Sunday, January 10, 2016

Music to Write By: the soundtrack of the novel

Well, Christmas is over and January always seems a bit of a lacklustre month. The days are starting to lighten fractionally, but I know full well that we have not yet seen the coldest part of winter. Even if the daffodils are somewhat optimistically poking up green shoots, spring seems a long way off.

It’s not just the length of the days, however, it’s the quality of the light when it does finally put in an appearance. Dull and gloomy, requiring a desk lamp even at midday, and the fire lit by three o’clock in the afternoon.

The roads are perpetually plastered in mud, and so are the sides of my car. The bike is tucked away in the garage. There’s rain on every forecast, and if we make it through to March without snow it will be a first. In fact, as I write this the news is predicting snow and sub-freezing temperatures in the next week.

Perfect time of year, then, to be curled up inside, next to the aforementioned fire, with a book.

And I’ve been doing plenty of reading, both for research and for pleasure.

It’s also a good time to be indoors writing a book. I have a full schedule of work ahead of me that should last well past the rough weather and into the smooth. I’ve recently invested in a daylight lamp to banish the winter blues while I’m at my desk, and I’ve rediscovered one what has been in the past my strongest writing tools.


Although I no longer have my CD collection, I do have an external hard drive with most of the music contained on them loaded onto it. And in a lot of ways that’s even more conducive to writing. I’ve created a playlist of all my favourites, which I play in full Shuffle mode. Hours of music without having to get up to change a disc! The segues from one style to another are sometimes startling, but as these are all my favourites, there’s nothing I don’t like.

Some people have to have a place of tranquillity and complete silence while they write. Others can work quite happily in a busy café with all kinds of hubbub going on around them. Back when I still had a day-job as a photographer, I used to get a lot of scribbling done in the car on the way to shoots. Music on the car stereo, and no distractions of the Internet, or just nipping to the kitchen to make another brew.

(I was in the passenger seat for most of these trips, I ought to add, just in case you were wondering.)

I’ve always found that music conveys atmosphere almost instantly. It’s why it’s the constant backdrop to movies, TV and advertising. What would James Bond be without that distinctive John Barry score?

Or Jaws without the foreboding John Williams music to go along with it?

Cyndi Lauper’s ‘True Colors’ has found its way into many adverts as well as an anti-bullying campaign because the melody is as haunting the lyrics.

When I first heard Rachel Platten’s ‘Fight Song’, there was something about her voice from the moment she starts to sing. But as she goes into the chorus, it brings the hairs up on the back of my neck, the prickle in my chest. Instant emotion.

And I’ve been watching quite a bit of freestyle Grand Prix dressage recently, including the qualifier for the 2016 Olympics which was held at Olympia in London just before Christmas. But this older test by Edward Gal of the Netherlands, on the great Moorlands Totilas shows how music can emphasise and accentuate something that is already stunning. They call it dancing horses, and you’d swear the horse is listening to and keeping time with the music.

For me, listening to music while I write helps me to plug straight into an emotion or the kind of atmosphere I want to create. As long as the music is on low enough that it permeates my brain on an almost-subliminal level. I’ve found I can’t work well with headphones. It’s too immediate. I need a little distance in order for it to have its greatest effect.

What about you? Do you listen to music while you write, or work, or do you prefer the sound of silence? And, if you listen while you type or scribble, what are your favourites?

This week’s Word of the Week is cuckquean. I hadn’t come across this before, although its male equivalent, cuckold is far more common. Where a cuckold is the unwitting husband of an adulterous wife, so a cuckquean is the unwitting wife of an adulterous husband. Both have their roots from the cuckoo bird, which lays its eggs in other birds’ nests and leaves them to bring up young not their own. Sometimes shortened to cuck, it came into use in the mid 13th century. The important part is that the spouse should be deceived. A related word, for instance, is wittol, meaning a man who is aware of his wife’s infidelity and accepts it. 


  1. I used to ride dressage, and I loved that video--dancing horses indeed!

    This is a dreary time of year, even here in California, so I thank you for the suggestion to get my Fight Song on, and my music rolling, to help me stay on track and on deadline!

    Great blog--and great advice.

    1. Thanks, Susan

      I was a dressage competitor, too, although I'm sad to say at nowhere near this kind of level!

      Dreary in California? Really? Wow. I've found my daylight lamp is doing me some good, though, and the music does help to drown out the sound of rain drumming against the windows ...

