Let Music Set the Mood

photo by Brandon Giesbrecht

I know some people can’t listen to music while they write. If that’s the case for you, then I fear there’s nothing for you here today. Sorry! As for the rest of you, settle in. We’re going to talk about tunes.

Sometimes you’re not feeling it, right? But you need to write, otherwise you’ll get out of practice. You’ll lose the momentum you’ve been building. I’ve found a great way to set the mood is to find music that transports you. There are classical pieces by Chopin that when I close my eyes, listening to them, I can see the couples twirling, the men in their black formalwear and the women in ornate gowns. I couldn’t write an action scene, listening to Chopin.

This may seem like pretty basic advice, but I’ve discovered how powerful music can be all over, writing this new YA project. I’m doing it for my daughter, but it has taught me a great deal. I spent an afternoon putting together a playlist for the hero, who’s a musician, and his choices speak volumes on what kind of person he is, his current state of mind, and how he’s dealing with adversity. Furthermore, when I listen to those songs — his music– I get to know him even better.

Music, when it’s properly played, should make us ache. It should move us, make us angry, or make us think. And that’s what we want our books to do as well. Auditory and olfactory memories are powerful things, you know? If you smell a pumpkin pie baking, maybe it takes you back to grandma’s house. And if you hear Born in the USA, you remember a hot summer night, getting up to no good in the back of somebody’s car. (For me, it’s not Springsteen, but John Mellencamp, though he was John Cougar back then. Hey, I grew up in Indiana! And the song is Jack & Diane.)

I’ve actually found that listening to music can help me get past something that’s bothering me in the book. Sometimes, songs tell a story. So if you listen, they can help you with yours. I’ll start searching for songs with symbolism similar to what I’m working with, and occasionally, just listening to them pushes me to some epiphany, then once I identify the problem, I can keep writing.

There’s a song for every book, a melody for each mood. For example, Bodies by Drowning Pool gets played pretty much everytime I write an action scene. (Along with others).

What are some of your favorite bands / songs, and what moods do they set of you?




About Ann Aguirre

Ann Aguirre is a bestselling, multi-published author with a degree in English Literature. She is a prolific writer, with nine releases planned for 2011 alone. She writes romantic science fiction and urban fantasy under her own name. As Ava Gray, she writes high-octane romances. She also writes "hot paranormal apocalyptic action" with fellow author Carrie Lofty under the pseudonymn Ellen Connor. Follow her on Twitter.


  1. says

    I have a different playlist for each of my books.

    They’re are one part my taste, one part emotionally evocative for the story I’m telling (which means they’re sometimes all over the map) and one part there because some part of the lyrics (or, at times, my mishearing of a lyric) made me say, “Oh” and write something for this book.

    Sometimes I’ll also just play something upbeat to get my energy up, or something I always want to sing along to, to distract my analytical brain.

    But when I get to redrafting I have to shut the music down because music messes with your emotions, makes you feel and I can’t separate the emotion on the page from the emotion in my ears.

    Right now I’m listening to “Kick Ass” by Mika.

  2. says

    I have playlists for each book that I listen to in the mornings before I get to work. I also tend to listen to them in the car. Every book’s playlist has been radically different. The book I’m editing has a martial arts expert main character, and his playlist has a lot of driving rock and songs about beating the odds. Another project I have in development has a Robin Hood-like female main character with a more prominent love story, and her songs are sweeter and a bit more indie.

    However, I find anything with words distracting while I write. Lately, I’ve been trying out a new service called focus@will, which is still in beta, I believe. It’s been developed especially for listening while working, and has several different styles and speeds. I’ve found it to be very helpful.

  3. says

    Thanks for sharing your views on an interesting topic. I know some writers who cannot write with any music playing in the background. I find music somehow stimulates my mind. I often put on my ear buds when writing. I prefer alternative rock. Radiohead, Wilco and Fiona Apple are my favorites.

  4. says


    I discovered a while ago that one of my characters is a cellist, so Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach solos became an essential part of my writing playlist. I don’t always listen to music while I’m writing, but certain music helps me prep for a session stuck to the chair with the computer. For action, I’ve been listening to Two Steps from Hell, which is super-awesome movie trailer soundtrack music (also great at the gym for a workout). In general, soundtracks are my go-to because there is so much variety out there. Favorites include: Jane Eyre (most recent film), Sherlock and anything from Lord of the Rings.

