Writing Under The Influence (of Music)

by Guest Blogger | 30 comments

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This guest post is by Melissa Muhlenkamp. In addition to being a close member of this community, Melissa is the author of the Markram Battles series. She is a science fiction and fantasy aficionada who probably wastes too much time on Pinterest. Whenever she isn’t writing, you can find her geeking out over a book or playing multitask with her kids. You can connect with her though her website, follow her on Twitter (@mcmuhlenkamp), or chat with her on Facebook.

I don’t know about you, but I truly believe that whoever said, “The real problem with reality is the lack of background music,” was really onto something.

music for writers

Music for writers. Photo by Jesus Solano (creative commons)

We all love music, no exceptions (unless you are some sort of alien from a deaf planet, and even then, that’s pushing it). Music enhances everything: movies, showers, pool parties, workouts, spring cleanings, and even relaxation. It cannot be denied. Music stimulates our psyche.

Unleash The Muse-ic Within

As writers I believe music is one of our most powerful tools. Melodies can ignite our imagination and trigger the creative muse we so zealously try to find.

Granted, writing shouldn’t be dependent on the shifting winds of the Goddess of inspiration. Nevertheless, the motivation music brings into a project can neither be ignored nor denied. On the contrary, it needs to be recognized, harnessed, and unleashed.

Connect To The Visual Side of a Song

There is also something about musical stimulation that produces a very real response in our brains. It can create a specific emotion, a specific idea, a specific image.

For me, this is where the true power of music lies. Music gives me vision, and for me, translating the vision of a story into words is the art of writing.

Follow The Groove

I recently won a contest where writers had to create an original superhero based on a song by the Motion Picture Advertising House, Audiomachine. It was such an incredible experience.

I am used to using music to inspire my writing. To be honest, I can’t imagine writing without its stimulating company. But seeing this as a collaborative effort was more enlightening than I could have ever imagined. The variety of stories and the different ways in which writers executed this idea left me baffled.

Even though the song was the same, the end stories couldn’t have been any more diverse. All of the writers involved followed the groove of their own imaginations and assimilated the melody differently. Therefore, the end products were unique to each of us.

Don’t Hold Back The Jam

Whenever I purposefully use music to inspire any given project, I follow two golden rules that never fail in harnessing its full potential. Rule number one, listen. I close my eyes and focus on the melody alone. I don’t worry about writing at this point. I just quiet my mind and let every thought mull over the song, its highs and lows, and whatever response it produces in me. Rule number two, don’t try to control the flow of ideas. In other words, I don’t hold back the jam. Instead, I let it guide me. Once the story takes shape, I open my eyes and begin typing.

Exploit The Influence

Music has the power to infuse life into our writing. Call me crazy, but I truly believe this. I may be the type of writer that takes this concept to the extreme. After all, I actually have categorized playlists based on literary genres. You can laugh. I’m not kidding. The point is, you don’t have to take it as far as I do to exploit the influence of music. Dancers do it through their physical movements. Writers can do it through the flow of words.

Have you ever tried using music to stimulate your creativity? Do you have a preferred genre?


Take the next fifteen minutes to write a story based on the following song, “End Of An Era” by Zack Hemsey. And don’t forget to use the two golden rules. When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments section.

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  1. 709writer

    I loooooove that song! Talk about epic. Here’s what came to me when I listened.

    Julia quieted her mind. Psychic energy flowed through her, just a whisper of the power inside. She reached out and searched for Shadow’s presence. There was a jolt—he was alive—then nothing. Her eyes flew open.

    She broke into a sprint, following the direction his presence had last been. Tears burned her eyes. He had to be all right.

    The towering pines and oaks crowded around her, hindering her progress. She leapt over a dead limb and shoved through two low-hanging branches.


    She stopped, her heart pounding. She turned slowly in the small clearing, searching, reaching out with her mind for her friend. The woods were quiet. Sunlight filtered through the branches and illuminated the thick grass in the clearing.

    A wisp of Shadow’s presence trembled in the air. As though he had struggled before he’d left this place. She looked at the ground. There were no disheveled patches of grass, no fallen limbs, no signs there had been a fight.

    A branch snapped behind her.

    I would love critique on this! Thanks!

    • M.C. Muhlenkamp

      Isn’t the song just fabulous? Jack Hemsey has awesome music. Talking about awesome, I love the tension in your piece. It pulls me into the woods straight away as if I was running along side Julia. In fact, in spite of the short length, I already feel emotionally attached to Shadow. WHAT HAPPENED???? “A branch snapped behind her.” AND?

