Writer’s Insights: Playlists for Inspiration
I love music. Who doesn’t? I’m sure there are a few people out there who prefer radio silence, and we all differ on what we think counts as “music”—and particularly what constitutes good music.
Research shows music is actually incredibly beneficial for the human brain. We’re pretty much wired to like and look for music. It’s probably one of the reasons every human culture has had some form of music. Even if we didn’t have instruments, we still have our voices.
Our Love of Patterns
As mentioned, human beings are genetically predisposed to like and look for music. We’re not quite sure why, but some theories point to our love of patterns.
Music is, essentially, a collection of repeating patterns. Pattern recognition is important for almost all animals: recognizing a particular pattern on a mushroom could tell you if it’s poisonous or not. Recognizing a pattern of when grazing herds come to the Savannah and when they migrate away can tell predators when to hunt and when to rest (or migrate themselves). Changing weather patterns tell birds and monarch butterflies to head south for the winter and return in the spring.
The Importance of Patterns
Patterns and our ability to recognize them form the basis of human decision making as well. If we notice a pattern—the cute barista who draws pretty things in our lattes is in on Wednesdays—we’ll alter our behavior to fit the pattern. If we know the barista is most often in on Wednesdays, we’ll be more likely to go to the café on Wednesdays. When a grumpy barista is in on Thursdays, we’ll go less frequently. The café owner notices a pattern: More people come in on Wednesdays, but fewer people come in on Thursdays. They might make any number of changes. Maybe they start offering a discount on Thursdays to attract more customers. Or maybe they start scheduling the friendly barista for more shifts on different days and the grumpy barista gets fewer shifts.
What’s more, patterning helps us solve problems. We want to see the friendly barista more often, so we learn, using patterns, when the barista is more likely to be in and adjust our behavior to increase our chances of seeing the friendly barista. If we’re wrong and the friendly barista isn’t usually scheduled on Wednesdays, we might run into the grumpy barista more!
Same with our café owner: They’re trying to figure out what makes customers come in more on Wednesday and how they can make people come in more on Thursdays, to increase business. Patterning allows them to make predictions about what will happen.
We Love Forecasting
We actually love forecasting. Even though we’re not great at it most of the time, we actually get high on it! Neuroscience shows us when we pick up on a pattern and then successfully predict the next item in the sequence, we get a little kick of dopamine, the feel-good chemical our brains produce.
It may be one reason we like things like fortune-telling and astrology so much. It’s also one of the reasons we like music and games like Tetris. Since music is a patterned sequence, it’s like “brain candy” for us: As we listen, our brains begin to try to predict the next item in the patterned sequence. Every time we get it right, we get that little kick of dopamine.
This helps explain why pop music and EDM have become so popular: They capitalize on repeating patterns, which reward us every time “predict” the pattern. They also switch things up, which ensures continued excitement for our nerves.
The Cognitive Benefits of Music
Music can easily improve our moods by giving us little hits of dopamine for correctly playing the “predict a note game.” It may be why music exhibits some of the other cognitive effects it has on humans. It’s been shown, for example, music helps calm anxiety. Listening to music when we feel a strong emotion is also cathartic. Listening to angry music when you’re angry, for example, can actually help you calm down by providing you with a way to express and vent the emotion, then calming you down through the enjoyment (the dopamine fix) of listening to the track.
Neat, huh? Music can also help Alzheimer’s patients. They may have trouble remembering what happened yesterday, but songs are stored in our long-term memory. Play them a tune from their youth and they’ll likely be able to sing right along! Being able to access long-term memory storage actually helps boost short-term, and it also provides that soothing and happy effect.
So music not only rewards our little monkey brains, it also calms us down, allows us to cope with strong emotions, and improves our memories.
Music as Storytelling
Human beings may be inclined to listen to, enjoy, and produce music, but we’re storytellers at heart. We narrate our daily lives in the process of identity formation. We communicate to each other about our lives: What your name is, where you’re from, where you went to school. All of this is the story of “you.”
We thus tend to look for narrative in other places. What is the photograph “telling” us? What is a musical composition telling us?