  5. says

    I have several playlists I listen to while writing. Sometimes I just go with straight-up soundtracks. Lately, my favorites have been “Gladiator OST”, “Skyrim OST”, Pandora Station: Carolan’s Dream, Pandora Station: Harry Gregson-Williams, etc. I really love epic scores to be in the background while I write. Typically, there are the action-dense songs and the slow, meandering melodies all jumbled in. I like that. I think it helps to create a natural ebb and flow with my tone while writing.

  6. says

    What I listen to when I’m writing is all over the map (just as it is when I’m just listening to music). While I’m working on my current fantasy story idea I like listening Epica’s The Score album. Most of the songs are instrumental (with a full orchestra even) and the swirls, crescendos and varying tempos suits my story.

  7. says

    I just wrote a piece about this. I guess music is in the air. I made the case that playlists help you with revision work, too, as the instant association aids in transporting you back to the scene.

    I write historical fantasy, and the post was specifically about the power of Dead Can Dance. They transport me back to my historical world, but there are others that do the job, such as Globus, E.S. Posthumus, Corvus Corax. It’s always a fun topic for me.

  8. says

    I do most of my writing at Starbucks, and I confess that I often listen to their soundtrack, to the point of memorizing the lyrics subconsciously. The service they use is more hip than Muzak, but it’s still programmed according to a certain demographic.

    When I bring the headphones I sometimes use Pandora. My book is set in South Asia (Nepal) if you really must know) and it’s surprising how much Bollywood is on there. Pandora seems to have lots of world pop. My current South Asian heart-throb is Shreya Ghoshal. Likewise if you haven’t heard Khailash Kher you are missing a cultural phenomenon. (His YouTube videos are fun as well.

    When I am writing a specific scene, esp a love song, I tend to listen to one song over and over. My characters listen and respond to music in their own lives, and in my book I refer to one particular tune at a specific point, but I only use it sparingly because it points out a specific cultural nuance, not because of the tune.

  9. Denise Willson says

    While getting to know the protagonist of my current WIP, I listened to Taylor Swift. Can’t think of a better way to feel like I’m 22. :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  10. Lisa Threadgill says

    I’ve used music when I write for years. Movie soundtracks for the most part, choosing those most suitable for the type of project or point in the project. I’m not a romance writer, but my work does have romance in it. Nothing says romance like the soundtracks to either “Somewhere in Time” or “Braveheart”. My current project list includes “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Curse of the Golden Flower”.

  11. says

    Listening to music before and during my writing sessions is vital for me, so this topic is dear to my heart. :-) We all have our little writing rituals, so here’s mine:

    When I am writing, I generally listen to instrumental music. I have recently discovered calmradio.com for instrumentals: classical, jazz, new age, acoustic, etc., and cinemix.us for movie soundtracks. They have nice mixes and they save me from spending way too much time mixing my own instrumental playlists. (If I listen to music with lyrics, I sometimes get distracted out of my writing.)

    I find that classical symphonies work well for sparking creativity, and Music for the Mozart Effect CD’s, like “Unlock the Creative Spirit,” and “Focus and Clarity,” seem to do the job quite well.

    When I am plotting in my head, and before I sit down to write, I prepare myself by listening to my own playlist, which consists of music with singers/lyrics – a mix of rock, pop, new wave, jazz, and folk. They help to set the mood and get me into the “fictive dream” and into the character’s head.

    Interesting post, thanks!

  12. says

    I’m pleasantly surprised at the number of writers do what I do–create a playlist for each book. I listen to anything from evocative new-agey (Clannad, Enya, etc.) to Radiohead and Rage Against the Machine, depending on what I’m working on. I mostly use the playlist for narrative points that often give me ideas on the writing. I am, though, one of those people who can’t write while there’s music playing–too distracting–although I might listen to a particular song related to a scene prior to writing the scene.

  13. Carmel says

    I don’t often listen to music while I’m writing but, if I do, it is a song from the 1930s when the story is set. I mention two songs in the ms. and I listen while editing those two scenes. It really adds to the flavor of the scene, and I often wish the songs could play for real while the reader is reading the scene. :o)

    A question — is it okay to mention the name of the songs and use part of the lyrics if the songs are that old? And not get any permission to use? Am I mistaken to think they’re in the public domain after fifty years?

  14. says

    The PIANO GUYS- I go nowhere without these guys. They are my quiet office in the midst of audio mayhem. I have to use their upbeat music, because anything slow will send me to an altered state of consciousness. The majority of their songs are instrumental.

    Oh, how I love strings. I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about it!

