Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Music for Writing

I write better to music. It helps my concentration, keeps me focused. I listen to music whenever I can during the day. During my commute. At home after work. Hanging around the house on the weekend. I have a job that allows me to use my iPod much of the time, filtering out the noise of cube-city and the nearby printing station. Silence is fraught with random pops, bangs, and clicks. It drives me up the wall if I'm trying to concentrate. That's why I go on the counter attack to create my own noise.

Classical music and jazz don't always work for me, unless the pieces are low-key and consistent. Erratic melody interrupts concentration. Instrumentals work best, or music with the lyrics well buried. Buried under what? A wall of consistent, impenetrable sound. I cannot write, or read for that matter, to any music where the vocal tracks are front and center. This includes most pop and rock songs, all rap, r + b, ballads, and standards.

I've put together a series of mix CDs (which, when I went digital, became playlists) that I listen to when writing. They are top heavy with music by bands and artists like Cocteau Twins, Robin Guthrie, Thievery Corporation, Ulrich Schnauss, Brian Eno, Bethany Curve, Air, Lush, Readymade, Slowdive, Engineers, Ride, Chapterhouse. These bands perform music that contain melodies wrapped in guitars and reverb, or mellow beats and airy, atmospheric vocals that sit way back and watch the show, or walls of guitar distortion and effects that allow me to sink into my writing. Most of my output is due to these and other similar-sounding bands.

Here's a sampling:

Here the Cocteau Twins throw down probably their biggest 'hit' (I remember seeing it featured on MTVs 120 Minutes), Carolyn's Fingers, which mixes their dreamy blend of pop sensibility, shimmering guitar, reverb, and Elizabeth Frazier's otherworldly voice singing nonsensical lyrics. This falls right into the category of instrumental music, since I don't know what she's singing about except for an occasional phrase in English.

Robin Guthrie was the guitarist for Cocteau Twins, and he went on to release mostly instrumental music much in the vein of the Cocteau Twins' later output. It's like hearing the Cocteau Twins, minus the instrument that is Elizabeth Frazier's voice:

Thievery Corporation are a bit different, since they use multi-vocalists and meld many different styles, such as salsa, Latin, African, among many others. Not all their stuff is writer friendly, but they are consistent within songs. I know what to expect when a song comes on and can always skip it if it features some inappropriate vocals. Here's a good example of their beat-heavy, but still mellow (chill, if you will) stuff that features delicate female vocals and a dreamy soundscape:

Ulrich Schnauss mixes the best of all worlds; his stuff is mostly instrumental electronica, with harmonies, and perhaps a guitar or two (who can tell?), and the songs that feature vocals have them buried in waves of multi-tracked soundscapes. His music achieves a thoroughly integrated, fugue-like sound. It's especially good to listen to at work; when I have some really dry material to read or write about, I just click on old Ulrich and I'm lost for hours in concentration.

Brian Eno is the father of modern instrumental ambient music (or at least the older brother) and so I find that I can listen to most of his output interchangeably, whether it's his early stuff from the 70s, through to his gorgeous work on Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks in the 80s, or his poppier 90s efforts.

Here's a selection from Atmospheres and Soundtracks:

I discovered Bethany Curve on a website devoted to shoegazer bands. Popularized in the late 80s and early 90s by bands like Jesus and Mary Chain, Slowdive, Ride, and My Bloody Valentine, shoegazer literally refers to some moptop dude or dudette staring at his/her shoes while playing guitar. The music is marked by a wall of guitar distortion and reverb, propulsive drums (sometimes), buried vocals (my favorite kind), and often extended song lengths. Bethany Curve is part of a second or maybe third wave of bands to follow the lead, or continue the cause, since most of the original shoegazer bands are MIA. When I'm feeling less mellow but no less writerish, I'll put on a little shoegazer for the soul.

Slowdive was part of the first wave of dreamy shoegazers, heavy on the echo and thick guitars. Dense but pretty, they never quite got the respect paid to My Bloody Valentine. Or maybe I just made that up. Singer and guitarist Neil Halstead went on to form Mojave 3 and later record solo.

My Bloody Valentine started the whole shoegazery thing. Not always perfect for writing, but occasionally, when I need to go deep, I'll throw on Loveless and the writing time just floats on by and 50 minutes later I'll surface and notice the sunlight and take a breather. Loveless has been influential enough to be beget a book in the 33 1/3 series.

Here's a clip from their recent successful reunion tour:

Do you listen to music when you write? What kind? Or do you need complete silence?


Randy Susan Meyers said...

Wow, thanks for the intro to some great music, although when I'm writing I can barely stand the sound of my own breathing.

Dell Smith said...

I'm not sure how I got used to listening to music when I write. I'm sure it wasn't always that way. I suppose complete silence would work too, but that's hard to come by (earplugs? sound canceling headphones?). Thanks for reading, Randy.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

I don't often listen to music while writing, although I have discovered and sometimes I'm tuned in while putting words to computer. Thanks for the eclectic playlist. :)

Rex said...

Dude, Good tunes for painting as well. Thanks for turning me on to these musicians.

Neil Everett said...

I love reading and writing while listening to music (depending on what it is). Although I've found that when I am drawing I work best under the influence of talk radio. Definitely going to check out these artists.

Dell Smith said...

Pandora is addictive. I imagine music works the same area of the brain for writing as it does for painting. Interesting about the talk radio, neil. You must be using the two sides of your brain simultaneously.