      I just have two main thoughts. Actually three. First, the visual flow of the story is great. I can picture the woods, sunlight, branches, etc, easily. Good job. Second, You should probably say something about Julia closing her eyes at the beginning. Maybe when she quiets her mind. It is a natural reaction (closing your eyes when you’re concentrating) and it would set you up for the last sentence in that paragraph. Lastly, you gotta give us some more at the end to nibble on. I love cliffhangers. Let me write that again. I LOVE CLIFFHANGERS. Maybe I’m a total masochist. Still, in my opinion, cliffhangers should leave you suffering all kids of acrophobia and vertigo attacks, not push you off the cliff to certain death. Here is a thought. “A branch snapped behind her. It wasn’t Shadow.” At least you resolve the main question of the story. Shadow isn’t there. Something else is. Or, if it is Shadow, what is it about him that could enhance the cliffhanger?

    • 709writer

      Thank you thank you thank you for your thoughts!

    • Sandra D

      I love the feeling of this.

    • 709writer

      Thank you, Sandra!

    • Sandra D

      It seems like it would be a great story if you continued with it.

  2. Sandra D

    Thank you for this exercise idea. It is creative and I feel like it really works to open up parts of you that you wouldn’t normally allowed a voice. Also I loved the song you suggested.

    I did the exercise and felt my mind free up and it was a little scary because sometimes I am wary where my mind will go and I want to edit more but this time I didn’t.

    15,000 people in a line. The end of the world is coming today, watch out for it. He came to the fron past all those people. He had on a sewn red cape hand stiched and tattered. He walked past them all. There was a giant boulder that went up a hundred miles in to the atmosphere making everyone feel like pale ants to it. On the other side was the new world. It glowed soft and light with its promises.

    But no matter how great it seemed I had made a promise to keep on suffering in this world and so I stayed here with the criminals and the thieves and the people who would eat my bones like the vultures in a heart beat. And my one true love went on to the other side. I saw her pink skirt blow in the winds as she crossed the barrier.

    And as I skulked the black streets now empty and abandoned. They had left it a ghost town and ready to try a new. I sit in the shadows. My knees bent and on my but rests on rusted metal and weathered cardboard. A man, homeless looking dirty face laying on the ground with a newspaper on his face is there.

    Why aren’t you in the new world? I ask.

    Where would I go, everything I ever loved was here and now that’s gone and all I have left are my memories.

    Sometimes you have to do something different to be whole. What’s your name?

    Albert. I am actually a scientist. I was one of the ones that allowed the seed to grow.

    You look awful though. You should be thrilled.

    No not really.

    But humanity has a new start.

    Do you think they deserve it? his body was contorted with tension.

    No I guess no one deserves it but.

    They trashed this place and when they new they were going into Eden they trashed it even harder. The fuckers don’t care. None of them really care.

    But I thought you liked them, the people who became the scientists gave up their lives for them.

    Well I changed my mind. I used to think it was great that it was the government that had caused everythign to be so fouled up and if we could just get them out of the picture everyones problems would be solved. It wasn’t till it was too late to stop it that I realized it is the people themselves that are mad, that are destructive. Every step of the way people bitterly moaned if only if only then it would have been different. While all the while going along with every bad article, that while other men suffered it was so convienent always to just not look. During the riots I saw man’s true face and I turned away. And that is why I will never go. I will never leave this place that so many are so willing to forget. What about you. Why are you here?

    My wife went. She is so beautiful. But she never loved me. She married me anyway. I am not sure why. And she begged me to go. But for me this was my way out of it.

    Did you love her?

    So much I couldn’t bare it, everyday I saw her it tore me up with joy and passion, but when I looked in her eyes I knew she was only pretending. I’d never have had the strength to leave her any other way. And besides maybe it won’t be so bad.

    • M.C. Muhlenkamp

      Sandra, I am so glad you gave the exercise a shot! It can be nerve-wracking to try something new, but sometimes the results can surprise us beyond our wildest imagination. I am so thrilled you got so much content written in 15 minutes! I love your first draft. It is raw, untamed, and straight from the heart. Let the story sit for a few days, then go back to it and edit with a clear mind. Two things that left me a bit puzzled. The scientist seems to come from a prestigious background. Why does he then look like a bum? I understand as I read that he is disappointed, but even then, a prestigious man can look disappointed without looking like he’s homeless. It might add some character development if you approach it from a different angle. His expression looks ragged, distressed. Maybe he is wearing a very expensive suit that looks like it hasn’t been washed in months, or like he just fixed his car while wearing it. I don’t know, something that can add a bit more curiosity and depth to him. Also, did she really not love him? It seems to me that either she did and he didn’t see it, or she was one heck of an actress. I feel for her, and I doubt she would have begged if she really didn’t care. Just a thought.

