How Spotify Can Make You a Better Writer

by Guest Blogger | 54 comments

There’s a reason you listen to Metallica when you’re doing Crossfit. It’s the same reason you listen to raindrops when you’re doing yoga. It’s because music has a powerful influence on mood, so powerful it can actually elicit a physiological response.

How Spotify Can Make You a Better Writer

But as a learning writer, I had always assumed that music would be a distraction, that it would deaden my ability to hear my character’s voice, or make it harder to find the right words to explain a setting.

I couldn’t have been more wrong: listening music can actually make you a better writer. I have Spotify to thank for that discovery.

Writing in Flow

According to Susan Perry,

Music often comes up when writers talk about flow, as though somehow this particular sense has become associated with fluid writing.

Flow describes the heightened state of performance that athletes call “being in the zone.” It’s a term that Perry borrows from psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, who has devoted his career to understanding how the best professionals in every field become the best at what they do.

Perry, in turn, took Csikzentmihalyi’s ideas about flow and turned the focus on writers. Her book Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity is an analysis of hundreds of interviews with award-winning writers and her discoveries about how these writers “find their flow.”

I've discussed several of Perry's discoveries about flow here, here, and here. Today, let's unpack the role music plays in flow.

Music and Flow

For those that use music, Perry theorizes,

This may be because the senses generally tend to operate from a different part or combination of parts of the brain from the logical, linguistic part.

In this way, music becomes part of a letting go process, an aid to helping the creative mind break free of the rational one. And this is exactly how it worked for me.

Film Scores: A Writer's Secret Weapon

In addition to being a writer, I’m actually a semi-professional musician. I grew up singing in church choirs, took piano lessons for 10 years, picked up the guitar in college, and on good nights get paid to make music. Given this, it might seem obvious that music would be a useful, creative trigger for me, helping me to be a better writer.

But until recently, I wasn’t using it. Music has always had a powerful effect on my mood, but I always found lyrics to be distracting when I was writing.

That changed when I signed up for Spotify (it’s free!) and discovered film scores.

The first thing you need to understand is that a film score is different than a soundtrack. A soundtrack is simply a compilation of the songs (typically pop songs) that were used in a movie.

A music score, on the other hand, is very different. Whether it is an orchestral arrangement in the style of John Williams (Star Wars) or a contemporary soundscape of Hans Zimmer (Batman Begins), these scores are “orchestral” arrangements composed specifically for the purposes of supplementing the emotional narrative of a movie.

The cool thing is, you don’t need the movie to still feel the emotion.

Music Can Make You a Better Writer

This is how music helped me. In my last post, How Writing Habits Make Writing Easier, I talked about the way writing habits and rituals can make you a better writer by helping you “loosen up.” I started using music as a prewriting ritual to help me “get in the zone.”

What I discovered was that not only could I use music to help me get me in the right mood for my daily writing, but that the right music actually seemed to bolster and propel me through my daily writing. I stayed away from music with lyrics and found that film scores really worked for me.

Over time, my Spotify artist list has become a creative tour de force of emotionally charged music that helps me quickly and easily find my flow.

Spotify Can Help You Find Your Flow

Here’s how you can incorporate this into your writing practice and use music to become a better writer:

  1. Brainstorm movies that resonate with your current writing project in some way—you can think in terms of theme, tone, genre, anything that makes sense to you.
  2. Once you have a list of movies, search the web for the composers who wrote the film scores for those movies. The search string “composer film score [movie title]” seems to work well. Remember, you aren’t looking for soundtracks, but the composer of the film score.
  3. Take your list of composers to Spotify and search for them. Some will turn up, some won’t. Begin your Artist list by visiting each composer’s Spotify page and following them. (It’s nice having easy access to them when you’re ready to write.)
  4. Build your artist list by using the “Related Artists” recommendations to find related names and scores.

Try It Yourself

When you or your project needs emotional inspiration, view your artist list, select a composer, and let the music help you find your flow.

For those of you who are working on a thriller (like me), Hans Zimmer (Batman Begins) and Brian Tyler (Avengers: Age of Ultron) never cease to inspire. For the rest of you, I’d love to hear what composers work for you or your genres.

Until next time, happy listening (and writing)!

Do you listen to music while you write? How has music helped you? Let me know in the comments!

PRACTICE

Find a music score that resonates with your current writing project. If you can’t find a score or don’t want to use Spotify, use any piece of music that you can write to.

Now, listen to the music and freewrite for fifteen minutes just following the emotions, or tone, or plot the music inspires. Does the music make you think of a setting? Describe it. Does it inspire a plot? Write it. A mood? Capture it. Whatever the music inspires, write it down.