Music and storytelling were long intertwined. Poetry was probably first performed with musical accompaniment, which is why songs and poetry exhibit many of the same features (rhythm, rhyming, etc.). Over time, however, the two diverged. Poetry evolved into longer narrative forms, and music evolved beyond simple narrative songs to include hymns, national anthems, and other compositions. We also have purely instrumental compositions, in which there are no lyrics.
Yet ask anyone about Beethoven’s symphonies—in which there are no lyrics, no words—and they’ll likely tell you there’s a narrative or story structure behind it. Music evokes mood; the brassy bray of trumpets may herald the triumph of an army or the solemn loss of “The Last Post.” Even without words, we begin to form stories around the emotions the sounds of music evoke when we listen.
Musical composition tends to lend itself to this. The lyrics to the average pop song are usually pretty insipid, but they do contain some sort of narrative. The music itself also moves the listener through a narrative. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. We often get a build-up and then the “breakdown” (the denoument, in literary terms), before the song closes out.
Using Music to Inspire Writing
We’ll preface this with a note that everyone’s different. Not every writer likes music or finds it useful when they’re writing. Some might find it distracting. Others might find they start writing the words to a song or getting distracted by them. If the wrong song is playing, you may find it difficult to tap into a particular emotion; a really happy song isn’t exactly great if you’re trying to write about sadness.
That said, many writers will also find inspiration for their writing in chords and lyrics. Since music already has a narrative structure, you might wonder if you can use it to loan narrative structure to your own works. Instrumental works certainly loan themselves more easily than lyrical compositions; your imagination is less hindered by the guidance of the words. You’re freer to focus on the actual music, the rise, swell, and crest of it. You can give in to the imagery the sounds evoke for you.
The Narrative Structure of Music
Songs, however, still speak to constructing narrative. You can use them to overlay your own narrative structure. Most pop songs focus on generics; they’re not exactly known for their deep and insightful lyrics.
Even a song with more meaningful lyrics, however, can also be interpreted and reinterpreted. While generic lyrics might bend and sway unto the wind, whichever way you choose to blow at them, a song like Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” or The Beatles’ “Rocky Racoon” can still be reinterpreted. Yes, Dylan tells us the joker and the thief are discussing the wrongs of the world and the Beatles’ tune tells us about a location “somewhere in the black mining hills of Dakota,” but even with the specific imagery, we’re still free to imagine, to an extent.
Moreover, the music and the delivery can still evoke a general mood, which can be what you’re drawing on—not necessarily the specific of the lyrics themselves. “Rocky Raccoon” evokes a certain image of the American West at a particular point in time. Your Western showdown between two cowboys may not be taking place under the same circumstances; you might even be writing a hoedown scene instead. But the tune can jive with what you’re writing.
What’s on My Playlist?
One of the first things I do when I start a new manuscript is pull together a playlist. I’m somewhat notorious for being able to listen to the same track over and over, so I really only need one tune to start a playlist. If I have a general idea of where the manuscript is going to go, I can begin pulling in songs to mimic the moods I think will be reflected. Over time, as the story and characters evolve, I’ll pull in additional songs.
I don’t necessarily assign characters “themes” (although I have). Here’s one I worked up for A Stranger Sort of Fairy Tale:
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And here’s another, this time for Oceans between Us, the next novel in the Something with the Water series:
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You can see I’ve repeated some of the tracks on both; I’m just really into these tracks right now. Some of them are “pump up” songs, which are designed to keep me moving through the writing. Others are a little more fraught with meaning. “Attention,” for example, is actually (just about) the perfect accompaniment for a scene in Oceans; in fact, I could say this track virtually inspired the scene and the way it plays out.
A track like “Horizons” (Dylan Smith) doesn’t have lyrics, so it’s more flexible and applies less to a specific scene and more to a feeling. In both A Stranger Sort of Fairy Tale and Oceans, there’s a few scenes with this mood.
What’s on Your Playlist?
Do you use music to inspire your writing? Only when you find the perfect track? Or do you need music to make the writing happen? If so, what’s on your playlist now?
If you don’t write, what do you listen to when you’re reading? Do you like when writers provide you a playlist? If you’ve ever used one, do you think it provides deeper insights into the work? Or do you prefer to make your own?