8 Styles of Music to Help You Focus While You Write

8 Styles of Music to Help You Focus While You Write

Regardless of what makes you tick, we all seem to be universally moved by one thing: music.

We use our favorite songs to get pumped up for competition, stay motivated through a workout and drown our sorrows after a breakup.

It’s no surprise we turn to music for inspiration when we’re ready to get creative, too.

“I wrote my first book while listening to the music of Leonard Cohen and Evanescence,” says writer Paula J. Braley. “When I read it over, I can hear the music in my head.”

What kind of music is best for writing is a constant source of debate and angst among writers. You need something energizing — but not overpowering. Inspiring — but in the right tone. Motivating — but not distracting.

The topic has come up several times in The Write Life Community group on Facebook, so I pulled together everyone’s recommendations — and a few of my own — to inspire your next writing playlist (and your next masterpiece!).

1. Music to get you in the mood to write

For those days when you don’t believe in yourself or anything you’re working on, turn on a get-positive playlist to drag yourself to work.

Mine is called “Girl Power.” I know that’s cheesy.

It’s what I need some days to remind me I’m awesome and worthy of achieving the goals I’ve set.

My “Girl Power” playlist includes danceable numbers like “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake, “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift and “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. I’m also all about feel-good throwbacks like “In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry.

Writer and filmmaker Andrew Butts recommends “In One Ear” by Cage the Elephant. “Not only is it a high energy ‘let’s get moving’ song,” he says, “but for creatives, its general message is ‘f*** the critics.’”

That’s a good way to get yourself out of bed and straight to work.

Freelance writer and YA author Lauren Tharp says, “For positive music, I usually turn to ‘Go for Gold’ by Kyle Patrick. Also: ‘Good Day’ by The Click Five.”

Freelance writing guru Carol Tice says her get-positive list “is more old school,” including:

  • “Good Day Sunshine” by the Beatles
  • “I Can See Clearly Now” by Jimmy Cliff
  • “Sing Sing Sing (With a Swing)”

“Seriously” Tice says of that last song, “if you don’t need to get up and dance to that, you’re in trouble!”

She also says, “‘San Francisco’ by The Mowglis cannot be beat for positivity.”

2. A soundtrack for your novel

The most popular response to a “best music to write to” question is usually “It depends.”

A lot of writers choose music based on the mood of what they’re writing.

“For fantasy,” says Lidy Wilks, “I listen to Peter Gundry [and] Vindsvept on [YouTube]. Romance, [it’s] R&B and slow jams.”

“If I’m pondering a scene or wanting to listen to something for motivation, then I’ll pop something on appropriate,” says Sean-Michael Alton Kerr. “Some Sia if I want a strong character moment, Amon Amarth for an epic battle scene or some classical music to just calm down my mind before starting in.”

David H. Fears gets into his characters’ heads through song. He says, “In one of my mysteries, my main man kept hearing ‘Body and Soul’ by Billie Holiday, so I often played it while editing those sections.”

Chandi Gilbert, on the other hand, uses music to tap into her own head: “I was writing a personal essay about me being 13, so I played the top songs from 1994. It really set the mood and took me back to where I needed to be! It’s amazing how a few notes of a song can instantly transport you back to puberty.”

“When I was writing my romance,” says Anna Górnaś, “Alter Bridge and their guitarist, [Mark] Tremonti, made me write a LOT.”

Di Read says, “For my Roman-Britain novel, I like ‘Celtic Twilight’ I and II. For my tarty novella, I like Clannad’s ‘Robin [the Hooded Man]’ and Enya.”

Here are more mood-setters recommended by the community:

  • Zaki Ibrahim (especially the album “Eclectica”)
  • “Sunshine” by Floetry
  • Dave Matthews Band
  • Beck
  • “A Serbian Film” soundtrack
  • “Watch Me” by Labi Siffre

3. Folk, Americana and folky pop music

Folk used to be my go-to genre for writing, because it’s mellow. Some writers agree.

“I usually listen to indie or folk when I write for my blog, because I’m usually calmer and the words flow a little better for me,” says Heidi Carreon.

“I listen to folk/Americana music,” says John Skewes. “The writing and stories help me as a sort of fuel. But I turn it all off when write. I need the quiet to hear the voices.”

