Mad Geniuses: The Musical

We’ve been asked a few times about music, writing, and reading. While a soundtrack for a book is a very individual thing, it’s not a bad idea to throw some lines in the back of the book about what you were listening to while you wrote… don’t quote song lyrics, though, that stuff can get you in trouble. I may do a post on my personal blog when I publish the next book, with a soundtrack listing.

However, I can talk about music and how it affects my writing. Firstly, I think it’s different for every book, and every person. Each of us have individual likes and dislikes. But maybe I can suggest some things that will help you find your groove on the record. When the music is right for me, my fingers fly. And, something else, make notes of what really works, because trust me on this, you will forget, and it can be handy to remember for the next book in the series, or that soundtrack.

I first remember connecting strongly a song and a book with John Ringo, and the March of Cambreadth. In time, that piece became a family favorite, and I owned several CDs by the musician. I’ve learned in the years since then that his musical taste and mine align fairly well, and I will pick up a book of his and look for the music so I can go buy it. I have very eclectic taste, however. I can listen to anything from the latest pop (courtesy of my kids, but Imagine Dragon’s Radioactive is such a SF song, and I haven’t looked up the lyrics on purpose. I’d rather mishear them my way.) to medieval chants. Yes, I know Orff is misused, but dang! The man could evoke a feeling.

Evocative is the first thing I look for in a song to build a playlist around – I’ll get to the details of that in a minute – because I’m using the music to build a mood in me, and then let it pour out onto the page. It’s rare I use music as background noise, I use tv shows for that, in a flooding technique, to help me work without being twitchy. So if I am writing combat, I look for a song like March, or, most recently, Rammstein’s Mein Herz Brennt or Die Trying by Art of Dying.

For a more emotional mood, I like Philip Wesley’s Racing the Sunset, or The Gael, by Andrew Jackson on uillean pipes. I used the latter to write a fey celebration of the return of Mannan Mac’Lir in the God’s Wolfling, where the main character wound up dancing with a Banshee and getting drunk on emotion. It worked nicely for that, and that scene is a good example of the way music can influence what you are writing – it pulled me in just the way I was writing a young woman pulled into the music.

Music that transports you is excellent for writing. However, I know I can fall down the rabbit hole while searching for just the right song, so these are a few of the things I do to minimize that time. First, I’ll pick one song that works for the mood I’m trying to set. Normally I can do this off the top of my head. Earlier today, my First Reader suggested the B52’s Love Shack for a lovemaking scene… which made me laugh. There’s nothing wrong with mixing sex and laughter, but usually I’d choose something like Dashboard Confessional’s Even Now for this particular scene, where I was being more poignant than boisterous.

Once I have the kernel song, I can use several tools to build a playlist. One is my iTunes library, but it’s large, as I said before eclectic, and I can push the genius button and get something interesting in a couple of moments. This may not work for you. If you use Pandora, seed the song, or artists, that work, and you will usually get some good stuff. Not always. I was looking for old-school pop, and put in Bing Crosby to add some croon… and got Christmas music. Sigh. Youtube is another way to do it, by searching for the song and seeing what else pops up. I don’t like to use youtube while I am writing, because I have to go push a button every few minutes, and that throws me out of the scene. I’m more likely to use iTunes or Pandora, or Amazon music.

If you have playlist generation tools, please do share, along with music that works for you… maybe I’ll pick up some new songs! I could go on with a long list of my favorites, but I won’t unless you ask.

Mad Genius Songs:

Sarah Hoyt – Fluffy’s Master Plan for World Domination

Amanda Green – Poisoning Pigeons in the Park

Kate Paulk – Monster Mash

Dave Freer – Fishheads

Cedar Sanderson – Thrift Shop  (40’s style)

Various Contributors – Everything at Once


  1. Covenant- Spindrift

    (many of their song contain sci-fi references…, especially to Blade Runner)

  2. I confess I use generally inspirational music, and the best for when the creative juices are drying up is Beethoven’s Ninth. I know it becomes hackneyed to pick that particular one, but the way it builds to the triumphant chorale gets me lifted with the music, and I must write, And I used to be an old lady with a rock n roll heart, Who knew?

    1. I’m a fan of Beethoven. For me the only parts that sound cheezy is when they are excerpted. Play the whole symphony, and you avoid the cliche. I still can’t quite listen to the Ode To Joy only by itself. Don’t get me started by the penchant for putting it into Christmas concerts.

  3. No play list, but:
    Fight Scenes: NOT Orff, because I start singing along. Epic music (Two Steps from Hell, Thomas Bergerson, Epic North, et al) and black metal/ symphonic metal (Leaves Eyes, Nightwish, Lacuna Coil, Within Temptation). [H/T James young for introducing me to both of these groups]

    Creepy conspiracy mood: the BSG soundtracks by Bear McCreary and friends [Ditto credity to J.Y.]

    Thoughtful quiet scenes: Russian classical music, Orthodox chant, Celtic New Age or Celtic harp, Ralph Vaughn Williams symphonies and other slow classical music. (The great requiems are good, but I’ve sung most of them and start following the music instead of writing).

    Anything set around Schloss Drachenburg – Strauss waltzes.

