Music and The Muse

When was the last time you cried? For me, it was just a minute ago, when I listened to Kristen Chenoweth sing the bittersweet ‘Finale‘ from the Broadway musical “Wicked.”  There’s just something about the way her soprano lilts over the ominous harmonies and layered orchestration starting at (00:53) that makes my eyes sting EVERY DANG TIME I hear it:

 ♪ ♫    Who can say (**sniff**) if I’ve been changed for the better?  Because I knew you…because (**SOB**)  I knew you…I have been changed for good.  ♫  ♫  ♪

Could someone pass me a Kleenex, please?  Thank you.  

Music is the fastest route to my emotions, and I consciously use this as a tool when I write.  While the Bose noise reduction headphones are an important component of my writing routine – gotta block out the background noise, and there is no better “Do Not Disturb” sign – I’ve found that choosing which music to listen to while I write is equally important, because certain songs, or types of songs, help me channel the emotional vibe of a scene, or get me into the headspace of a POV character, much more quickly than if I listened to nothing at all, or to some randomly-shuffled song.  (Tip:  don’t try to write a tender love scene listening to Marilyn Manson or Motörhead.)

Knowing that I have such strong emotional reactions to music, usually catalyzed more by the way the music sounds than its lyrical content, I’ve analyzed my music library and created what I call “emotional playlists” – iPod play lists containing songs that I know from experience will cause a specific emotional reaction when I listen to them.  I have emotional playlists for desire, grief, anger, violence, joy… and I simply dial them up and click when I want a shortcut to a more productive writing session.   My original  “Desire” play list (play lust?) has spawned several more targeted play lists to help me write love scenes tender (“I Feel Love”) and tough (“I Want Your Sex”), or even from my villain’s POV.   (Here’s where the Manson and Motörhead and Alice In Chains really serve their purpose.)       

To me, writing and music are inextricably linked.  Is it any surprise that the heroine of my 2009 Golden Heart® finalist, UNDERBELLY, is a siren rock star who channels emotional energy through song, taking listeners along for the ride?  And that on one memorable night, she gets so pissed off at her hot, stoic bodyguard that she performs nothing but songs guaranteed to make him writhe with sexual frustration? 

The songs in “Scarlett’s Set List” are utterly shameless.  **fans self **   I had an absolute blast writing that scene.   

So, music is my Muse, and luckily she’s available at the click of a button.    What tools do you use to get into The Writing Zone?  Do you have any song suggestions for my emotional playlists, or ideas for new lists?   I’d love to hear them!


34 responses to “Music and The Muse”

  1. Vivi Andrews says:

    Tammy, I’m dying to read Underbelly now.

    I love using music to get inspired and into The Mood, but I can’t have it playing while I’m writing. Especially if lyrics are involved. Those lyrics always manage to find their way through my fingers into the WIP. Not good. But I completely agree that nothing gets you in the right (or wrong) mental space faster than a song.

    (And I love Wicked!) 🙂

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Vivi, I love “Wicked” on so many levels it isn’t even funny. (Did anyone catch ‘Glee’ a couple of weeks ago, when Rachel and Kurt had a ‘diva-off’ to decide who got to sing the lead on “Defying Gravity?” I was IN HEAVEN.)

      I haven’t read the book that the musical is based upon, but …what a towering work of imagination. Talk about alternate-history: take a beloved story, take everything you thought you ‘knew’ about it, and twist it 90′, turning it into an even darker story.

      Since seeing the musical, I no longer find the movie’s flying monkeys the least bit terrifying.

  2. Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

    Music is a strong emotive force for me, too. I have a penchant for Russians, and have often mentioned once writing a love scene to the 1812 Overture. The “Dawn” part of the overture worked well, but the rest? Well, let’s just say the scene became rather explosive and leave it at that! ;-P

    I don’t write to music anymore. For one thing, music of the 15th century (that is currently available. Who can say what has been lost to time?) doesn’t lend itself to a wide range of emotions, and most of it comes with lyrics. To listen to current works takes me from the place I need to be. I write in silence—or something as close to absolute silence as I can find at the moment.

