Someone recently asked if I listen to music when writing. They knew I used to write music reviews and were looking at a poem called “Analysis of a radio song”. It’s certainly not the only poem I’ve written influenced in some way by music. I’m still in the habit of listening to what I’d told is a lot of music.
However, I prefer not to play music when I’m writing:
Poems have a rhythm and musicality of their own
It’s hard to pay attention to that when you’re listening to another piece of music. It takes a fair amount of discipline and practice to tune out the influence of the music in the background and let the poem find the rhythm that’s right for it.
If I’m reading poems that are not sufficiently engaging and music is being played in the background, I find I end up trying to read the poems to the rhythm of the music. If the poems engage me, the background music is tuned out.
Poems have their own vocabulary
If you’re listening to music with lyrics, it’s not easy not to absorb a word or a phrase from the song you’re listening to. I have very few instrumental pieces. But even an instrumental piece can suggest imagery, which writers instinctively convert to words, and rhythm which might influence a poet to choose a short, staccato word when a longer, smoother one is needed.
Music influences mood
It might help playing the right kind of music to set an ambience before you write, but it’s not sustainable while you write. You might be trying to write a fast-paced thrilling chase, but you need to slow down and get the wording, rhythm and sound-patterning right. Loud, repetitive noise can induce stress: no one writes well under stress.
Poems are rarely dashed down in ten minutes flat. Repeatedly playing the one track or album on a loop that suits the mood, rhythm and even vocabulary of the poem will bore you, frustrate the poem and you’ll never finish it.
The second stanza’s tying itself in knots, you can’t think of an alternative description for “orange” that would give you a rhyme and the next track’s your favourite…. Or if you’re listening on shuffle, trying to anticpate the next track might become more interesting…
Even favourite tracks can get boring if played on a continuous loop and bored minds wander… This can be a good thing on a first draft but not when you’re editing. If you’re bored of your poem, your readers will be bored too.
Some circumstances where music can be useful:
Setting the mood
Some writers need a buffer between everyday living and time allocated for writing. Some achieve this with a favourite pen/notebook, getting a desk in order before turning on a computer, a few moments’ quiet to create a break between chores and time to write. For some, it might be playing a track or two to focus. It can be hard writing an autumn poem in midsummer or a love poem when you’re anxiously waiting for news or constantly glancing at a to-do list.
Tuning out distraction
Distracting noises are unpredictable interruptions: a ringing phone, the neighbour’s DIY, an unevenly dripping tap, someone alternating periods of silence and whistling with no consistent duration. These can be soothed out by a constant noise which can be tuned out. Workplaces with a radio constantly playing in the background can be more productive than a ‘silent’ workplace with unpredictable interruptions such as a printer starting, a phone call, someone tapping their fingers, a noisy typist.
One morning I had a poem competing with a pneumatic drill from workmen in the street. I was also waiting for a delivery so couldn’t go and write elsewhere. Music helped poetry win.
(“Extended Play” includes one of my stories)