      1. Within Temptation is my “go to” for music to wake up my brain.
        Classical of all sorts works well for most things, as long as it’s not something I performed while I was in a choir.

        Whatever it is, it must be well done enough that it doesn’t hit my musical training, and not *quite* well enough that I get lost in the music itself.

        That can be… challenging.

  4. I just finished my review of Amanda Green’s ‘Nocturnal Interlude’ and I can say this about much about music to review by: ‘Truckin’ and ‘Ripple’ by the Grateful Dead didn’t work at all, because I was too focused on the music. I shifted to Pandora and the Brooks Williams Radio channel I’d created, and it was perfect. Sweet instrumentals, not a lot of commercials.

  5. I’ve listened to a lot of music, both past favorites and some recommendations from John Ringo (Cruxshadows) and Steve Sailor (e) (Nightwish-Final Temptation-Epica) I don’t know where I got ‘March’ maybe John Ringo, maybe someone else. Fell in Love with Heather Axexander’s singing voice though and have many songs by her. But, it’s mostly for listening. I use Microsoft Windows Media Player for playlists. I did use the playlist and earplugs a couple of times when my wife had the tv too loud and broke my concentration on writing. Since it was used to block, I don’t know if it would help my writing or not. I did buy some powered speakers and maybe when I can drop my walls enough to write again I will try background music writing.

    1. For many writers, anything with lyrics doesn’t work. I’m a little different that way. For me, I can’t sleep if there is tv or radio with voices, but I can use it as quiet background and block the whole thing out to write. But then, I’m not normal… 😀

  6. For writing I demand silence. Or possibly classical music.
    For reading, it really doesn’t matter. Maybe when I envision the scene afterward some music would be nice.

    And this is my theme. I decree it will henceforth be played whenever I or my text appears.

    1. OMG. lol. Of course all I could think was… hm… looks like Tent Rocks but I don’t think it is. I wonder what mega volcano is responsible for all that Tuff.

  7. Four minutes and thirty-three seconds by John Cage, on repeat.

    I can’t write if I’m listening to music. I focus best if it’s quiet.

      1. I took an art appreciation class somewhere around 1975, and developed a respect for the artists, starting in in Europe after the 20s, who perceived the world as random and ultimately meaningless, due to the mind-destroying brutality of World War One. ‘The Andulasian Dog’ and works by Jackson Pollock stand out in my mind as examples of the reaction to the viciousness of trench warfare, gas, the machine gun, and a worldwide influenza plague.
        However, I can’t figure out what the *&^% John Cage’s work means.

        1. I’ve seen it in live performance. Music School. Unfortunately none of the professors was gullible enough to let us students con them into playing it for juries. Would’ve been so much easier to pass the piano requirements if I could’ve played that instead of The Star Spangled Banner.

          It’s a good piece to cause a philosophical argument about the nature of music.

          And Pat, that piece means that you need more beer to philosophize or that you are in the wrong concert hall, one or the other. That’s all right: if Pollock’s in this hall of the museum, I’ll be in a different one.

    1. Followed by Marcel Marceau’s solo album, right? (Used that as a dead-air joke on the radio once, but I got it from WKRP in Cincinnati).

      I’m with you on that. Music gets into my head WAY too easily.

      There s a very funny video of a drummer doing the “Death Metal” cover of 4’33”, which includes “Outtakes”. Lemmie see if I can find it….

  8. I accidentally downloaded an awful book while under the influence of insomnia. I just reviewed it, and realized I should have had something from Holst’s ‘The Planets’ playing during the review. Not Jupiter, and not Mars because of Stranger in a Strange Land. Maybe Saturn.

  9. Impossible to listen to this while reading ‘For Whose Dear Sake’ in your short story collection ‘Wings,’ which is what I am presently doing. It’s nine minutes of non-reading time; it is, however, an entirely pleasant nine minutes, otherwise except for the very last part when I keep waiting.

  10. I usually end up turning music off. I’m just too ADD. I *have* to listen if I hear words.

    The trick of listening while I write seems to be songs without words or else in foreign languages. I can let those go in the background. Or else my playlist, which is relatively small and where I already know all the lyrics so well that my brain has long ago stopped trying to hear what is being said.

    A pandora or google-listen that was new songs that I tried to sort for “romantic” or “fight scene” or something would be writing death.

    I am looking forward to going back through the comments here and listening to everyone’s song links though. 🙂

  11. Some stories (or characters) seem to require certain kinds of music. (Classical for one, celtic harp for another, new age for yet another) But for general writing I like to put on Mannheim Steamroller Fresh Aire V: To the Moon or Fresh Aire VI: Greek Mythology.

  12. I can’t listen to music when writing. The mood of the music gets into what I write.

    Curiously I can write with my son watching hockey (which involves said son screaming full volume at the TV set whenever someone makes a mistake). I can also write right through the cats and dogs having a play session (which can involve lots of loud noises as they knock things over).

    But not music.


  13. I have what I call my ‘Endless Repeat’ list. It’s rather eclectic, but it’s all songs I find myself listening to over and over. For me the music foes not so much create a specific mood for the scene, rather if helps me get into a general mood for writing. I don’t have trouble with the words distracting me, because I have heard them all so many times.

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