Music can be a writer’s best friend. A stopgap for the noise pollution around us. A check against the gridlock orchestra laying on their horns, against the food court percussion section scraping the food out of their instruments, against the mouth breathing choir in line at the DMV. Music provides a way to tune out all that chatter and turn up your internal monologue. It adds tone to discord, order to abstraction.
When I write spooky stories, I prefer songs that draw out the tension, rather than rush to the crescendo. I need my conductor to move with a slow and steady hand. To lure my mind into the cellar, to tug me down a long narrow corridor of nightmares.
I prefer atmospheric soundscapes to orchestral scores. I prefer rain and thunder to a bombastic brass sections. I prefer synthesizers to string sections, programmed beats to kettle drums. I prefer beats because they repeat. They keep my mindset consistent. They give my words a rhythm.
Strings speak right to my emotional core. They speak in the language of film. I associate them with swash buckling pirates fighting a top the masts of their ships, with shark fins cutting through the water, with knife wielding silhouettes in the shower curtain.
Strings are too powerful. They trick me into thinking I’ve written something better than I have.
I read that Joss Whedon liked to write to Michael Nyman’s score for the film Gattaca, so I gave it a whirl.
Here I was typing a screenplay, thinking I was writing something uplifting. Then I read it in complete silence and found it fell flat. The characters sounded like caricatures without the string section to back them up. The melodies were too moving. They added their own inflection.
This happened again with Michael Giacchino’s score for the TV show Lost. There were tears in my eyes while I wrote a death scene, a scene that made people laugh at the table read. If only they let me bring a string quartet, then they would’ve understood what I was going for.
I avoid songs with vocals. They compete with my internal monologue. Lyrics have a way of sneaking into my character’s mouths. This is why my three-day writing playlist is made entirely of instrumentals.
I avoid chugga chugga guitar too. It makes me want to turn every chapter into a fist fight or a chase sequence. It makes me want to throw a wall of flames up in the background of every scene. For me, simple piano melodies that don’t run the ambit of the keyboard are perfect. They draw out just enough emotion without influencing it too much.
When searching for music to write to, I listen for what isn’t there as much as for what is. I like film scores because they’re written with a gaps for actors’ voices to fill. There’s a vacancy, an open space for my thoughts to wonder into. I listen for scenes in the second act where the conflict is gentle. That sweet spot where the tension never rises too high or falls too low, that perfect place in limbo.
Here’s a four hour mega mix followed by a list of artists and albums I like to write to. Trust me, you’ll find something cool here.
(Also, if you have a favorite album that you like to write to, please share it in the comments section. I’m also looking for something to add to my collection.)
Silent Hill 2
Silent Hill 3
Silent Hill 4
Silent Hill Homecoming
Shadows of the Damned
Akira Yamaoka’s work on the Silent Hill games is everything I look for in mood music. Percussive, atmospheric, and ambient, with simple piano melodies that draws out just enough emotion to give the listener a sense of a longing. His songs evoke visions of empty back streets, fences creaking in the wind, and leaves rolling across boulevards. He’s one of my favorite musicians even though most of what he does for video games.
Nine Inch Nails
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
The Social Network
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Truth And The Light: Music From The X-Files
The Best of Millennium
Rediscovering Lost Scores, Vol. 1
The Lincoln Lawyer
James Newton Howard
Crater Vol. 1
Max Payne 3 Soundtrack
Silent Hill: Downpour
Silent Hill: The Book of Memories
Dexter Season 1-5
Digital Shades (Vol 1)
Ambiet Works Vol 2
Aphex Twin’s music can be challenging. It’s electronic but you’d go into spasms if you tried to dance to it. Sometimes his beats sound like a kid running a stick along a fence with warped bars. Ambient Works Vol 2 shows the gentler side of Richard D. James. It’s the perfect album to fall asleep to.
Boy Is Fiction
Boy Is Fiction
Broadcasts In Colour
The Star Pillow
Telefon Tel Aviv
Farenheit Fair Enough
Map Of What Is Effortless
Dear Esther Soundtrack
Fez Original Soundtrack
Breaking and Entering
Attack the Block
The Glitch Mob
Drink the Sea