Soundtrack to our lives

I’ve had a piece I’ve been working on for weeks and until recently made no progress on at all, because I couldn’t find the right music to listen to while writing it.  Weird quirk: I really can’t write at all unless I’ve got music playing.  And it’s got to be the right music.  And I don’t know why one kind of music helps me write and why others don’t.  In this case of this piece, I was stuck.  And then I found Stan Rogers.

You probably don’t know who Stan Rogers is.  That’s cool; I hadn’t either, two months ago.  He’s a Canadian singer/songwriter, now deceased, who Gordon Lightfoot claimed as a huge influence.  If you hear Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” it’s the kind of song Stan Rogers did a lot of–a tragic sea chanty thing.  Stan Rogers had this fantastic growly voice, and he wrote about boats sinking, and a lot of his songs were a capella, though with a male chorus behind him, and the rest are pretty country-sounding; guitar and bass and sometimes even slide steel guitar.  My wife and kids think he’s awful, and I get made fun of a lot and get pillows thrown at me because I listen to him all the time while writing.

Here’s the thing, though: I’m working on a play about the World Wide Financial Crisis thing, about credit default swaps of CDO’s made up of sub-prime mortgage bonds.  Nary a sunken boat anywhere in it.  But I couldn’t write it at all until I found Stan Rogers, and now I’ve finished two drafts, and am basically done.

So that’s the thing.  I love music, in movies, in theatre, in the car, doing my laundry.  I like having a soundtrack to whatever I’m doing.  And for some reason, I have to find exactly the right kind of music to accompany whatever I’m writing, and it’s usually music that has nothing whatever to do with whatever I’m writing.  I wrote Family under the heavy influence of Collective Soul.  I wrote The Plan while listening to Aimee Mann and Jay-Z.  I know, Aimee Mann doesn’t sound at all like Jay-Z, and neither of them have much to do with the Plan of Salvation. But they’re . . . right.

I was thinking about one of my favorite movies the other day: Stranger Than Fiction.  There’s this great moment: Will Farrell is this nerdy tax accountant, and he’s auditing Maggie Gyllenhaal, and, it’s late and she invites him up to her apartment.  He sees a guitar, comments on it, she asks if he can play, and he says just this one song and not very well, so she urges him to play.  And he says no, but then he picks up the guitar.  And he plays, and sings, this song; it’s Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World,” an old two-chord punk song.  It’s an almost funny choice, so completely inappropriate, and suddenly, perfect, and they start kissing, and everything changes for both characters forever.  It’s a punk love song, and it shouldn’t work, but it does.  I love that.

Music in movies goes in cycles.  I remember when Robert Redford made Ordinary People, and he used Pachelbel’s Canon, and it worked pretty well, and then like five movies that year used Pachelbel, which is overused by everyone all the time for everything anyway.  Or Platoon used Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and suddenly it was everywhere–I remember Willam Defoe dying to it, and it was sad and wonderful, and then it was being overused in ten other movies.  Or Apocalypse Now, where the Wagner worked perfectly when you saw it the first time, but it’s become such a cliche it wouldn’t work now.  (The Doors stuff in that movie still does work well.)  Now, indie movies all have to have amazing soundtracks full of great songs you’ve never heard of by bands you don’t know, and five weeks after you see it, that same song’s on the radio all the time.

But music is the one great shortcut.  It’s so immediately emotional and evocative, it helps you feel something even if the writer hasn’t earned it, and it turns a scene where the writer has earned it into something transcendent.  Any character I ever write, ever, I have to know what music s/he likes.  That tells me more about them than anything.  And maybe I don’t use it in the story–sometimes it doesn’t fit.  But I know it.  And listened to it while writing.

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10 Responses to Soundtrack to our lives

  1. Marianne Hales Harding says:

    Maybe that’s what’s wrong with my latest piece…I haven’t found its music yet!!! Either that or I’m working too many hours at the job that pays real money. :)

  2. Harlow Clark says:

    I sing a lot, mostly off-key, and I’m likely to sing a few phrases or a parody at any moment. My niece asked me one day, “What’s it like to live in a musical?” then told me a while later that her oldest daughter does the same thing.

    • Wow, Harlow, I do that too, especially the parody part; though most of the time I’m doing it in my head and not out loud. The occasional parody song pops out once in a while, though.

      So, does it count if I provide my own soundtrack? Or, since I’m not always writing, do I need to add extra (and/or external) soundtracks when I do write?

      I know that when I’ve listened to music with lyrics that don’t makes sense to me, I’ll often get ideas for stories, but when I’ve tried writing to music, lyrics just distract me. It has to be strictly instrumental or in a foreign language.

  3. Jonathan Langford says:


    It sounds like you’re saying that the music you like to listen to while writing is the music your main characters would like. Is that correct? Or it is more complex than that, having to do with music that creates a particular mood within you that connects to the specific story?

  4. Thom Duncan says:

    The exact opposite is my case. I must have absolute silence when I write. Music moves me so much, I find myself singing or dancing to it and can’t concentrate enough to put a word down. I can listen to music to get inspired to write something but then I have to turn it off if I wan’t to get any real work done.

  5. Eric R Samuelsen says:

    Jonathan, that’s sort of it. The music has to somehow capture something about the characters, but it’s more about mood than anything specific.
    Stan Rogers has a song called Idiot, for example, in which the singer proudly points out that he’s eligible for welfare–the dole–but won’t take it, and is working a crappy job instead, which makes him, he supposes, an idiot. Very blue-collar, very working class song. It works for a character I’m writing, so when I need to write his scenes, I’ll listen to that song first. It isn’t always that direct, but sometimes it is.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Music sets a tone and a mood for me when I write that helps me actually tune out everything except what I’m working on. For me it’s less about setting a specific soundtrack for a story than it is about creating a sound-encased bubble to facilitate the creative experience. I get personal energy from the music, not conceptual inspiration.

      In my case I can go either way—total silence or active immersion. What I don’t have patience for is fiddling with the playlist while I write (thank you Pandora and random playlist shuffling). And spoken word is right out; I can’t listen to news or movies in the background—it has to be music.

  6. Scott Bronson says:

    I’m working on a project right now that requires Peter Eldridge (“Fool No More”) and Al Jarreau (“Tomorrow Today”). Oh, and Weather Report (“Weather Report”) and Dave Brubeck (“Quiet as the Moon”).

  7. Moriah Jovan says:

    I can’t write without music. If I don’t have something that fits the mood I want to go for, I’ll go hunting for it until I find it.

    I listen to music that my characters won’t like but work with the rhythm and the pace of the scene.

    I have characters who listen to music I can’t stand (Mitch, the bishop in Magdalene, loves ZZ Top and AC/DC).

    I use music as storytelling tools (usually chapter titles, but sometimes explicit references in the text–one character proclaims that “Neil Peart writes my hymns and Rush is my choir”).

    I have used songs as jumping-off points for stories that bears no resemblance to the original lyrics. The Proviso was spawned on the back of “Walkaway Joe” by Trisha Yearwood. That’s a long and twisted rabbit trail or six.

    Music informs everything I write.

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