More folk recommendations from the community:

  • Iron & Wine
  • The Franklin Electric
  • Ray LaMontagne (especially the album “Til the Sun Turns Black”)
  • “Just Breathe,” covered by Willie Nelson
  • Neil Young (especially the album “Harvest Moon”)
  • Mumford and Sons
  • Andrew McMahon
  • The Head and the Heart

But folk has one major flaw for writers: It’s heavy on the lyrics. Most writers said they absolutely can’t write to music with lyrics playing… lest the words creep into their prose.

4. Instrumentals, like jazz or classical

When you really get into whatever you’re working on, the world can fade away.

The scene you’re writing starts to play out in your mind as if it’s projected on a screen in front of you. The soundtrack swells like the orchestra that drives Willem Dafoe through a crime scene in “The Boondock Saints.”

When that doesn’t come naturally, try setting the scene.

“If I listen to any music at all while writing,” says Debra Walkenshaw, “it must be classical or meditative with no words.”

Linton Robinson says, “The idea of listening to words while writing seems nuts. I just love internet jazz stations.”

But it doesn’t have to all be music that’s older than your grandparents. Modern experimental music like Blue Man Group or instrumental covers of contemporary songs can do the trick, too.

Some instrumental recommendations from the community:

  • Chris Botti (especially the album “Italia”)
  • Blue Man Group
  • 2cellos
  • Gregorian chant

5. Electronic music

I don’t enjoy classical or orchestral music much. It doesn’t put me in the right mood for most of what I write (i.e. not epic stories). So I was thrilled when my colleague Susan Shain made this recommendation: “When I’m writing, I like electronic.”

She turned me onto the genre for writing, and now it’s one of my favorites.

Electronic spans musical styles, so you can probably find something you like. And while some of it has lyrics, many of the songs distort or edit the vocals so much you can’t get attached to the words.

And it’s just the right energy to drown out a noisy office, coffee shop or house full of kids while you write.

Shain recommends:

  • STS9
  • Pretty Lights
  • Big Gigantic
  • Thievery Corporation

6. Music in a foreign language

This is the most exciting recent addition to my writing playlist: music in any language but English.

This works for me, because it lets me listen to the style of music I want — whether it’s pop or folk or whatever — without fixating on the words. Pick a language you don’t speak, and search for your style of music.

Here are a couple I like (I’d love your additional recommendations!):

  • Zaz (French)
  • Jane Bordeaux (Hebrew)
  • Buena Vista Social Club (Spanish)

7. Video game and movie soundtracks

I love this recommendation from fiction writers! What better way to get into the scene you’re working on than to play music meant to accompany a story?

Pick a movie or video game in the same genre — or that has the same mood — as your book, and find its soundtrack. Or if you just want something in the background while you work, tune into an online music station dedicated to soundtracks.

Soundtrack recommendations from the community:

8. Ambient noise

I once asked my coworkers what they were listening to at work, and I was surprised to learn it was just…noise. Literally, they pop on noise-cancelling headphones to drown out the sounds of the open office, then tune into the sound of, well, sort of nothing.

That is, they were listening to white noise. Some prefer gray noise, white noise’s less staticky cousin. (Sound comes in an array of colors — they did not teach me that in kindergarten.)

I’ve since learned this isn’t uncommon. White noise or calming ambient sounds can clear your head and help you focus on what you’re writing, even when you’re surrounded by the chaos of coworkers, kids or a coffee shop.

Author and self-publishing expert Joanna Penn even listens to the sounds of rain and thunderstorms to slip into her alter ego, J.F. Penn, and craft her bestselling thrillers.

For anyone who loves working in a coffee shop for the hustle and bustle around you, try turning on Coffitivity. It recreates the chatter of customers, clang of cash registers and whirring of espresso machines that power writers everywhere.

Noise makers recommended by community:

What can music do for your writing?

Unfortunately, no one seems to agree on the absolute best music to write to. What you pump into your speakers or headphones depends on the mood you’re trying to set and what kind of work you’re trying to achieve.

Are you drowning out a noisy office or livening up a dead-silent home? Are you writing a blog post, a romantic scene or an in-depth piece of journalism? Do you need motivation to get started or inspiration to shape your character?

I hope these community recommendations give you a few ideas to get started next time you’re staring down a blank playlist.

(Note: Unless otherwise cited, names and pronouns of community members are based on public Facebook profile information.)

What kinds of music do you listen to for inspiration while you write?

