Music & the Writer

photo of classical music advertisement for epic music and great battle scenes

I snapped this pic in Chicago, Dec 2011, because music matters.

Lots of writers use music to set mood and evoke emotion while writing, and I’m no exception — I love using music to create a tone for a scene or even just to get creative juices flowing.

Some authors have gone so far as to release playlists, identifying songs for each scene. I don’t generally do that, for several reasons:

I don’t work that way

That’s just not how my brain works; I don’t often have a specific piece of music tied to a specific scene. There are very rare exceptions.

I don’t have permission

When I do actually have a specific soundtrack for a scene, I generally don’t have the artist’s permission to use it publicly. Most don’t mind the mention, but occasionally their label’s lawyers feel differently. I know of several incidents where an artist was fine with or even flattered by a non-commercial use of a song (including one in which the user was personal friends with the artist), but the label issued a C&D letter.

And referencing a song in relation to my own work for sale might be considered commercial use. Still fuzzy on how a court would view a writer specifically tying a work for sale to someone else’s work for sale, and I’ll let someone else go first, thanks.

So while I may know that the first time Morgan sees Rae dance (in a work called Kingcraft, not available at this time or any time soon), she’s dancing to “Marco Polo” by Loreena McKennitt, I don’t always want to share that. But legal concerns aren’t the only reason, either.

Readers don’t always work that way, either

Now that I’ve mentioned “Marco Polo,” give it a listen.

Some readers thought that was a lovely song. Others were wholly unmoved. Still others were distracted by a visual and forgot to listen to the music.

If I specify a piece of music for a certain scene, but that music doesn’t work for the reader, I may have actually hurt their reading experience by replacing their own imagined soundtrack.

(By the way, there’s a really interesting article/podcast on music and emotion over at How Stuff Works.)

Scenes & Soundtracks

Now obviously films get around this end-user issue all the time — but they have talented composers writing specifically for that medium. It’s created for the scene itself and it’s timed perfectly. Books don’t have those advantages.

Still, if Howard Shore ever scores one of my books — squeeeeeeeeeeee! — I would be totally okay with that.

Mood & Music

So how do I use music while writing?

I have a playlist called, accurately enough, Angsty & Epic Writing Music. It’s several dozen hours of mostly instrumental music, chosen for sweeping emotions, driving rhythms, and general awesomeness. I use it to ease my brain — which both responds to music and now recognizes it as a cue — into epic writing mode. It’s as close as I get to having Howard Shore scoring my work.

So what’s on it? Lots of things, but here are a few staples:

A few with vocals:

And there are some sprinkled in which might help my brain out of a rut, but also which I just like:

And rarely, I do pick a track to start with that I think will go well with what I’ll be writing.

What music powers you?


The Book of Secrets was the first Loreena McKennitt album I owned and still one of my favorites. Celtic and multi-national influences blend to create an excellent background music or sound theme.affiliate link

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    Craig Schmidt

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  2. Of the ones you mention, I only know McKennitt, but I really dig her. Ihave three of her CDs, including the one you mention. It is my favorite too. I sometimes listen to Pandora when writing/working. Every now and then it’s ‘random’ selection finds a way to influence what I’m working on…

  3. I usually listen to soundtracks or other instrumental music while writing, or occasionally songs in foreign languages, as English-language lyrics distract me from what I’m writing. I used to maintain my own playlists, but after a while my collections started feeling repetitive. Now I lean more toward online streaming services such as StreamingSoundtracks or Pandora, since the music is much more randomized.

  4. This is a great post! I like the way you think – and I agree. I have a playlist on my iTunes called “Kitty and the Midnight Hour” that Carrie Vaughn released in that novel…and I didn’t really care for it. I have no idea why I still have the playlist.