Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Celestial Harmonies?

Emma Darwin posted a nice piece on listening to music while she writes.

How I wish I could do likewise. I can write computer code or do spreadsheet analysis to music, and view that as one of the few upsides of computer programming. But, write? Impossible. The rhythms of the music fight with the rhythms of the words, and ususally win, and I end up sitting blankly, listening to the music.

I should add that I'm probably a little oversensitive in this regard. (Brain-damaged, some would argue.) My mind is ridiculously retentive of music both good and bad, and my music memory is triggered by the tiniest excuses.

For example, we used to live next to someone who raised roosters. One rooster had a distinctive crow, which I'll render as "Erk-de-Errrrrrrrk!" To my poor mind, all this took was one more "Erk!" at the end to become the opening notes of the theme music to the TV show Get Smart. I'm not fond of the theme, really, but I spent about two years absentmindedly whistling or humming it several times a day.

The turn signal on our car triggers Bonzo Dog Band (either Music for the Head Ballet, or, more annoyingly, Piggy Bank Love). A while back there was some piledriving construction in our down, and the far-off clink...clink...clink invariably set off the Fourth Movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony--you know, the bit with the triangle where it starts to build momentum again. And I live in fear of meeting up with the name "Rhonda", as even seeing the name sets off the Beach Boys' Help Me, Rhonda, a song I deeply loathe (and which I'm now whistling quietly under my breath in between curses).

So, writing to music is out of the question for me. It's noisy enough in my head already.

But some authors write to music. Stephen King writes to loud heavy metal as a way of shutting out the world; lit-fiction author Carolyn See mentions writing entire books to the same musci playing over and over. And, if memory doesn't fail me, Susan Sontag even structured one of her books (maybe Volcano Lover?) around Paul Hindemith's Four Temperaments. For all I know, writing to music might be the norm.

Do you folks write to music? (I'll check back later. Right now I need to go wash "Rhonda" out of my head, maybe with some Dead Can Dance. At least Lisa Gerrard has the courstesy to sing in glossolalia.)


Homunculus said...


A wonderful idea. I've just spent the day trying to write a novel to the background noise of ten people phoning me with regard to a shooting incident (nothing to do with with me I must add), the yips of a foot-fucking puppy that the Chinese Embassy presented to our happy family as a gift to compensate for the fact that they were ilegally storing 32 (32!)labourers on the floor of my 3 bedroom rental house, the smashing of a taxi in front of my front door, the announcement that our German medical intern guest had succesfully removed 3.5 kg of fat during a breast reduction operation. On one woman! My maid announced that her taxi got car-jacked and her ex-boyfriend isn't paying maintenance. And there was a lot of "Daddy! Daddy!" from my 4 year old daughter. That was just the morning!

I plan to work to music from tomorrow.

I'll start with 'A Touch Too Much' by AC/DC on full volume and if that doesn't drown out the background interference I'll be appealing to anybody reading this to suggest something even louder.
No rap. I hate rap.

Anyay, welcome to the wild world of trying to write anything in Namibia. And yes! Tomorrow I will write to the background of music, while trying to organize a coup in Zimbabwe.

HOT NEWS: I'll also be putting a new medical magazine to bed. It has to get to Abuja (Nigeria) by Friday.

If anybody has musical suggstions on how to soothe my courier and colleague as she fronts this project in the wilds of West African Medical Congresses let me know. If anybody is interested in contributing articles to the magazine, hey, and why not? Let me know.

Sleep well.

Nearly midnight here in Namibia and I'm going to watch something mindless for a minute then conk out. Cheers! Hugh


Brian McGilloway said...

Hi David
A post close to my heart! I have to listen to music when I write, or I find the silence too oppressive. The teacher in me would suggest that it says something about what type of learner you are - visual, auditory or kinesthetic(!)

I terms of what I need to hear - either my iPod on shuffle or in order of importance, Tom Waits, Ed Harcourt, Duke Special (a superb Northern Irish singer songwriter) or some quite mellow jazz - Chet Baker often helps.

I'm not sure if the speed of the music affects the pace of the scene being written, but the mood certainly influences what goes on the page. Bleed A River Deep gets its name from an Ed Harcourt song title, which he has kindly allowed me to use. I finished it off last night, just as Tom Waits' Closing Time came on the shuffle. Strangely appropriate - and a nice way to wind down before bed!