Share your writing in the comments, and remember to leave feedback for your fellow writers.

How to Write Like Louise PennyWant to write like Louise Penny? Join our new class and learn how. Learn more and sign up here.

Join Class

Next LIVE lesson is coming up soon!

This article is by a guest blogger. Would you like to write for The Write Practice? Check out our guest post guidelines.

54 Comments

  1. Reagan Colbert

    As someone

    who is a songwriter as well as a fiction writer, music has been an essential motivator for me. However, I do it a bit differently.
    I’ve never tried music scores (but I will look into it). The songs that inspire me and get me into the ‘mood’ are actual radio songs, and I will listen to my soundtrack before I write. It helps tremendously, because they do a great job of getting me motivated to write, but they don’t distract me while I’m writing.
    (I also have a couple of artists whose songs could get me motivated anywhere, any time 🙂

    Great article, and very interesting to read as someone who loves both music and writing!

    Reply
    • Michael Mahin

      Thanks! Quentin Tarantino is famous for using music the way you do. He’ll actually spend weeks putting together his soundtrack before he starts writing. Then he’ll listen to it to help him find mood and tone. It’s a great idea to have a list of those “inspiring” artists on hand when you need a little pick me up. I need to do that.

  2. Ai-tama

    Before I actually start writing, I listen to some songs by artists I love, songs that get me pumped up to get creative. While I actually write, I listen to instrumental music–particularly that of Studio Ghibli films (the music is very whimsical and emotional, which I feel ties in nicely with my current book).
    Funny enough, music actually helps to keep me from getting distracted.

    Reply
    • Kaiju Bane

      Nice suggestion. I listen to J-Pop. Japanese is an alien language for me so I have no trouble with the vocals. Anyway, my writing flow is a pretty jammed machine. I’ll try film scores and Ghibli songs for now on.

    • Ai-tama

      I do love J-pop and K-pop, though I have a tendency to sing along rather than write. I would recommend Rie fu, since she has a sweet voice and wonderful music. If you want something that’ll pump you up, you can try Stereopony, Scandal, or Abingdon Boy’s School (the first two are girl’s bands, just FYI).
      If you want to check out K-pop/rock, Younha is a must. She’s got an amazing range and sings in many different styles. She even sings in Japanese, if you’d prefer that over Korean.

    • Michael Mahin

      Nice! I’ll have to check Ghibli out too

    • Ai-tama

      I would also recommend the musical scores from videogames (I’m partial to the soundtrack of the Legend of Zelda). Nerdy music helps me write the best. :3

  3. Gary G Little

    I once drove an office mate absolutely batty with the music I played while writing device drivers for the company we were working for. To me radio is distracting, yes they play music, but then they play commercials, news, weather, etc, all talking head stuff that distracts. I find songs with lyrics to be just as distracting. I sing barbershop and have a tendency to start harmonizing.

    One day however, I discovered Gregorian Chants. These were absolutely perfect! Melodic, nice rhythms, great harmonies, and the best part … they were in LATIN so no distracting lyrics!

    Office mate one day told me I was driving him nuts, so I used headphones.

    Today I use a playlist with old and familiar songs I no longer pay attention to, or an album called Dante’s Inferno.

    Reply
    • GKMoberg

      I agree with you – vocals in foreign languages (uh, ones that I don’t know) are perfect. Enya comes to mind as a terrific example as she has lyrics across so many languages. If the lyrics are in something I know, it can become a distraction. Ditto for news & weather reports; I cannot use either for background noise.

      Sorry my office cube is not near yours – Gregorian Chants would be great listening (with or without your harmonizing).

    • Michael Mahin

      Gregorian Chants work for me too! I find them emotionally compelling. I will say the ads on Spotify Free are murder. Might be time for me to upgrade.

  4. Kaiju Bane

    Creatures scuttled heavily across the grassland — massive structures of flesh, scales, and bones. Their pace banged the earth like the walking of gods. Brian felt a chill of
    gigantic emotions slipping down his spine. Fifteen years studying the occult
    religion of lost Amazonic civilizations, six months of archeological diggings
    in the middle of the jungle, uncountable weeks deciphering cuneiform
    inscriptions. And now he witnessed living divinities with his bare eyes. Maybe
    the Portal to the Holy Abode was some kind of wormhole. He was not a physicist. He was not even a paleontologist. Even though, his anthropological researches
    led him into this world-changing discovery.

    I wrote this little piece listening to a Jurassic Park score.

    Reply
    • Michael Mahin

      Nice! It’s got great tone!