    • Sandra D

      Yes thinking about it, there are inconsistencies. I did not really give much detail to the ‘homeless person/scientist.” And you’re right, a scientist now gone homeless might have something about him that might look different.
      Yes and inconsistencies in the man’s story about why he left. Not sure. Will have to think about that one some more.
      Thank you for the in depth reply.

    • Dawn Atkin

      Great downpour. Raw and real. It’s interesting how the muse-ic moves the muse.
      I enjoyed reading where it took you. And bravo for having a go. There’s an intriguing story in this piece.
      Thanks for sharing.

    • Sandra D

      Thank you for saying so Dawn.

  3. Joy

    A Poem:


    Bright and bursting
    All around me
    A silent goodbye
    No more than a wave
    My life flashed before me
    Where had I gone?

    • M.C. Muhlenkamp

      Nice. The lines are very opened to interpretation, and yet, they are clear and concise. Especially the last four. They create clear picture. The only thing I’m wondering about is what colors?

    • Joy

      Thank you. I appreciated your post! 🙂 As far as the “colors”…That’s what came to mind. I sort of imagined fireworks, but it’s really just an abstract thought…so I guess I don’t really have an answer for that. 🙂

  4. TheCody

    Day one, five, and fifty were the same. Chris got up and made breakfast. Oatmeal. His wife, Lydia, said, “Remember to rinse your bowl this time. Otherwise, it sticks.”

    At 8:37, he set his nasty bowl in the sink and scurried to his car.

    He listened to Kanye on the way to work. The ego boost put him in the mood for advertising.

    He told his wife he was getting off at 5:30, but never left before 7:00 (“I’m sorry,” he’d say on the phone. “I’m getting this done now so I can leave early tomorrow.”)

    The drive home music was always instrumental, subtle, and inspirational, eroding the grit of the day. Thinking of meetings or clients or fucking his wife, he wouldn’t notice the trek until he pulled into the driveway. Children and puppies could be stuck to the grill of his car and he wouldn’t have remembered hitting them.

    Chris and Lydia used to love cooking together. Now, dinner was always on the table when he walked in at 7:30. Their conversation was benign.

    Putting the dishes away, they’d escape to the couch and cuddle up in front of Orange is the New Black or Bob’s Burgers. They laughed at the same moments, his laugh loud and snorty, hers shrill and merry.

    That was the movie of their lives. Satisfactory, no?

    Behind the scenes, some higher power was pressing the bonus features and outtakes buttons. Chris couldn’t quite focus on it, like a blind spot. But it was definitely there, lurking, in Chris’s shirt, in Lydia’s mind.

    In November, Chris was diagnosed with breast cancer.

    “Yes, men can get it,” was the first thing he always said. He hated it; he had to justify his illness. People always laughed when he first told them. After, they’d look embarrassed as he’d say, “No, it’s fine. It is kind of funny.”

    Chris also found the cancer in Lydia’s e-mail. Messages to her ex.

    His cancer superceded hers and she stayed.

    He got really sick. “Metastasized is the worst fucking word in the English language,” he wrote on his blog, sobbing.

    He fought. Their relationship got better, hitting high notes they hadn’t felt in years. They stopped watching TV.

    “If I get through this,” he said. “This is how it’s gonna be.”

    Her eyes glowed, her e-mail dimmed.

    Christ got through it.

    Two months later, at work, he made the call to his wife. “I’m sorry. I’m getting this done now so I can leave early tomorrow.”

    • EndlessExposition

      That is a brilliantly depressing ending 🙂 Love it!

    • M.C. Muhlenkamp

      EndlessExposition couldn’t have said it any better. A brilliantly depressing ending indeed. Great story, especially from a male perspective. It was sad and witty and full of emotions.

    • TheCody

      Thanks! All that really did come from the song, LOL. It had lots of repetition (with some discord behind the scenes, at least from my perspective), then built into something, only to revert back. Good times 🙂 Thanks for the practice!

