Music as a writing tool

When I write, I listen to music, many writers do. However I don’t simply turn on the radio, or put on a favorite CD. I make my choice very carefully, let me tell you why.

I am going to refer to novel writing as an example during this short article, however the process works just the same for nonfiction, short stories, poetry, articles, plays, screenplays and anything else which I care to write.

Music is very important to most people, myself included. We only have to hear a song on the radio, to be reminded of a lost love, or a great holiday. Both music and lyrics have the ability to change our mood. When I approach a new writing project, it is music as a soundscape which is foremost in my mind. What time period is my novel set in? This question is an easy one. I will assemble a playlist of suitable period mood music. One of my novels is set during World War Two. For this book I have a number of playlists, these include original broadcasts and BBC radio plays and sketches. As well as popular hits of the time. In addition I also have another playlist of French music and wartime broadcasts, for my chapters set in France. By using these playlists, I can instantly alter my mood and emotions and fine-tune my writing to the time my book is taking place.

A note about using period music with characters:

Just because a song was popular at the same period as the writing, does not mean that a certain character would like it. Do you like every kind of music being played right now? An example for anything set during The Second World War, is that older characters will think of most popular songs as ‘a lot of noise’ and instead will prefer the softer strains of earlier music, from their own youth, such as Twenties and Thirties hits.

If I’m writing something set in the 60’s, nothing works so quickly as the Rolling Stones or The Beatles to change my mood. You can add to this by listening to interviews of your chosen period. Now of course there are period settings which pr-date musical recordings. But if you look around you will find, as I have, re-creations of ancient music. If a story is set in the future, well I might try ambient sounds or so called ‘New Age’ music for a soundscape. What is important is to change my mood and my thoughts.

Character moods:

Once I have a good choice of music, all of which would have been available to my character I can look more closely. How old is my character? This first question will evoke certain ideas about the music they would have enjoyed in younger days. What is their social position? Sounds like an odd question. Ask most people what the 60’s generation listened to? And you will most likely be given a list of the top pop groups and solo pop singers. What about the Jazz fans. These were the art school set and often the university crowd. These groups wanted something more intellectual than pop could offer.  Think about Brian Epstein, the manager of The Beatles and his love of classical music. Characters are individuals and this individuality includes musical taste.

Music as an important character/story device:

Musical taste can be very useful to convey character tastes and add tension. A wife who hates her husband’s constant playing of heavy metal music from his youth. She constantly has to turn up radio 2 in order to drown out his noise. Add character to a parent/ child relationship by introducing rival types of music. Give a character a theme. Below is an example from my novel in progress, which is a horror/fantasy and is set in different time periods, from the Victorian age to 2011.


Ryan Donovan had played back last night’s kiss in his mind over and over. He knew that it had been good to him and she certainly seemed to enjoy it. He keyed the car’s ignition and wondered if he could consider their next meeting a first official date. He reached over and clicked on the radio. R.E.M.’s Everybody Hurts filled the car’s interior.


“Not this morning mate.” The man reached over and turned it to CD and hit play. This time the car was filled with vintage Sinatra and Frank was waxing lyrical about the Young at heart. Ryan grinned.


“You said it Blue eyes.” He sang along, enjoying the impromptu duet as the car moved swiftly through the morning traffic. He had judged the early commuter traffic well and the road was now just a thin thread of late workers and those in no particular hurry. His mobile rang and he quietly cursed his not having put it on the hands free. Looking in the rear-view mirror for any unwanted police attention, he picked up the phone, pressing answer.  As he did this, he turned down the volume on the CD.

At times having background music appear in a story can evoke a different atmosphere. It can also signal something which is not quite the norm. Normality can be turned on its head by changing perceptions. The 2013 teenager blasting out Doris Day or the old lady being asked to turn down her Ibiza unplugged CD. These stand out and can add instant character to a scene. A cafe scene, with a song playing on the radio. This can set the scene with perfect normality. Music as you can see, doesn’t have to simply be background sounds, but can instead provide impetus for your own creative flow.

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