems important. It seems like a transparent action versus a form of OD’ing on self-consciousness. For example, yesterday we had a great email thread about a producer in Buenos Aires who needed connections. This led to me passing along links about digital cumba collective Zizek and then, as I kept working, listening to one of their recent mixtapes. It was all a flow that felt really spontaneous and real.

But then I started writing some paragraphs for a book proposal, and the cumbia was just shutting me down. I started feeling like what I was writing was less like a natural flow / creation and something I was totally forcing. I took off my headphones and finished it with no music.

These are the kind of things I think about. I think about how I write and how different people write. Not just the writing itself but the way we do it. I want to know, for example, what Jon Favreau (27 yr. old speechwriter for Obama) listens to (if anything) when he writes President Obama’s speeches. Could he have, for example, composed certain emotive parts of the President’s Inaugural address while listening to GirlTalk or perhaps Li’l Wayne?

I’m not sure I have any real conclusions here. It always seems to come down to just you and the words and however you can get them down. I feel like I need to follow up on this next week with more data and thought. So let’s end it with you:

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Community Connection

Thanks for voting in the poll and leaving your favorite music to write to (or what makes it harder) in the comments below.