Music and Writing by Neil McGowan


I'm writing this listening to a broadcast of one of the BBC Proms. I have very little interest in sports (and I really dislike football, so the world cup, for me, is three weeks of trying to avoid TV) so my yearly fix is musical. As a fan of classical music, the BBC proms fits the bill perfectly. Some old classics, some new, and always something unusual. It's especially nice to see it back in the Royal Albert Hall with an audience.

The reason I'm waxing lyrical about music is that it's integral to the writing process for me. I can write just about anywhere and have done so (trains, coffee shops, all the usual suspects apply) but the one thing I struggle to write without is music.

It's a conversation I never tire of having with other writers – do you listen to music when you write? The answers are always varied and interesting. For some, it's an absolute no-no – they need silence to work; others need loud music for them to get words down on paper. Some like it when editing; others like to listen to music when thinking about plot or character; others only listen when reading. Some eschew music entirely and have the TV on for background noise. The only constant is no two people are the same.

Myself, I need music throughout the process – reading, writing, and editing – and the task I'm focused on tends to dictate my listening choice. These days, it's predominantly classical – I've discovered the older I get, the more I turn to classical music when selecting something to listen to – and usually without vocals. I find vocals can be distracting, as I tend to start listening to the lyrics instead of getting words down on paper.

This is especially true when working on rewrites and edits. It's less of an issue when blasting through a first draft, where I tend to be more wide-ranging in my choice. I tend to listen to a lot of opera when working on first drafts, as although I speak French and German (and am learning Russian) I find listening to these languages seems to use a different part of the brain to that used to process English.

(I'm sure there's a research project in there, somewhere; many's the time I've idly speculated about it, wondering if it's why foreign languages are used to help with neurological injuries, as people unable to converse seem to be able, in a large number of cases, to use a different language to converse. Just another example of the power of language, I guess.)

It's not just classical, though, for me. I find there are times when it needs to be rawer and more aggressive, to match the mood and tone of the subject matter I'm writing about. For example, my current WIP is a crime novel set around Edinburgh and tackling sex trafficking. It's pretty grim stuff to read about, and the writing is hard – I'm finding there's a delicate balance between drafting a text that is hard-hitting and manages to shine a light on this less-than-pleasant aspect of modern life – and the music I listen to needs to match this. I've been listening to a lot of eighties rock and metal bands – in particular, Metallica and Iron Maiden – as well as some more recent stuff (Metallica are still there, joined by bands like Disturbed and also a symphonic metal band I recently discovered called Nightwish). Good stuff, all of it, and the funny thing is, I can see shadows of classical influence in a lot of this music. (I thought this was just me, until I discovered a surprisingly high number of metal musicians either have classical training or a deep interest in the form – David Draiman, lead singer of Disturbed, trained in choral music as a youth.)

Anyway, there you have it – my kryptonite when writing is music – take it away and I struggle; turn it on and it's like the outside world melts away and it's just me and the page.


Umberto Tosi said…
I used to write to music must more than I do now. Depending on the piece, I can find it focusing - melting away the outside world, or distracting, drawing me into it and away from everything else, including what I had intended to write. (Mozart, Beethoven, et al, usually fall into the later for me, particularly performed by extraordinary interpreters. But much other music works best to percolate my imagination before setting pen to paper (or type to screen, as we do now.) Enjoyed your post. Thanks.

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