    • Dawn Atkin

      Love it.
      Very polished for a 15 minute prac.

    • 709writer

      It was very sad. You characterized the couple well. : )

      Though I might suggest exchanging the f- word out for something else. It was a little distracting and I believe unnecessary. Just a thought.

      Other than that, it was great. Keep up the good work! : )

  5. Writerbiter

    The fabulous Annie Proulx said: ‘You know, one of the tragedies of real life is that there is no background music.’ Great article. I love writing to music to help connect & develop mood/emotions of scenes.

    • M.C. Muhlenkamp

      Yep, it creates true magic in our mind that can later on be translated into paper.

  6. EndlessExposition

    “Prisoner 582. You’re free. Hand off that axe to someone else.” The foreman’s boots clicked down the stone floor and out of earshot. He raised his head to look at the woman next to him. She smiled, and it reached her eyes. He thought he could remember her name if he tried hard enough – Sasha, that was it. Not his clan.

    She reached out to him and wrapped her hand around the axe. “Go,” she whispered around the coal dust in her throat. He understood what the word meant, but did not comprehend its relevance to him. Sasha shoved his arm lightly. “GO.” She lugged the axe to her own grinding stone.

    All at once his head felt very heavy and he reeled away from the work table, legs trembling. He stood in the middle of the aisle between two lines of workers, bent over their work. Slowly he began to walk. His feet remembered the way to the tunnel even if he himself could barely remember descending it into The Caverns. He stuttered along on weak knees down the aisle, the flickering torches pitching shadows down onto his face. Sparks flew from grinding stones; there was the usual cacophony of clanging iron. His ears felt dulled. All he heard was a low metallic grind.

    He turned his head from side to side and saw skeletal hands binding blades to sword handles. Bloody fingertips chipped arrow heads from flint. Gaunt heads were suspended over the table by backs that curved like rickety rainbows. Bulging eyes did not lift to follow his progress down the aisle. He saw them, saw them all as he always had, but he felt removed, as if he were watching them labor through a far away telescope. He reached the end of the aisle. The tunnel gaped before him. The guards did not stop him.

    He started walking up the incline. He smelled fresh air. It lit a fuse in his brain and images began sliding through his memory: a green field, bordered by trees tall and strong. Fresh air. How long had it been since he’s felt real air on his skin? How many years had he been trapped down there, a prisoner of war? Prisoner. Slave. And now he was free. He walked faster. More images came to him: a child splashing in a stream, a sparrow sitting on a rock, a woman singing a rhythmic hymn. He ran. The mouth of the tunnel was ahead. He ran faster. He escaped.

    The sky was gray from ash. The ground was black and burned. The light of the sun had reddened. Trees were split and cracked. Around him the dead grass was splashed in dried blood. The earth had been laid to waste. War had ravaged the green field and then left it to its pain.

    He stood outside the mouth of the tunnel and listened to the rumbling of the grinding stones echoing up from The Cavern.

    • M.C. Muhlenkamp

      Loved it! You can almost hold your breath as he begins running, hoping and praying that he can experience again everything he remembers. But he doesn’t. We don’t either. It leaves a void and you don’t even have to say it for us to experience it too. I really like your level of description, it is very visual. I do wish there was some sort of pause when he comes out of the tunnel, right before he sees everything ravished by the war. It would make us stop and hold our breath a little longer, just to feel the crumbling disappointment at the end.

  7. ruchie

    Well, I was actually kind of struggling to find out what to write, but then at the middle of the song it hit me! Like bang!! It was so solemn and thrilling!

    here is my share! hope to improve in the future!

    I remain here, but there is nothing left. Laying in the ground I try to remain conscious. I can feel the cold of the place where I am laying. I feel the dust in my face and the slightly odd sensation of something wet. I don’t want to think of what it is. I already know. It smells. Blood. Gathering all my strength I try to stand up, to get a better view of what remains after that chaos, but I can’t. I close my eyes. It smells of war, destruction and death. Next to me some voices tell me to stay still. The sensation of a warm hand in my front makes me open my eyes, though it hurts.And there it is looking at me. The knowing gesture that this survivor offers me as I try to move from her lap. With a kind but firm arm she keeps me down showing me the bandages all over my body. I look up
    at her. Her face gives me a knowing gaze as she looks around us. I had
    forgotten the voices.They are there. Others. Like us. And they hold themselves
    strong and fearless. There is hope. So I cry, thankful for been alive. for been
    able to making it this far to the new era.