    Great post. Thought provoking. And Underbelly sounds like a “must read.”

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Speaking of thought provoking… I can always count on Gwynlyn to offer perspectives that make me think about things I haven’t thought much about before.

      ** To listen to current works takes me from the place I need to be.**

      Yes, I can see where this would be a factor for writers of historicals. I think I would find it very challenging to write a book set in the known past.

      **Who can say what has been lost to time?**

      Isn’t that true – and so, so sad? Especially when I think about how our current technological firepower is used to transfer and/or store data that is… absolutely inconsequential. I shudder to think about what future explorers might infer about our species if all they had to go on was tweets and text messages. 😉

  3. Hi, Tammy. Looking forward to reading Underbelly!

    While I can no longer write and listen at the same time (it’s too much of a distraction), I put on a few tunes to get me in the mood. At the beginning of a book, I listen to ’60s Motown songs about love gone wrong. For the black moment, I might listen to Michael Nyman’s ‘The Piano’ or David Sylvian’s broody ‘Secrets of the Beehive’ album. I love Wagner’s ‘Leibestod’ from about the four-and-a-half-minute mark when I’m near The End.

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      I do my most productive writing at my hometown coffeeshop, a very noisy place for anyone – like me – who has difficulty ignoring or filtering out background noise. Clapping on the headphones, picking something to listen to, and turning it UP gives me a single thing to listen to, and filters out the sounds of the door opening and closing, the women at the table next to me bursting into laughter, the slurping of the ‘loud sipper’ across the room, the hiss of the cappuccino machine, the sounds of people yakking on cell phones.

      There are times that the music, having served its purpose, turns into more of a white noise.

      I love broody and will definitely check out ‘Secrets of the Beehive.’

  4. Liz Talley says:

    I can’t use music while I write. I like it very quiet with only the occasional groans from my lab Georgia. BUT, I do find inspiration in music and find it helps me when I’m writing.

    When I first started writing (historicals), I got up every morning and took the kid to kindergarten. For some reason, hubs had made me a mixed CD and had Barry Manilow on there. We got a kick out of the kids bellowing “Oh, Mandy!” at the top of their lungs. I found that listening to his very (or should I say, overly) emotional lyrics put me in the right mindset for my historicals.

    Right now I’m writing Texas (contemporary) and I’ve been listening to country music. Just wrote the black moment and Miranda Lambert’s “White Liar” filtered into my head. Gritty country with some anger. Yep. Does it for me.

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      If my SO made me a mix tape or CD, it would be filled with songs like “Beer for my Horses”, “International Harvester” and “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag.” 😉

      I’m not a country fan, but I love the Dixie Chicks. “Travelin’ Soldier” is just fabulous storytelling -and I find the three-part harmony absolutely heartwrenching.

      Barry Manilow was one of the first artists whose work I bought using my own money. Love him.

  5. I so-o get what you’re talking about, Tammy. In my 2009 GH reunion story, my hero uses a romantic mix CD that he created for his wife for their anniversary years before. She thinks he’s a ‘RAT’ to play it because she knows he’s just trying to get her into bed again. And he KNOWS she’ll be helpless to resist him if Always and Forever is playing in the background. Luther Vandross or Michael Bublé’s voice never fails to put me in the mood.

  6. Shea Berkley says:

    Great post, Tammy. Music is inspirational, and I can get lost in it when I want to.

    Here’s the thing, music is on all the time at my house. Do I write to it? No. It’s always in the backgroud, though, and it’s usually not mine that’s playing. One minute Flyleaf’s “I’m So Sick” will be on, and then the next minute Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 21” will start. Musically, we’re a very eclectic family. So, for me, music is more like white noise. Only when I really want to get moody do I pop in a CD and listen, but I usually pop it out when I want to write.

