Music goes with writing the way bourbon goes with coke. Or some non-alcoholic combination. Let’s go with cookies and milk. However, the right cookies have to go with the right milk. At least in my case. I can’t stand the wrong cookie with the milk. Same goes with the right songs to go with the book I am writing on. It has to be right.
Maybe I’ll stop talking about cookies. I’m trying to eat healthier these days.
I know a lot of writers who actually don’t write to music. They can’t stand the distraction and I fully get that. Music can be a great way of distracting yourself. In my case, when I really am not feeling the moment I’ll surf around on Spotify or my iTunes trying to find the perfect song. This, in turn, leads me down hopeless rabbit holes usually winding up with some Doctor Demento style music where I cackle ‘They’re coming to take me away HAHA’ as if I haven’t lost my mind already.
But music can be a great help as well. Can you envision a Star Wars movie working without John William’s epic soundtrack? Probably not. Even though I know it could work, Mad Max: Fury Road is given its epic scale thanks to the thumping beats of Junkie XL. That’s just the surface. Even low grade movies and tv-shows have a soundtrack. Soundtracks are so prevalent in our pop culture that it only makes sense that they could form a great basis for what we are planning on.
I’m no music theorist. I barely passed music theory in school. But I know what I like. It has to match the story for me as I write. It needs to go smooth and it needs to blend in with one another. I need to be able to jump through the soundtrack I craft and find the perfect scene.
So here is how I go about crafting a writing soundtrack that works for me.
- Decide on what kind of soundtrack you want. Are you going instrumental or do you want some vocals? Maybe you want both? Both can have varying impacts on your work. Me? I tend to go both ways (ba-dum-dum)
- Go looking at soundtracks you admire that could be close to your book style. Are you writing a rom-com? I love the soundtrack of 27 Dresses or Bridget Jones’ series. Are you writing epic fantasy? Goes without saying you could look at either Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. Science Fiction epics? I adored the Children of Dune soundtrack by Brian Tyler. What about off the beaten path? The Twilight movies, their soundtrack is on point for hip music working well. Inspirational? The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a soundtrack I also go to.
- Start pulling stuff into the playlist. Let’s put an average of 13 songs that mean something to you as a writer. How do they make you feel? Do they send you on a journey?
- Discover new artists via google. Google ‘artists like ____’ and plant them in there. Do your research. Spend the hour you might need to start off.
- Don’t be afraid to cull or add as you need it.
- As you write, put the music at half your usual max volume and have it as a background. Soundtracks, with some exceptions, rarely overpower the scene.
- Put it on Repeat. When you get stuck on a scene but the song is on point, play it again, Sam. Get the mood right. Earmark the song for later when you are editing to know the mood you were putting yourself into when you started.
- When able, soundtrack a warm up session. Flex those writing muscles to something different. A musical maybe. (I wrote a lot to “Hindi Sad Diamonds” from Moulin Rouge)
When I’m discovering new songs for a soundtrack, such as the Unseen Chronicles, I know by now (working on book 3) what it is I am looking for. The Unseen has a quirkiness of melody and harmony, is generally folkish like The Frames with some harder hitting soundtrack pieces like Muse. Usually, the happy songs sound sad and the sad songs sound happy. It needs to be a hodgepodge in order to work.
Meanwhile, when writing for In the Lethe, which was epic on scale but needed to flow perfectly, I often used the songs that meant the most. They were often about tragic love, such as Biffy Clyro or Florence + the Machine.
Starting to new songs can refresh my brain a little. If I find I’m tiring out, I’ll change to something on the other end of the spectrum, such as old 60s songs about love or loss. Or even classical funeral dirges (dark I know but if it works.)
My friend, fellow writer Amanda Johnston, goes about it in a similar but slightly different way
“Well, most of the time I go to the new songs on Spotify that are suggested for me, and I listen through them to see what jives. Sometimes I hear songs on movies or TV shows that goes with the story.”Amanda Johnston
That’s also important. Don’t be afraid to watch movies or tv shows like your genre and listen very carefully to the soundtracks. Sometimes it is the beats you need. The one-two snap of a battle scene or the long notes of a romantic flute can trigger something in you that you don’t expect and you can write from it
The point is to let yourself be as epic as you want to be or to be as calm and quiet as you need the story to be. Perhaps the softness is just what you need and that’s okay.
So what is your go to method for soundtracking?