  8. Anne Peterson

    She looked at the picture in her hands one last time. Was it really just ten years ago? We look like babies. We were babies. But we had so many dreams. We were going to make this work. Why did I think I could do it? Oh yeah, cuz I loved him. I really loved him.

    She smoothed out the clothes in her overfull suitcase. Her coffee beckoned she take one last sip. “You can do this, she told herself.”

    How would the kids live without him. He was their hero. The one they looked up to.

    She knew they would hate her. He would remain their hero and she, she would be the one they scorned. How did she know? Because she hated the one who took away her hero. Would always hate her.

    Never did something like this before. Oh well, here goes.

    She thought of reasons to stay. To forgive again, but the objections were louder. Relentless.

    A promise is a promise. They both made it and he knew what he was getting into. No.

    She had worth. She had dignity. He promised and he broke his promise, the one thing she believed he’d keep. That she would be his one, his only.

    She looked around the house that they had loved so much. The pictures on the mantel would stay. She didn’t care about any of it. They were all fake, just like the love he pretended to have.

    Her stomach turned at the thought of his closeness with another. She felt violated deep in her soul.

    And then she remembered how she had found out. A fluke, an accident. Or was it? He had butt called her and when she picked up the phone she could hear them. He was laughing like he used to laugh with her.

    She was getting the good side of him, the side she knew and loved.

    And Carol sighed as stubborn tears made their journey down her face.

    She hadn’t cried in days. She thought that well was dry.

    Looking at the clock they had picked out at Lowe’s she saw it was time to get the kids. She would pick up their stuff later. Much later. For now everything felt tarnished. Betrayal does that. It sticks on things like leaches her grandfather kept in a jar over the medicine chest.

    She pulled down the shade. It looked like it would be a hot one. No use letting the plants die too.

    One last walk around and it was finished. Or at least she could pretend it was. This would take a long time.

    She slipped off her ring and left it on the dining room table.

    With one last sigh she closed her suitcase. It was time to go. There was no looking back.

    • Dawn Atkin

      Very moving. So much backstory in such a small space. 🙂
      It feels like quite an emotional piece of writing. Always hard to tackle.
      If you decide to go back and do more work on it you could really open out parts of it with details. For example the photos on the mantle – describe them – who what where when. AND – She though of reasons to stay. What why etc.

      This could be really, deeply interrogating and revealing.

      Thanks for sharing.

  9. Dawn Atkin

    Cool exercise. I’ve never done this before. I really enjoyed closing my eyes and just listening to the music. And my 15 mins of practice follows. It’s totally random.

    To the ‘End of anEra’

    She creeps. She drags her weary feet. One tired step follows the ache of the the one before it.
    She climbs. She pulls her limbs skywards. Each heavy thigh clenching the hips that before her, bore her.

    And the others slowly awaken. All around her lifeless mounds of dirt and rubble ripple and rise. Exhausted warriors struggle up from the ground and gain some sense of stability upon unsteady feet. They summon the energy to shake off the dust of the last implosion.

    Particles dance away across strands of dimming cream streaked light. Nobody speaks; there are no words now. All eyes set to the peak of the inclined horizon. Hearts unfurl to the gift of last breath. Chests lift, shoulders pull back. The last troupe living march on.

    Onwards toward the eclipsing sun. Upwards to the apex of a thinning vista.

    Dark clouds echo in the belly of collapsed valleys below. A suite of monarch butterflies spiral into the darkening sky. And they arrive. At the last horizon. The end of their world. Sun weeps away. Her last tear melts in to the velvet indigo abyss.

    Silence creeps in from behind. This is – the end of an era.

  10. Orlando Sanchez

    I normally with headphones on no matter where I am. I listen to vocal trance because it works form my brain. When I edit I listen to chill-step because its slow and helps me review the work. Music is absolutely necessary for my writing and life.

    • Dawn Atkin

      That’s awesome Orlando.
      I find music distracting because it makes me want to dance and sing and takes me away from writing.
      However the dancing and singing, I find, is an excellent warm up and helps my muse wriggle out from underneath the covers.
      I’m intrigued by your music genres. Could you possibly reply with a link or two from each (vocal trance and chill-step) so I can have a listen.

      I love dance and house music but I get confused with all the sub-genres. So this would be really helpful to me. I’d like to experiment and see how it impacts my call to write.
      Cheers Dawn 🙂

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