Roundtable on Music

Michael Dirda

I like to think I can work under almost any conditions–you learn that from being part of an open newsroom–but I do find music distracting. Reading and writing both mean saying sentences in my head and I won’t be able to hear the words if Margaret Whiting is singing “The Way You Look Tonight” or Ben Webster is playing something slow and smokey. In fact, I’ll soon find myself remembering a certain evening and then, against my better judgment, I’ll start to think I should send an email to . . .  No, I like things quiet when I read and write.

Peter Straub

While working, I can listen to any instrumental music (of the sorts I like) but to vocal music only if it is not in English. The emotions and associations of great music, the passionate tenderness of Ben Webster, the amazing & fulfilled lyricism of Paul Desmond, the ache and beauty of so much jazz, join hands with whatever I am writing (on a very good day) and help me move along my path for as long as I can. The overflow of emotions endures for a long time afterward. I felt this way even after listening to Boulez’s Pli Selon Pli one day years back. When everything seems to be about loss and acceptance and the astonishing richness of that, I’m home, I’m all set, I’m solid.

Guy Gavriel Kay

Lawrence Durrell, in one of his better in-Greece poems, described the writing process as ‘introspection conspiring with art against loneliness’ (going from memory, missing the line break). Silence is a part of that for me, so I join Michael and those who find music too compelling during work. I do listen to a lot of music from the periods I’m working with around writing sessions.

But I agree that the music strand here is a Shandean digression, though it isn’t so much esoteric as idiosyncratic. And confirms my main take-away from this whole discussion thread: the process of writing we share is so amazingly personal. It is, in truth, a reason I back away from any prescriptive offerings as to ‘how to get it done’, whether in a Guardian article canvassing writers for ‘rules’ or a writing course.

Russell Letson

I find the music-while-writing subthread/distraction even more interesting than the useful-nonfiction starter, if only because I’ve always wondered how anybody can actually listen while writing–especially, say, reports of Stephen King working to head-banger rock. Years ago I noticed that if I put on a record (you know, those vinyl thingies) and started to work, the music quickly disappeared from my awareness, and when I pulled my head out of my copy, there would be silence, and I would not have noticed the transition. So, since writing and its associated tasks eat up all my processor cycles, I stopped bothering. And I can’t imagine what it must be like to have music coming through earphones rather than speakers–phones push the music to the front of my perceptual space and crowd out everything else. (This is also why I suspect that the Walkman and now the iPod might be implicated in the decline of student performance over the last couple decades–not that late-stage teenagers ever needed much encouragement to push academic work off to the side.)

Now, music as an accompaniment to driving is another matter altogether–unless I’m negotiating an especially demanding situation, I have plenty of processor power available for very analytical listening. Go figure.

Paul Graham Raven

I wonder (and show my age by doing so) whether this isn’t a generational thing; late-X/early-Yers like myself grew up in Walkman World, developing a very early conception of life as coming with a customisable soundtrack… I did my homework to music from just as soon as I had music I cared about enough to listen to, and that’s kind of carried thru into adulthood to some extent. Research and the writing of non-fiction can be accompanied by whatever sort of sounds grab my fancy at the time, but I have to stick to predominantly instrumental stuff when writing fiction, least the lyrics leak in.

And if we’re snubbing sacred cows of music, myself and Darren Nash of Gollancz nearly came to twitterblows the other day over the primacy of the Beatles in the pyramid of pop (he’s pro, I’m anti; they’re a historically-important sacred cow, lauded for being the biggest rather than the best).

I shall now retire to my citadel and await a mad mob wielding pitchforks and burning brands… 😉

(As for Dylan, I hugely admire his songwriting as a poetic form, but good grief, that voice – like someone strangling a panhandling junkie. ::shudder::)

Stefan Dziemianowicz

“He’s so unhep
That when you say Dylan
He thinks you’re talkin’ ’bout Dylan Thomas–
(Whoever he was)
The man ain’t got no culture”

–Paul Simon, “A Simple Desultory Phillipic, or How I Was Robert McNamaraed into Submission”

2 thoughts on “Roundtable on Music

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  • March 27, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    My music of choice when writing is frequently ambient music, experimental drone and the like. It’s not fitting for all projects, but science fiction in particular feels right when listening to this music. Artists like Emeralds (and the musicians within that band, Mark McGuire, Steve Hauschildt, John Elliott), Charlatan, Pulse Emitter, Peter Friel, Food Pyramid, and many others. It’s relaxing, beautiful, and makes me feel like there is an exclusive soundtrack for my science fiction stories. A lot of this music is synthesizer based, which adds to the “sci-fi-ness”, but even the guitar loops of Mark McGuire give an air of futurism, music constructed with space and flying in mind. I highly recommend all of those artists for science fiction writers.


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