Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Using Music as a Muse by Martha Reed

When I need to do a deep dive into the creative wellspring, I like to have music playing in the background. There’s something about hearing a steady rhythmic beat that helps me focus. This may come from growing up in a household where - if anyone was actually in the house - an ancient Panasonic radio with tinfoil bunny ears was always, always playing modern pop tunes from the kitchen. Music meant the very definition of home.

As much as I admire musicians for their creativity in writing song lyrics, I do not comprehend how they create a musical accompaniment (e.g. write a song). I can boogie to a thumping disco beat at a wedding reception as well as anyone, but when musicians kindly try to explain to me what the “language of music” is, I’m lost. And I don’t know why. Written language is my life. Musical comprehension sounds like something that should be right up my alley, and yet, it’s not. As a child, I suffered through enforced piano lessons for years staring at clef and treble notes and waiting for those black dots to magically turn into words. I’ve had professional musicians try to teach me how to play the guitar – twice. Nope. No go. To my protesting brain, musical comprehension sounds too much like math.

Yet here I am, sitting at my desk writing this blog with Kool & The Gang playing in the background. Since music seems to be a tool in my writerly toolbox, how do I use it?

I’ve learned that music is a trait than can help me define a character. If my character drives a pickup truck, rolls down the windows, and cranks the volume when listening to Luke Bryan songs, that tells the reader something about him/her that I don’t need to use extraneous words to explain.

In “The Choking Game,” my first Nantucket Mystery novel, Sally Poldridge loves listening to jazz music, especially Diana Krall’s vibe when she sings Irving Berlin’s evocative “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” Whenever I needed to develop Sally’s character, I played the song on a YouTube loop. Here’s a link for a quick listen:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLZfhHW98Os

The power in listening to it still gives me chills.

Music saturates “Love Power,” my NOLA Mystery. Of course, being set in New Orleans, jazz, blues, and gospel music are required. I underlined the music even more by making Ken Pascoe the sole surviving member of The WarBirds, an 80’s heavy metal rock band. In my imagination, I believe The WarBirds sounded like Bachman Turner Overdrive: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBZqmJjIDPw

When I needed to access Ken’s character, listening to a BTO song instantly let me in.

Do you ever use music as a muse? Which musical genres help you write your stories?


  1. My problem with listening to music with lyrics while writing is I listen to the music and stop writing. When I do have music on, it's mostly mood music, or gregorian chants.

    I did, however, give myself the same ringtone as one of my characters uses to help channel her character.

  2. I'm like Jim. I can't listen to music, especially songs with lyrics, because it distracts me from my writing.

    I did have a scene that had music playing during the action. I put the same music on while I wrote. Alas, that scene ended up on the editing floor. :-(

  3. Good morning! If listening to my disco music gets to be too distracting, I switch the channel and listen to instrumental jazz. It seems to act like white noise; filtering out the background noises and helping me focus.

  4. Sometimes I play the music that a character, esp. a POV character, would listen to. It can help put me in their head (or put them in my head?)

  5. I need to determine two things before my characters come to life in my mind: their name, and their music. Once I have that, writing the story is almost like giving an interview as I learn more and more about them (and their desires and motivations).

  6. Like Jim and Annette, I can't have any musical distractions when writing - I'd get up and start dancing! I do find it helpful to figure out what kind of music a character likes. That can tell us so much about them.

  7. I have wondered if writing the language of music uses a different part of the brain than writing fiction. Now that I think of it, maybe poetry does, too. They all seem to access different creative lanes.

  8. I'm too easily distracted...I put on white noise if there's any noise at all. My brain is too flitty! But I love the idea of music to help define a character. I'm going to start thinking in that direction. Great post, Martha!

  9. To be fair, I also own a set of noise reduction headphones when the leaf blowers or the construction crews get too loud. Hey, whatever works!

  10. I used to listen to music to put myself in the mood for a scene, but lately it's too distracting, even instrumental. I don't know why. I grew up with noise and music, so it was always around. I can write in a public space just fine!