What Music Helps You Write?

Ransom Riggs

When I need to write but I'm having trouble concentrating, or transporting myself into that weird twilight head-space that makes me productive, I turn to music. I'm certain this applies not only to writing work but to lots of other mental tasks as well, but there's something about music that helps shut out the white noise of extraneous thoughts, and streamlines my ideas. That said, it has to be the right kind of music, and though I've been honing my "writing" iTunes playlist for years now, I still can't identify exactly why certain songs work so well for me and others don't. I'd love to hear what kind of music helps YOU write -- partly because I'm starting to get sick of the same 50 songs!

Here are some of the rules about what tends to work for me, and some examples.

RULE #1: no lyrics. Slight wordless vocalizations are OK, but lyrics get in the way of the words that are trying to find their way out of my brain. Nick Cave's ghostly moaning on this track from the soundtrack to The Proposition is about as much as I can take. (The whole album is great for writing, though. Especially if you happen to be writing about the desert!)

RULE #2: Something about Phillip Glass works for me. About 50% of his stuff makes my brain click into high gear -- the rest makes me want to scratch my eyeballs out. This track from Glassworks falls into the former category.

RULE #3: Somewhat repetitive, simple, atmospheric. One artist who fits the bill even more often than Glass is Zoe Keating, who is just one woman with a cello but often sounds like five or ten -- she samples and loops her own playing, and the result is mesmerizing.

RULE #5: Sometimes nothing works better than a simple piano playing alone. The composer known as Goldmund does this to a tee.

RULE #6: No distracting flourishes or crazy tempo/volume changes. That takes me right out of it and I skip the track immediately. For instance, this track from the Kronos Quartet's excellent Dracula would be perfect if not for the intermittent buh-DAAAAH!

So -- what music helps you write?