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21 comments

  • Ken Johnson says:

    Re. 5. Electronic Music

    Don’t forget about:

    Martin: Time Base, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mhVYEgMrxOg

    Dissevelt: Syncopation, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mhVYEgMrxOg

    Martin is the same genius who managed and produced The Beatles.

  • I can’t have any music playing, even instrumentals. I prefer silence! White or grey noise (no idea that existed as well!) is acceptable as well.

    • James Jetton says:

      I’m an inveterate classical and folk music background listener. Other fam ily members complete the loyalites to other genres. Wondering why I listen, your shading of various modes ensured that I am happy where I am and believe the music maintains my focus. Thx.

  • Stacy says:

    I agree with most of these – depending on what I need to write at the time! Having lived in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for a while, I gravitate toward Polynesian music myself, and powerful percussion rhythms seem to drive my energy. There’s a virtual grounding in listening to drumbeats from instruments made from natural materials! However, I also listen to “smooth jazz” which seems to give me the calm head space I need to generate new ideas.
    I also love the fact that the author’s last name is the same as a type of music that’s great for meditation and idea generation – sitar!

  • Sandra Haven says:

    Never, ever music with lyrics! That throws my brain off entirely as I’m already sorting through words I need/want/ponder for my writing. Suddenly words I don’t want (from the lyrics) pop in and I’m all off track. Give me what used to be called elevator music (do they even have elevators, let alone music in them anymore? ) Soft, pleasant, non-verbal … gotta go and get mine started.

  • Lidy Wilks says:

    It really just depends and preference too. My feel good, get positive song is the Ghostbusters theme song. Although I haven’t done this since college, I wrote a lot of my papers while I had the movie playing. And when that theme song came on, my fingers were flying across the keyboard. The other is Katy Perry’s “Roar.”
    And when I find myself listening and singing along too much to what I’m listening to I switch Pandora stations to Two Steps from Hell or Jose Quientero. To listen to orchestras from groups like Escala, scores from Han Zimmer (Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack) and electronica from The Glitch Mob or dubstep from Blackmill.

  • Wendy says:

    I have a lot of tracks that are engineered to generate specific brainwave frequencies. Some are for focus, some are for creativity, I’ve even got one called “digital coffee.”

    I also sometimes use Eurobeat when I’m doing comparatively non-creative tasks (like scanning references that have to go back to the library) the steady 120-beat helps you keep a tempo to your work.

    But like my sister, I generally don’t play anything with lyrics while I’m actually word-generating, unless it happens to match my subject (I listen to Lee Murdock and Stan Rogers while I’m working on my Edmund Fitzgerald book).

  • Olumide says:

    When I want to be in writing mood, I listen to songs with slow and gentle beats. Songs like ‘when a man loves a woman’ by Michael Bolton and ‘deep river woman’ by Lionel Richie.
    These songs help me to relax and think clearly. But I switch music off to start writing. With music on, I won’t be able to focus on the writing.

  • William Seward says:

    Occasionally light jazz, most often classical and ambient, new age. Anything light without vocal. Lately I’m liking film score music, not soundtrack but scores. Google music has several playlists of scores.

  • Mountain dulcimer and hammered dulcimer instrumentals.

  • Helen says:

    For me, it’s either rock instrumentals (such as Sleepmakeswaves, Explosions in the Sky, Majora), or the Elder Scrolls Soundtrack, or I put on some combinations on my “Relax Melodies” white noise app.

  • Thank you! This is awesome. I like some noise, but sometimes when I listen to music as I write, I get distracted. I never thought to use sounds like this.

  • Taffy says:

    I sometimes like loud music in my ears, like Friction by Imagine Dragons. It helps drown out background noise and the critic in my head.
    Other times, when it’s quiet, I like music like the Duchess soundtrack.

  • Personally, I prefer silence when I’m writing, If I’m really in the swing of the work, I don’t notice the music, and often it ends and I don’t notice. If, on the other hand, I’m struggling, the music just detracts from what I’m doing, and I end up actively listening, not writing.

  • Csg says:

    MMW with or without John Scofield. Medeski, Martin and Wood, a trio of captains that can help and creative fly into their craft. As for inspiration or to get in the mood, sometimes a little or a lot of Mr. Frank Zappa helps me open up, shake off any doubts and have fun.

  • How cool that Chris Botti popped up! “Italia” is my go-to writing music, along with several of his other albums. My other go-to is anything Rippingtons. And when I just need something different, it’s Duran Duran. (Don’t judge me! 😉)

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