  5. GKMoberg

    On the topic of “How Music Can Make You a Better Writer”, the music backdrop for my writing activities is usually Depeche Mode and the soundtracks from various movies – anything from that of ‘Let the Right One In’ to ‘Chariots of Fire’ to ‘Star Wars’. Music provides terrific means to help me center my thoughts & creativity.

    Reply
    • Michael Mahin

      And I just can’t seem to get enough….

    • GKMoberg

      Ouch! The very song that strains my control over a strong & protective self-reflex action to change the radio station. 🙂

  6. Hattie

    i like it that you have referenced Susan Perry and the writing flow…..I have worked in playwork for many years and one of my favorite play theorist …Perry Else….discusses the “flow” in play….there is a parallel in their theories……writing / playing/ playing with words…..

    Reply
    • Michael Mahin

      Yes! What do you mean by “playwork”? Play, or the idea of play, is critical to creative endeavors. I blogged a bit about it here (http://www.michaelmahin.com/deliberate-practice-for-writers/) where I looked at Barbara Baig’s book How to Be A Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play. If i want to learn more about the “theory of play” who should I read?

    • Hattie

      Playwork being -working with children and play……but delving into play theories brings up all sorts of interesting ideas on why we play/ how we play/the benefits of play………and once you get into the play groove it appears we do alot of playing as children and adults…..as writers we are playing with words…..and here i am playing on the internet!
      i will check out Barabara Baig

  7. EmFairley

    While some writers find music or other sounds, help them find their flow, I have to have total silence. Even the slightest sound drives me to distraction when I’m writing and completely puts a block on anything I’m doing.

    Am I the only one?

    Reply
    • Jennifer Shelby

      Nope! I’m the same way. I can work out plots in my head while listening to music, but actual writing – nope. I end up screaming in frustration because the music demands my attention. What was the composer/artist picturing when they wrote this? Hmmm….ARGH!

    • EmFairley

      There are times when even nature sounds drive me crazy when I’m writing. Which is completely the opposite to how they usually affect me. Not great for someone who likes to have the window open from morning until night. Argh

    • Michael Mahin

      Even if you were the only one, who cares! Whatever works for you is what you need to do!

  8. Zerelda

    I always listen to music when I’m writing (except on rare occasion when I need to think) (that’s write, I right thoughtlessly). It really does help to have all the background noise in my head drowned out, especially while writing a first draft. I listen to the music score for Star Trek sometimes. If I’m writing something in a war zone, I’ll listen to Linkin Park. Otherwise I use whatever I have on my non-internet-connected-writing-computer. Zedd, Ellie Goulding, Enya, Twenty One Pilots, etc. (though, it is hard to listen to Twenty One Pilots without being focused on the music, so I use that less often.)

    Reply
    • Michael Mahin

      The score for Star Trek sounds like one that I would use too. Lots of soundscape type of stuff. I find lyrics a bit distracting, but oddly enough, I find lyrics less distracting the louder they get. At a certain point I think it turns into white noise and has the same effect!

    • Zerelda

      Yes, and songs you know really well can become white noise too.

  9. Stella

    Some people ate vegetables, some people didn’t, and some people mutilated box after box of them just to fulfil a class assignment. Things only engineering students would understand.

    Her assignment for the week: Build a boat out of vegetables that would float on a bathtub while holding a tennis ball. Her desk was littered with peels and stems and slices, as though a veggie serial killer had been let loose.

    The potato had been promising. Hollowing it provided plenty of room for the tennis ball. But it started to sink after just two minutes in her bathroom sink. Celery was stiff and could be strung together like a raft, but it was just as apt to tilt, tipping the ball into the water. What if she tried joining portobello mushroom caps? Or halving a green pepper?

    Her fingers flew. The vegetarian graveyard grew.

    Was this happiness? Was this what others felt when they picked up a book? Her English teachers had so often waxed lyrical on the joy of reading, the wonder of being transported to other worlds. She would never find joy in words that started to float whenever she looked at them, but a vegetable boat that would do so was a different story. She would never be a writer, but one day she would transport people to other worlds.

    When she finally left her dorm room she was greeted by slanting shafts of sunlight. With a start, she realized she didn’t know if it was rising or setting.

    *

    Listened to the theme from ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. It starts quiet and understated. I wrote this scene to the first sudden swell of emotion in the music. Scene is meant to be the first time my protagonist discovers something she’s great at.

    Thanks for the wonderful prompt!

    Reply
    • Zerelda

      Wow! Great hook! And I love that moment of contrast between pursuing,”transporting people to other worlds,” by the generic route (I mean, we do good work, but I’d rather go to Mars for real) and making her own path. Choosing something she wants to do and recognizing it’s own potential instead of chasing after instant gratification….but maybe I’m reading too much between the lines.

