What is the best atmosphere in which to write? Some authors find solace in the white noise of the city; others in a gently bustling public garden. Many authors prefer perfect silence. And many turn to music.
In the interest of shining light on the subject, we asked a host of Penguin authors what kind of music – artists, albums, songs or genres – they listen to while writing, or if they listen to anything at all. Here’s what they said.
Writing What Red Was, there were only two albums I listened to – Channel Orange and Blonde, both by Frank Ocean – and I had them on repeat. Most music I cannot listen to while writing, I find it too distracting. But I had listened to these albums so many times that the lyrics felt part of my consciousness. Nostalgia, unrequited love, addiction and abandonment: all of these themes fed straight into my novel. The second track on Channel Orange, ‘Thinkin Bout You’, contains one of my favourite lines about relationships: “We’ll go down this road ‘til it turns from colour to black and white.” For me this line captures the loss of magic in a relationship – colour fades, real life replaced by memories.
I thought about this line a lot when writing the central relationship in my novel: an intense, formative friendship between two young people which is put in jeopardy by an act of violence. What follows is the disintegration of a precious relationship. Writing, with Frank Ocean on repeat in my headphones, was a way of treasuring this lost love, mourning the loss of that joy, innocence and youth, putting it in black and white – into words.
Rosie Price is the author of What Red Was.
When I’m working I tend to listen to instrumental music for the simple reason that it’s less likely to distract. Anything that sounds like the kind of music playing when characters in Woody Allen movies are wandering around the city.
Because I’m supposed to know a lot about music, people ask me “what new music should I be listening to?” as if there’s any “should” about it. I always say you should listen to whatever makes you happiest. The whole idea of “new music” is tosh. There’s no such thing. There’s just old music you’ve never heard before.
Miles Davis - Miles Ahead
Louis Armstrong - Hot Fives and Sevens
John Fahey - The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death
Steely Dan - Katy Lied
Angela Hewitt - Bach’s English Suites
Burning Spear - Marcus Garvey
Gil Scott-Heron - I’m New Here
Bob Dylan - John Wesley Harding
David Amram - At Home/Around The World
Dr John - Doctor John’s Gumbo
Rickie Lee Jones - Pirates
Ella Fitzgerald - Sings the Rodgers and Hart Songbook
Al Green - The Belle Album
David Hepworth is the author of Overpaid, Oversexed and Over There, out this month.
I often work in silence, with only the metronomic ticking of a wall clock, but if I do need something else, it’s always the same album: Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert, the recording of his extraordinary improvised solo performance, in Cologne’s opera house, in 1975. It’s utterly wonderful, and the first time I heard it, I was spellbound by its meditative quality, its lucidity, its passion. Here and there it becomes almost religious in its intensity, and occasionally you hear an ecstatic shout from Jarrett, as if he’s heaven-sent. I knew nothing about jazz piano when I first heard it – and in all honesty, I still don’t. But I do know every inch of this album. Keith Jarrett’s performance that night was a feat of creative stamina, which is precisely what I believe a novelist needs, too; perhaps that’s why this album continues to speak to me so vividly.
Jane Sanderson is the author of Mix Tape, out in paperback this month.
My writing goes through several stages: the first iteration is just getting the thoughts down, and then there is a process of refining (which can be anything between two and ten versions!). Other than the music of sirens, traffic and people on the busy junction where I currently live and write from, I don’t listen to music in the initial stages. I’ve used music in the refining stages, depending on the content of the writing. It’s often instrumental, and it’s often taken from a film score – I like to visualise what I am writing, and in the refining stages, particularly if the piece is dramatic or romantic, I might play a score I’ve found particularly moving as I imagine my characters bursting forth from the pages – think Hans Zimmer’s ‘Time’ (from Inception), Des’ree’s ‘I’m Kissing You’ (from Romeo & Juliet). If the track is chosen correctly, I find music can be a wonderful aid to emotionally connecting with my work.
Hafsa Zayyan is the author of We Are All Birds of Uganda.
Writing with music playing doesn’t work for me. It has taken a while to discover this, but that is the truth.
I have no excuse. Back in my school days, my father would ‘suggest’ that doing homework with the radio on might not be the best idea. Now, in what I still try to hang on to as late middle age, I realise he was right all along.
I have tried. In Knife Edge, my protagonist Famie Madden takes solace from the world in Mozart and Chopin (her ‘Classical chill’ playlist is a vast, sprawling thing, but they are the two named composers). Late in the book, her daughter Charlie listens to Max Richter. I love Max Richter. Many authors love Max Richter. The (usually) wordless melody, the repetition, the architecture of it all works so magnificently, that surely he is an asset to the writing process? Sadly I have concluded that for me at least, the answer is no. (Voice of father: ‘Told you so’.)