  15. says

    I write most often to music, and I’ve created soundtracks for all my stories using YouTube and Pinterest. The mood of the music can help to evoke vivid images and emotions that help me convey what the character is feeling.

    The only time I don’t write with a soundtrack is when I’m writing non-fiction. But usually even then I play jazz or classical in the background.

  16. says

    Music can be a powerful tool to writing. For instance, while writing our novel, Tales from the Kingdome: The Knight in Screeching Armor, we listened to Norwegian symphonic opera. The lofty tunes inspired us to strive for beautiful passages (it was also vastly amusing, considering the songs were about vikings, of all things!). Sometimes, though, good old silence can be the catalyst for hours of deep writing.

  17. says

    Wow, I never would have thought about a playlist for the book! I may have to do that!

    I love listening to dramatic soundtracks when I write. I love the fluid motion, the ups and downs and general lack of words.

    Here’s a typical Spotify playlist here: http://open.spotify.com/user/crystallyn/playlist/6U4XQlMc0bULmfKlSy3idr

    I also tend to listen to Bach’s Cello Suites often. I find it absolutely the best music to write to. I like the Rachmaninoff version in particular but Yo Yo Ma also has a lovely album as well.

    I’m definitely stealing some music ideas from this thread!

  18. Lucy Flint says

    Thanks, Leanne, for the rainymood recommendation! I’m loving it–the perfect solution to this sunny afternoon.

    I’m with the soundtrack crowd: impossible to beat James Newton Howard or Hans Zimmer for writing music!

    (And if you haven’t tried writing to James Newton Howard’s soundtrack for The Village… you really owe it to yourself to check it out.)

  19. says

    Hi, Ann. Enjoyed the post, even though I can’t have music playing when I’m writing–too distracting. In fact, I liked the post so much it’ll be included in my Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs post, going up later today. Part of what I say fits here: “But even if you’re not a writer/listener, there’s something for you here: a song may not set your mood, but it can set the story’s mood or reveal something about a character. In my first novel, one of my characters is a fan of rock music from the ‘60s to ‘80s and snippets from those songs will pop into her head from time to time, usually at high-stress moments. It tells you something about her and adds a new dimension to the scene.”

  20. says

    It’s gotta be classical for me. Or at least something without words. If there is singing I usually get distracted listening to the song. Bruckner symphonies are great because they’re like soundtracks. Schubert string ensembles are also big favorites with me. In the jazzy vein, I can have Stan Getz and Strings “Cool Velvet” playing over and over.

  21. says

    Love the idea of a specific playlist for writing a piece to. I listen to music, mostly instrumental softly in the background to help keep a little distracion going in my head from the writing.

    I will check out a couple of the suggestions above and think about putting together something specific. I love hearing about everyone’s suggestions and methods!

  22. Autumn says

    I listen to a lot of different kinds of music when writing a story, but my absolute favorite is Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Like a good story, it has this perfect tension in every chord, and that tension builds and resolves and builds again until it forms itself into a perfect plot arc — complete with exposition, rising actions, climax, and resolution. It’s not the only song that I listen to, but when I’ve hit a block I find that sitting and letting that piece wash over me usually reminds me how to put emotion and the above mentioned tension back into my writing.

  23. Diane Watanabe says

    I don’t normally listen to music when I write, but when I needed to go to a dark place for one of my WIPs, I listened to Evanescence. The lyrics reflected the mood I needed to be in.

    Making a playlist specifically for a project is an interesting idea.

  24. Larkin Warren says

    GREAT query, thank you! I need something playing, otherwise I hear the house clicking and the To Do list calling and can’t stay in my chair. I’ve collaborated with seven different people on their memoirs; in all but one case, they each had songs/eras/pieces that mattered much to them, so I’d play their music while trying to get into their voice. Not sure I would’ve ever settled in for whole afternoons with Radiohead otherwise. It’s how I found Flogging Molly, the Corrs, Foy Vance, Heather Massey and Ray LaMontagne.

    Working on my own book now, I often focus on a particular era or playlist—Beatles together + separately, Stones, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Carole King, early Windham Hill, Motown, Aretha, or the music my parents loved—Glenn Miller, Dorsey Brothers, Ella Fitzgerald. Elvis Costello, all of it. Bill Evans, Miles Davis. When words or a definite beat are unwanted, the Liquid Mind series is great, Gregorian Chant as well, Elgar the best. And when I get altogether stuck: Randy Newman, Eva Cassidy, or plain old “shuffle”–something or somebody on the big list will turn up and unstuck me.