Soundtrack for Writing

Statue with Headphones

This entry was inspired by my friend Rachel’s writing playlist on her website Check it out here. Follow her on Twitter @Raishimi

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.)

Akira Yamaoka
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
Ghosts I-IV

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
The Social Network
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Atticus Ross
Broken City

Mark Snow
The Truth And The Light: Music From The X-Files
The Best of Millennium

Wendy Carlos
Rediscovering Lost Scores, Vol. 1

Clint Mansell
The Fountain
Last Night

Cliff Martinez
The Lincoln Lawyer

James Newton Howard
Michael Clayton

Android Lust
Crater Vol. 1


Max Payne 3 Soundtrack

Christopher Young

Daniel Licht
Silent Hill: Downpour
Silent Hill: The Book of Memories
Dexter Season 1-5

Carter Burwell

Digital Shades (Vol 1)

Aphex Twin
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
Fattore Ambientale

Telefon Tel Aviv
Farenheit Fair Enough
Map Of What Is Effortless

Blade Runner

Jessica Curry
Dear Esther Soundtrack

Fez Original Soundtrack

Ben Prunty
FTL Soundtrack

Minecraft Soundtrack

Breaking and Entering


Basement Jaxx
Attack the Block

DJ Shadow

The Glitch Mob
Drink the Sea

6 thoughts on “Soundtrack for Writing”

  1. Certainly with you on Aphex Twin’s ambient works, M83, Mogwai and NIN. They turn up in my ears a lot. As for the rest. .. I’m game for more sounds.

    1. I couldn’t recommend Akira Yamaoka enough. I’ve front loaded the You Tube playlist with some of his best tracks. If only I could hire him to produced music for writing albums for me full time.

  2. Hmm I hear a lot of writers say that they prefer to listen to music without vocal when they write. I have rock playlists that are set based on mood., but vocals don’t bother me. There are some game soundtracks I enjoy also.

    1. Stephen King wrote that he listened to Metallica and Guns and Roses when he wrote. Some people are much better and phasing things out than I am. Perhaps they just know the songs so well that it’s easy for them to write through them without getting distracted.

      What video game soundtracks do you like to write to? Or what anything do you like to write to? I’m always looking for more music to add to the old playlist.

      1. Dragon Age and Skyrim are two that I found myself putting the music on repeat while I did some writing. It made great instrumental music to set the tone for werewolf fight scenes!

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