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      It’s always so interesting to hear how music factors into people’s daily lives, and into their writing lives.

      Mark and I don’t often listen to music in the house, but always do in the car (driver picks the tunes), and I always listen to music when I’m writing.

  7. Elisa Beatty says:

    Love this post, Tammy!

    I’m amazed how many people are saying they don’t write to music. I LOVE writing to music, and tend to either have my iPod on, or play iTunes playlists of my computer when I’m at the keyboard, even if (as is rarely true) I have a quiet house to myself. Music has always been an imagination trigger for me. I see scenes, hear dialogue, feel all kinds of energy flowing. Big orchestral scores are great, but almost anything’s better than silence.

    For some reason as I was finishing the last few chapters of my first book, I just had Rufus Wainright on a repeating loop. “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” and “California” over and over and over again for romantic scenes? Weird, but for some reason, it kept everything flowing.

    Oh: my recommendation for a heartbreak song: Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah.”

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      I also am a little surprised about people who write in silence, Elisa.

      Jamie will laugh at this, but I’ve had 2 songs from U2’s latest album on frequent repeat the last few weeks: “Magnificent” and “Moment of Surrender.”

      If I had to choose only one “Hallelujah” to listen to for the rest of my life, it would be k.d. lang’s cover of Buckley’s glorious song.

  8. Diana Layne says:

    Hi, Tammy!

    I can’t listen to music and write, I get caught up in the music and totally forget about any words. But I do assign a specific song for the book I’m working on, something that has the same theme and if I get stuck I’ll listen to that song. And Gretchen Wilson’s Redneck Woman inspired a whole series I’m working on, lol.

    I also use music if I’m feeling down about writing and for a while I started every writing day with Miley Cyrus’s The Climb (ok so I have a 7 yo HM fan in the house) But a lot of HM/Miley songs have really good lyrics.

    I was a classically trained pianist for 11 years and while I was one of my piano teacher’s best students, she told me in no uncertain terms I didn’t have what it took to be a concert pianist. Probably b/c I despised practicing and quit piano the second I got married, ha! (keeping in mind I married at 17 the first time–not pg, just desperate for a way out of more than piano lessons.)

    I do sometimes listen to classical music but most of the time it brings up bad memories and shoot, I bet I haven’t played the piano in almost 20 years….

    Glad you found a system that works for you, Tammy! That’s what it’s about.

    Add me to the can’t-wait-to-read Underbelly list too!

  9. Dara says:

    Anything by Vitamin String Quartet. They play well-known songs all on strings–they have lots of songs on YouTube. 🙂

    I also like movie soundtracks–Memoirs of a Geisha is probably my favorite but I also love the soundtrack to Emma, and the new Pride and Prejudice.

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Hi Dara! I also have a lot of movie soundtracks and Broadway cast albums in my music collection. I had a very productive writing session the other morning listening to the soundtrack of “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

      I was writing a scene where two female characters were playing racquetball, of all things. There was just something about the music’s pace that appealed.

  10. I LOVE writing to music. I have “soundtracks” to all my books; music that fits my characters and their conflict. Some of the songs for my current book: Staind’s “Tangled Up in You” and “The Corner”, James Blunt’s “Same Mistake” and “I Can’t Hear the Music”, Chasen’s “Drown”, Everything I own of Eli Mattson….the list could go on and on! 🙂

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Hi Cynthia – I’m not familiar with some of those songs. Is there something in particular about them that creates an association with your book in your mind?

      • Some of it’s mood–right now many of the songs on my mp3 player are dark and angsty. A lot of it is just lyrics that my character identifies with. Like the chorus from James Blunt’s “Same Mistake”:

        I’m not calling for a second chance,
        I’m screaming at the top of my voice.
        Give me reason but don’t give me choice.
        ‘Cause I’ll just make the same mistake again.