Unless I am fighting outside noise (builders, neighbours, family, life in general) I have to write in silence. There is something about the rhythm and pattern of a sentence that always fights against the rhythm and pattern of music. Any music. Even Richter. Until I reached this place I had a working playlist that included Sigur Rós, Hans Zimmer, Berlioz, Johann Johannsson, Bach, Rachmaninoff, Mark Knopfler, Justin Hurwitz and Philip Glass. It is all magnificent. And sadly, it’s all unhelpful.
(Written listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 16.)
Simon Mayo is the author of Knife Edge.
Certain music genres always seem to affect the kind of writing I produce. If I listen to Bonobo for instance, I find the images I make take on a warmer quality, perhaps less strange, leaning into some sort of discursive narrative which gives the impression of a more roving, anecdotal poetic. The sparse introspective sound of Nils Frahm asks that I venture further into the unlit parts of memory – particularly in those dissonant, indistinct and painful moments which are somehow buttressed by his compositions, as if you’re suddenly made to feel assured by the tenderness of his playing. Alice Coltrane, Portico Quartet and Sona Jobarteh are all staples during the initial stages of my writing, acting as an emotive soundscape or direct muse. The elliptical songwriting styles of Iron & Wine and Bon Iver push me to play more with associative logic and connotation. Once I have the foundations of a poem down, or at least a set of ideas to work from, I switch to white noise or total silence, where I then redraft and agonise over the writing for the foreseeable future.
Anthony Anaxagorou is the author of How To Write It.
I can’t listen to music while writing, but I often need it to get me into the right headspace. While putting together my first book, listening to music before writing a word was part of the process. It played such an important role in the narrative and writing style. ‘Wonderful Life’ by Black and ‘Mad World’ by Gary Jules were always on repeat when I was trying to inhabit the specific sadness of my protagonist, and whenever I needed a confidence boost I would listen to Illmatic by Nas, an early influence on my poetry.
Currently, with anything I write, my go to ‘song’ is the Winter part of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’. I don’t really listen to classical music, but after hearing this performed by buskers near Leicester Square station, I haven’t been able to detangle it from my ability to generate ideas.
Derek Owusu is the author of That Reminds Me.
The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers. Suede’s Sci-Fi Lullabies. And New York Dolls. These were the albums on rotation as I began writing Skint Estate. They capture the dirty glamour of working-class life like no other – and I hoped my obsessive listening would smear some glitter into the sickness I was scrawling across the page.
As the deadline for Skint Estate crept up my health spiralled low, and I flew out to Mexico to get sober. At Heathrow, a friend texted me a mixtape of lyric-less jazz classics to help me write. “Without lyrics the noise is quiet”, he typed. But before the jet reached cruising altitude, I noted that books conceived to such soundtracks often read like something written in the South Hampstead Starbucks.
The Mats’ All Shook Down, Morrissey’s Years of Refusal and Warren Zevon: these were the albums that helped me finish up the book. I find the silence of instrumentals a hindrance; it’s far more satisfying to be fighting thoughts alongside the lyrical dexterity of your musical idols.
Cash Carraway is the author of Skint Estate.
I listen to music constantly when I write; Scrivener and Spotify are the first two apps I always open.
What I listen to varies, but it usually includes Van Morrison. Currently, my ‘writing playlist’ (imaginatively titled) also features the likes of Alabama Shakes, Antony and the Johnsons, Billie Holliday, Bob Dylan, Cat Power, Cat Stevens, Goldfrapp, and Terence Trent D’Arby.
Not only do I find music helps me concentrate, but I also use music to help me channel certain emotions. If I’m writing a scene featuring heartbreak, for example, then I’ll play a series of breakup songs and get myself in that mindset – typing through tears, listening to an Adele ballad! I suppose this is my version of ‘method writing’.
Oh, and, of course, I’ve already curated a soundtrack playlist for The Flip Side in case it is ever adapted for the big screen!
James Bailey is the author of The Flip Side, out in November.
One of my favourite elements of the writing process is creating a soundtrack to accompany the narrative. It was something I discovered almost by accident when writing my debut, The Lost Letters of William Woolf – the curation of a book’s playlist allowed me to indulge in the perfect intersection of my two great loves, music and literature.
Every day, before I begin to write, I usually choose a song to listen to that encapsulates for me the energy or the feeling of the scene I want to work on. The physical world around me slips away, and I am able to cross the bridge from reality to the wonderland of the imagination. When one of the songs that accompanies my writing creeps up on me on the radio, or in a bar, or the supermarket, I am immediately drawn back into the world of my books. The theme tune for The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually is ‘Moon River’ as performed by the Henry Mancini Orchestra, and I played it on vinyl many, many times while I was writing the book. Forever linked in my mind, hearing that song will now always transport me to a little island off the west coast of Ireland, where the book is set. Such is the power of music to summon memory and transform the ordinary world into an extraordinary, sensory otherworld.
Helen Cullen is the author of The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually.
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