What about everyone else? Music or silence?


David Isaak said...

Hugh, you've arrived!

That's High Paxton, of course, ladies and gents, author of the hilarious novel "Homuculus".

And I must say that the events of the day he describes sound a lot like something out of the novel. In fact, it makes me wonder if perhaps "Homunculus" was intended as a nonfiction piece...

David Isaak said...

Hey, Brian--

Love Tom Waits. Not too long ago we saw a musical called "The Black Rider" written by William S. Burroughs with songs by Tom Waits. About half of the audience thought it was spectacular.

The other half left during intermission.

Janet said...

David, I love you! I sometimes thought I was the only one in the world who was incapable of writing to music. Music for me is never in the background; I hear it in shopping centres even. Which is one reason shopping is not a leisure activity for me, except in very short doses. The sensory overload drives me away pretty quickly.

I can't work in coffeeshops either; then I get music AND conversations, two ways to ensure that I can't listen to my own thoughts.

Nope, music is far too powerful stuff. It hijacks the creative process every time. Strangely enough, I can read through virtually anything.

Suroopa said...

Music it is for me, constantly as I write! I switch on the 24 hours World-space radio. And you know in India - the only thing that binds us - despite our maddening diversity is Bollywood music. Its low bred, melodious, popular with a vengeance and sometimes profound. I listen to it all the time, and the more philosophically I write the more I need to feel its pulse. Nobody in academia would confess to this, believe me!

Faye L. said...

Do you folks write to music?
God, no! I get extremely irritated with anything or anyone who distracts me when I'm writing.

That being said, I do find my musical tastes being slightly influenced by the key characters who are occupying my head at the time. I say slightly, because it doesn't cause dramatic changes in my taste (the day a character makes me listen to the Pussycat Dolls, I'll put a gun to my head), but I find that the unconsious part of my psyche that creates my characters seems to be obsessively drawn to certain artists for as long as I'm working with that character. Molly (CTM) likes Tori Amos, for instance, whereas if Lydia (second book's protagonist) lived today, I reckon she'd be quite the metal chick.

I just read back over this, and was reminded of why I rarely talk about my relationship with my characters. I'm not schiozophrenic, as it happens...

Matt Curran said...

Great post David

You know, I used to be very much entrenched in the whole “hum while you write” camp. And I still do my “2nd-pass” editing to music (as editing your editing can be quite boring), but that’s as far as it goes now.

For about five years, I was writing to Karl Jenkins, Howard Shore and Hans Zimmer – and more recently Scott Matthews if I wanted some non-intrusive mood music. This was initially down to necessity (to block out other distractions in the office while I wrote during my lunch-breaks), and then habit. Listening to music is great when you’re writing battle scenes (listen to Hans Zimmer’s score to “Gladiator” and you can get quite carried away), and is a fantastic way of getting the writer “into the mood” quickly, but like you’ve mentioned there’s the risk that the writing’s rhythm and flow can get too influenced. Or worse, it can be ridiculously distracting.

I’m sure there’s a happy compromise there – maybe I’ll listen to music at the beginning of each writing session to get me in the mood, and then turn it off and listen to the voices in my head instead (something most psychiatrists warn you not to do – but for writers it appears to be an acceptable part of the job). But as I’ve pointed out in a regime change postrecently, I think writing regimes do change from project to project. And in the future there may be a project which requires me to once again “hum while I write.”

Tim Stretton said...

Sometimes if I want to evoke a particular mood when I'm writing, I'll put some music on. More often, I write in silence, the better to hear "the voices".

On the other hand I find music very helpful when I'm plotting - it helps the imagination free-wheel but because I'm not writing anything down I'm not getting having to worry about tone or rhythm.

David Isaak said...

"On the other hand I find music very helpful when I'm plotting."

Intriguing idea, Tim.

Jake Jesson said...

Music! Sometimes I can't listen to it at all, sometimes I just let iTunes cycle randomly through a pages-long playlist (the music itself receding into background noise), sometimes I use music for mood (action-y music for action, for instance), and sometimes I play the same song over and over again for hours, be it pop, metal, hip-hop, classical or "It's a Small World". (Not kidding, there.)

I've got to wonder how much the content of the music itself affects what's being written to its tune. I suspect it's less than one might think...