15 May 2014

More Fun With Music

by Brian Thornton

My last post was about tinnitus and how it inhibited me from (most of the time) listening to music while I was writing. I went on to mention that I do occasionally listen to certain types of music while writing certain scenes.

Today I'm going to delve into what music I actually listen to when writing.

I break it down into four general categories completely of my own invention: evocative; action; timely; and romantic.

Why, yes, this is what "cool" looks like.

The second short story I published with Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine was a tale about a mob "fixer" in 1962 Las Vegas. It was titled "Suicide Blonde."

The entire time I worked on this story I had Miles Davis' immortal "Kind of Blue" (1959) playing in the background. I know it's been mentioned so many times that it's pretty much a cliché, but 50s/60s club jazz is practically a soundtrack for the crime fiction of the era.

Songs such as "So What?", "Freddie Freeloader, and especially "All Blues" just paint a picture for me: a landscape populated by slick guys in sharp suits, driving long cars with fins, dating glamorous women...

Yep, Davis's stuff from the era definitely helped set the mood.

There's so much to make fun of here.
How about we start with the hair?

As I mentioned in my last post, I listen to a lot of soundtrack stuff when I'm writing action scenes. (How the West Was Won, I mentioned explicitly). But I don't just listen to soundtracks and western themes when writing action. I listen to anything with a driving, compelling beat. I once listened to Sammy Hagar's "I Can't Drive 55", the Scorpions' "Lovedrive" and Golden Earring's "Radar Love" over and over on a loop while writing a car chase scene (and did it for so long that I still haven't listened to any of them since!).


Similar to evocative above, but not necessarily the same thing. These are literally "period pieces," music written and performed during the era I'm writing about. For example, I write a lot of mid-19th century America stuff. And if you're gonna use mid-19th century American music, you've got two choices: Stephen Foster, and anything else.

Foster just depresses me.

And I think it's pretty clear WHY…
So I tend to go with the "anything else." I mostly listen to mid-19th century music from this gent:

Oh come on! The medals! That mustache!
This guy practically screams FUN!
 He is, of course, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a half Jewish/half Creole piano maestro and composer from Louisiana who studied in Paris (where he was duly snubbed for being American.) and toured the world giving concerts up until he dropped dead on a concert stage (from malaria) in Rio at the age of 40.

Gottschalk's stuff is both timely and evocative. I listen to it a goodly bit while writing in the period. I am partial to the interpretations of Laure Favre-Kahn, but your mileage may vary.

Which leaves us with …


And by this I mean "emotional" more than "lovestruck" (although the two are hardly mutually exclusive). Any good singer-songwriter stuff will work for these scenes: Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Sarah McLaughlin, Elton John. Stuff that makes you FEEL.

And yes, that includes stuff by THIS guy:

I defy you to listen to "The Pretender" and not have an emotional response!
I use this stuff to fuel my dialogue in these sorts of scenes, because music that sparks an emotional responses helps me get the right words flowing.

How about you? What music gets your right words flowing?


  1. Enjoyed your choices, Brian. I've always loved Jackson Browne songs especially, and "The Pretender" is definitely a classic of its kind.

  2. I cannot write to music, but I did have a character once who was a fantasy writer who liked Monteverdi

  3. I write a lot to silence. But when I do play music, it's almost entirely to instrumental music, or foreign enough so that the words don't interfere with the words I'm writing: medieval and baroque classical music, Gregorian chant, world music (African or Indian when I want a beat, Celtic for a mood). Occasionally jazz. I love Kind of Blue and at this point I can play it in my own mind by heart.

    I only listen to rock and roll in the car, when I'm doing some hard driving.

  4. I seldom listen to music while writing. Not that I don't care for it. Good music is essential. But my idea of "good" and today's noise are poles (or generations) apart.

  5. Time was I wrote to the evening jazz show. I tend to get "deep in the plak-tow" and zone-out when I'm writing. One thing I can't listen to is country music---sometimes their stories are more compelling than mine and I stop to listen! And I love Gottschalk!

  6. I worked with a video editor who somehow related his work to Creedence Clearwater and played it endlessly, several lifetimes worth. I heard it so much, I realized nuances I never wanted to know, such as Proud Mary keeps on burning, isn't pronounced 'burning' at all, but 'boining'. Where did that come from?

    Thinking about it, I need a palate cleanser, blues maybe. Yeah.

  7. I listened to U-2's Joshua Tree album so many times, when writing a piece, that my oldest son still refuses to ever listen to them again. LOL



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