Find The Music In The Valleys

Guest post by Mark Cunningham

Music is one of those things that writers have to decide.  It’s kind of like Beatles or Stones.  I am a music guy, that’s all there is to it.  For the record I am listening to a very tasty Phish soundboard as I type. 

Now, a lot of those who don’t write to music choose silence to limit distractions.  Where do they write? I can’t help but wonder.  Silence is something I do when I’m sleeping, both by nature and circumstances.  If I am looking to check into writer land, nothing does the trick virtually instantaneously like tunes. 

I suggest to those who choose whatever silence they have the opportunity to obtain over music, that perhaps they simply have not found the right kind.  Music, like love and beverage, has all sorts of textures and flavors.  There is a certain type of music that is good for writing, although it is clearly different for each individual. 

For me, music skims the story, like a rock going across the water.  It’s there, keeping pace in between skips, but it lands now and then, making a point.  When it is clicking, my fingers are jamming with the music, laying down words directly from my muse.  Again, I heartily recommend it.  You just have to find the right skimming music for you.

The first thing about skimming music, is that it shouldn’t be the main event.  Skimming music needs to be able to assume a backseat when required.  This typically suggests music that is more instrumental than lyrical.  I love Dylan, but when I am writing, Visions of Johanna has a chance of getting in the way, as it’s mostly landing.  The same thing goes for Frank Zappa, unless he is just playing guitar, in which case he keeps it very airborne. 

My personal preferences are jam bands and jazz.  Both are ideal for putting on headphones and skimming.  Both employ typically longish pieces and both are liberal with time changes to keep it interesting.  I find myself losing myself in my fingers as a good jam goes on.  Usually, a lot gets written.  Classical music is also perfect for skimming.  It flows and has very nice transitions.  Mozart, Bach and Schubert have always worked well for me.  I also wrote a lot of a short story on a train once to Carmen.  I have found that no matter the flavor of the music, when the texture is live, it seems to work better for skimming.  Live performances seem to promote spontaneity and improvisation. 

One final note on skimming, I suggest it for writing, not reading.  When you are ready to read what you have written, especially during a long skim, it’s time to turn the music off.


Mark Cunningham is a US-based writer and sometime collaborator with Waxings. This extract is from a series of posts on a music-related writing exercise he calls ‘Over the Wall’. Read more about the exercise and Mark’s other projects at his blog, The Wombat Returns.




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4 Responses to Find The Music In The Valleys

  1. I can’t write in silence either! Good to know I’m not alone.

  2. Ara Jansen says:

    As a long time rock journo it’s perfect to listen to the album you’re writing about when you’re typing away. But I also have a stash of albums which I put on when I just need help getting into the writing zone for any type of story. They help send me into the story I’m writing and almost become invisible at some point as I get into whatever I am typing. Plus I have different music for mornings, after pick me ups, dusk and late nights. If i sat down and really thought about it, there’s a real intuitive way in which i choose what to listen to – and the same goes for non-writing time as well. Thanks Mark, i really enjoyed your piece!

  3. Lucia, you are definitely not alone. Ara, I also use music to get in the zone, whether on my way to a sales call for my day gig, or on my way to the keyboard for a sentence that will hopefully lead to a paragraph. I can also relate to the invisibility. I will be typing along, lost in the prose when all of the sudden, I come back and the music is there and there is no feeling quite like it. I am glad you enjoyed the post, as I enjoyed your response.

  4. Greg Doolan says:

    I’m either/or for music and writing, depending on a range of things, including mood and whether ideas for the page are clear in my mind or they are having trouble coming out.

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