      Fantastic writing!

    • Stella

      Thanks! Writing a dyslexic character pushes me out of my comfort zone because she feels the exact opposite of the way I feel about words. Honestly the toughest part is imagining how someone could NOT like reading and writing. Though taking those flowery phrases used to describe what writers do and turning them upside down was fun.

    • Zerelda

      Well, that’s a good way to get out of your comfort zone. 🙂 I should try that.

    • Rodgin K

      Great work again Stella. Makes me disappointed I lost my practice to my daughter being power conservative.

      I’ve hit this with a fine tooth comb looking for anything to critique. Adverbs, very, half described things, spelling errors, and all of it checks out for me. An absolutely solid piece of work.

    • Stella

      Thanks Rodgin. What do you mean you lost your practice? Sorry I haven’t replied to your email. Appreciate your review!

    • Rodgin K

      I started writing and had to step away (a common occurrence) and my daughter turned off my computer because “it was using electricity and you weren’t using it”.

      Oh the joys of young children.

    • 709writer

      Very interesting piece – I was hooked. Good job!

    • Stella

      Thanks!

  10. LaCresha Lawson

    Wonderful, wonderful! We can do so many things to help us do anything better. Music helps and sometimes it doesn’t for me and cleaning helps me when I need a break. Thank you for this article.

    Reply
    • Michael Mahin

      I agree! I used to have a tough time sitting down to write. So I would do the dishes, which I hated more than writing, eventually I would get so sick of the dishes, I’d decide I’d rather write!

  11. George McNeese

    Sometimes I listen to music. I do Pandora, though I should try Spotify. Listening to music helps me to focus on the project at hand, even if it’s short stories. Most of what I write is literary fiction, so it’s been hard to create a station for that genre. But I do have a light classical station for when I journal. I recently deleted some stations because I wasn’t listening to them as much. I’m sure I’ll find and create a station for the rest of my writing. Maybe Spotify is the way to go.

    Reply
    • Michael Mahin

      I started with Pandora too, and had the exact same problem. You can’t control Pandora the way i want to be able to. The nice thing about Spotify is you can choose music by artist or album, and while you don’t get variety, you generally get music that is relatively focused and similar, especially if you’re using a film score.

  12. Sandra

    I prefer classical music and opera.

    Reply
  13. Bruce Carroll

    I’ve listened to instrumental music as I write for a long time. Music is definitely freeing. I have varied (some have said, eclectic) tastes in music. I enjoy Beethoven, Holtz, Debussy, and John Williams, but also Stravinsky, Ligeti and Tangerine Dream, among others.

    Having listed these, I found this practice exercise particularly frustrating. It is impossible for me to write “whatever the music inspires” with no other direction, because the emotion of the music changes much faster than I can type. I’ll be sure to put on some music for the next practice and incorporate it into something with a little more direction.

    Reply
  14. 709writer

    A horn blared as Shadow skated in front of a city bus to cross the street on a green light. He reached the other side of the road. Hard gusts of air buffetted Shadow’s back and the bus blew by him.

    Catching his breath, Shadow turned his head, scanning the crowds along the sidewalks for any sign of the girl.

    There.

    He’d caught a glimpse of a girl skating down the sidewalk away from him, her dark hair streaming behind her.

    Shadow drew a deep breath and broke into a skate again. This time he would catch

    her. He swerved around a group of young people, gaining on the girl. She weaved in and out of the crowds clogging the sidewalk. Then she took a hard left down the next street.

    He blew out a hard breath and dodged more people to follow her.

    The girl had slowed and was shoving through a group of people just half a block from him. Shadow glanced at the street, taking in the vehicle coming up the street. He veered into the road.

    The oncoming truck honked at him. Shadow cut to one side and avoided the truck, putting on more speed as he bypassed the crowds on the sidewalk to reach the girl – she’d already crossed the next intersection.

    He stepped back onto the sidewalk. The light turned green. “Hey,” he called across to her.

    She whirled on her skates, her eyes locking onto him. Her face paled.

    He had to shout over the traffic. “We need to talk. I’m not here to hurt you.”

    “Just leave me alone,” she said back to him. Her lean form trembled. “Please.”

    Any feedback/comments are welcome. I listen to so much music; I rarely write without it. Some of my favorites, and the ones I can easily write to, would be music by the band Thousand Foot Krutch and from the Sonic the Hedgehog video game series. Without music, I wouldn’t be able to write! Thanks for the article, Michael.