        Totally fits my hero who believes he’s beyond redemption for the things he’s done. And when the heroine comes into his life, he’s terrifed that given the choice he’ll make the same mistakes all over again.

        Little things like that–one line, a chorus–will trigger an association with character.

  11. Lizbeth Selvig says:

    Like everyone else here, I love this post. Music is so elemental, I think it flows through us whether we know/acknowledge it or not. I don’t always have a full soundtrack for each book, but every one of my manuscripts has at least one song that either inspired it or is part of the plot. For my second book it was Lifehouse’s “Blind.” For the current book it’s a slow, bluesy version of “Love Potion No. 9” by Neil Diamond. I’m “old” so there’s always something Beatles related playing in my head that goes with the plot (and they always inspire me). I also have a whole book idea circulating in my brain based on Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight.” Wow, — thanks for bringing this all to the forefront!!
    Keep on rockin’!

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Liz – there’s nothing ‘old’ about The Beatles! I think most of their songs transcend time, both sonically and lyrically.

      As I was writing this post, I remembered a writing exercise that my high school English teacher asked us to do in class once: select any popular song we liked, and assess its first verse or stanza like it was a poem. I chose “Hotel California:”

      On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
      Warm smell of colitas rising up through the air
      Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light
      My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
      I had to stop for the night

      Wowza, what a piece of writing. And the linkage between writing and music was officially established.

      Choosing this song also had a side benefit – this nerdy girl got to tell her classmates that ‘colitas’ was a desert flower, but some people thought it was a reference to pot. I was a cause celebre for a couple of days. 😉

  12. Jeannie Lin says:

    Music really is a quick path to emotion. I love writing to music, but it’s not for inspiration as much as it’s to distract me from outside thoughts. Pop music or hip hop seems to do the trick.

    I like to reward myself with a download when I’m Fast Drafting. It gives me a new song to listen to as well as allowing me to give myself a pat on the back.

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      I like classic hip hop more than current (“I like big butts and I cannot lie!”) but a little Flo Rida and Ludacris have found their way onto my iPod. The beats and rhythms are just amazing.

      I’m also fast-drafting, and I’m not letting myself download the new Adam Lambert release until I’ve puked up a full first (crappy, horrible) draft. My goal is to be listening to Glambert just after the new year!

  13. Love to make musical references in my writing.

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Me too, Kelly! One of the things I’m still trying to navigate, though, is how much lyric an author can use or reference under ‘fair use’ vs. having to get permissions.

      Hope my editor can help!

  14. Thanks Tammy. I don’t usually play music when I’m writing although sometimes grab a song for a specific scene. Love the Paul Revere song about horses–puts me in a racetrack mood!

  15. Tammy, Great post! I too listen to different songs for different aspects of my story. I wish there was a catalog of songs for writers depicting different emotions. That would a big time saver. Then again, two people could have two totally different responses to the tune. But it istill would be cool.


  16. Darynda Jones says:

    Hey Tammy!

    The minute I hear the theme song to Lonesome Dove something comes over me and I tear up every time. I am learning to channel the emotions that different types of songs elicit before I write. Music is such a mood setter!

    Great post!

  17. Hi, Tammy. Music is a must have. If I’m in the midst of a battle scene, Patrick Doyle’s recording of “The Battle of Agincourt” from “Henry V” is a hymn to courage. Other good, driving soundtracks for either battle scenes or high tension moments are: Conan The Barbarian (I kid you not. Try it.), The Rock soundtrack, Pirates of the Caribbean (I’ve not tried it yet and I’m afraid it might make me draw on the movie rather than on myself, but it is a good, driving soundtrack), The Hunt for Red October can be good if you don’t mind bits of Russia creeping in, portions of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, & Fellowship of the Ring. For love and desire themes, I’ll tune in to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, (it also has some good driving stuff) and Carmina Burana, which is operatic chorus and the basis for most adventure soundtracks nowadays. Enjoy!


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