  2. Hi Zoe. This is an interesting question, as I realised this Christmas that when I am at Work I don't like music on- at all... Unless I can actually hear it. I refer to the 'turned down so low that there is just an annoying buzz' noise.
    At home when I'm at my desk I tend to use a Spotify playlist. I'm going to sound like I have old ears, but when I want to focus I don't want modern music with lyrics. Another author posts her favourite playlists on Spotify and they consist of movie soundtracks. So I tend to look for similar music, some of which can be a bit hit or miss.
    However.. If I'm cleaning etc it's LOUD and anything goes!
    Best wishes
    P.s. didn't the horse look like it knew what a great job it had done?

    1. Hi Nic

      Yes, Totilas does look like he knows exactly what he's doing. Amazing elevation.

      There's a very definite volume level for work music for me. Too high and I start to focus on the music instead of what I'm doing. Too low and it does indeed just become an annoying buzz. The quality has to be good, too.

      The soundtrack to the movie Gladiator is very atmospheric, and I listen to a lot of classical and opera, too. Everything from German thrash metal to Gregorian chants.

      I like it loud in the car on, although I do turn it down if I think anyone can hear it!

  3. I recall a great comedy sketch from the show Absolutely, men doing dressage ( without the horse ). Very funny and often re-enacted after a 'cocktail of an evening.'

    1. I remember that, too, Caro! I used to love that show. I think you're going to have to post a post-cocktail re-enactment either on these pages or on YouTube :-)

  4. Zoe, I share your habit of playing music while writing. In fact I NEED music. Before starting any task--writing a novel, cooking dinner, folding the laundry--whatever I do, my first act is to start the music. Like you I have a peripheral hard drive full of great stuff.

    Regarding that horse: He is GREAT at his job, but he is also drop-dead gorgeous. I have never been personally acquainted with a horse, but I love statues of them. He looks like the ideal statue of a horse. The Apollo of Equines!

    And I love writing them into my stories. And I will never forget--as you have heard me attest in public--that you used one to subdue a villain in the most imaginable way possible!!

    1. Hi Annamaria

      Music provides good company if you're on your own. I listen to one of the classical stations if there's nothing interesting on BBC Radio 4, which I guess would be the equivalent of US talk radio.

      Yes, Totilas is a great horse, although he's now been retired from competition due to constant injuries, and has gone to stud. He always had such eye-catching paces that he seemed the perfect example to use for this.

      Yes, Charlie does use a horse to great effect in FIFTH VICTIM. They make very handy improvised weapons. Plus, a lot of the Airs Above The Ground performed by the Lippizaner stallions of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna -- the levade, courbette and capriole, originate from the movements of war horses to evade an enemy attack.

  5. You're one sharp fox, Zoë. Here I am, all prepared to play it straight with my preferences on music when I write, and BAM, you hit me with your word of the week! Trying to see if I can maintain my New Year's resolution of no more Pun Expressed Predilections talk, huh? And challenge the chance of getting EvKa to join my "Down with PEP Talk" movement.

    There are soooo many fertile fields to play with in your choice word choice, but I shall not break my vow by tinkering with your vowels.

    But I have quite a music collection and in that regard I'm a wittol sort of guy, I don't care who plays with it.

    EvKa, you're on.

    As for my take on music when writing, I generally don't like to work that way. I can write in a crowded cafe without trouble as long as no one is talking to me and the background noise fades away, but when music begins I start to follow it, and my concentration is broken.

    1. Would I try anything like that with you, Jeff? :-)

      Thought you'd like this week's Word of The Week, though. I had no idea a feminine version of cuckold existed until I happened across it.

      Interesting that you can separate background chatter from music enough to work in a busy café. I used to try writing on trains, but I always found the person sitting next to me had started to read over my shoulder, which was somewhat off-putting!

  6. Like Jeff, I'd be a fool to pull out the big guns of punditry. Too easy of a mark.

    But I will say, Jeff, that a Russian woman once agreed with you, she said, "He is wittol guy." I don't think she was talking about your height.

    Sometimes I love to work to music, sometimes I have to have absolute silence. I think it depends mostly upon the ... intensity? depth? ah..complexity of the programming task at hand. If I have to keep a LOT of things in my mind all at the same time and keep them STRAIGHT until I get a large block of code written, music is a no-no. But most of the time, it's like you said: keep it on low, subliminal almost, then it's not a problem.

    1. Sounds like you have a good balance, EvKa.

      As for your remarks about Mr Siger, I will play the United Nations in this diplomatic incident ...