    Reply
    • Michael Mahin

      You’re welcome! Sonic the Hedgehog!? That’s great. Love the pace. My only suggestion is you can make it feel faster by cutting out all the “hads”- there are only a few I think- they make the action seem reflective rather than present. And you might play around with just making the action beats more clipped, like this…

      Shadow breathed hard. He scanned the sidewalks for a sign of the girl.

      There.

      Skating down the sidewalk.

      He broke into a skate again. This time he would catch her.

    • 709writer

      Thank you for the feedback! I see the hads you were talking about – they do make the action slower. I’ll be working on weeding those out in my writing. And I love your rendition of that part of the scene! How long have you been writing? Will you be writing more articles for the Write Practice?

    • Michael Mahin

      You’re welcome! I’ve been writing for many years, but it is only in the last 10 that I’ve become committed to creative writing. I’ve had a little success (sold 2 kids books YAY!) but am still working on my big break into Hollywood as a screenwriter- that’s a hard nut to crack! I blog about writing at my website: http://www.michaelmahin.com and have made 4 posts for The Write Practice so far, with one more coming next month! There are links in the above article if you want to see my other posts- they’re all related in that they talk about flow and how to achieve it. You can also find me on Twitter @MahinWriter. Nice to meet you 709writer and hope to hear from you again!

    • 709writer

      Congratulations on your books – that’s a great achievement. I’ll be checking out your website and looking forward to your future articles on the Write Practice. Nice to meet you too! : )

    • Michael Mahin

      Thanks! See you around!

  15. Glynis

    I did sort of “discover” spotify last summer when I wrote my first manuscript. I found that writing to instrumental music — love film scores — and songs that have words but that I’m unfamiliar with, really helped me stay focused. This is a fantastic “trick” and one I wish I’d used sooner. Thanks for a great post.

    Reply
    • Michael Mahin

      You’re welcome! Lots of people like using music with foreign language lyrics. I’d never thought about that. Tokyo-pop here I come 🙂

    • Glynis

      That’s funny you should say that. I hadn’t realized how ambiguous that comment was. I really just meant songs with lyrics I was unfamiliar with, but I guess foreign language would work like white noise too, Maybe I should try it now that you mention it. 🙂

  16. bernadette

    I am ‘addicted’ to Steve Halpern’s chakra music, Ascension, Om song and others. Makes anything, even paying the bills, go better. ..

    Reply
    • Michael Mahin

      Hah! hilarious!

  17. rosie

    THE AMELIE SCORE IS MY LIFE. Please check it out: I used all caps because it’s wonderful (even if you haven’t seen the movie.) Bach’s cello suites as well, and Studio Ghibli, as many of you have said. There are also instrumental versions of Disney songs which I love. Movie scores are the best to write to, because they’re so big and orchestral (which I love because I’m so short, at 5 foot 2, or 152 cm tall.)

    Reply
  18. Penelope Silvers

    Michael, This has been one of the best writing posts I’ve read in ages! So beneficial. I was using Pandora, but it was driving me nuts. Following your suggestions, I searched for romance movies, the composer of the film scores, and setting up my playlists. Many thanks to you and sincere wishes for many successful writing projects in your future. 🙂

    Reply
  19. Cooper

    Film scores is what practically the only thing I listen to while writing, and it works a treat, especially if I have not seen the film or have no idea what film it’s from. Trouble is, I have yet to find a good online music service that has a decent library of such.

    Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Writing Links Round Up 7/11-7/16 – B. Shaun Smith - […] How Spotify Can Make You a Better Writer […]
  2. Thriller Writer MW Leeming Interview – Joined Up #51 | The Joined Up Writing Podcast - […] which includes a post from Ruthanne Reid on Show and Tell and a piece tweeted by Andrew Lowe on…
  3. Why Music Is a Writer’s Secret Weapon (+ Win a Year of Music for Writing) | Creative Writing - […] of all, they’ll give you a jumping-off point for creating your own writing playlists. Which, of course, you’ll get to…
  4. Weekend Wonders – Layla Genovese - […] How Spotify Can Make You a Better Writer […]
  5. 7 Simple Hacks to Get Writing When You Just Can’t | Creative Writing - […] the theory suggests that our brain can be conditioned, especially by sounds. I suggest you have a writing playlist,…
  6. 3 Things You should Know Before Writing Short Stories – Story Spark - […] impact your writing style and mood, depending on which type of music you listen to. According to thewritepractice, it is…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Say Yes to Practice

Join over 450,000 readers who are saying YES to practice. You’ll also get a free copy of our eBook 14 Prompts:

Popular Resources

Books By Our Writers

Under the Harvest Moon
- Tracie Provost
Box of Shards
- K.M. Hotzel
Headspace
- J. D. Edwin
7
Share to...