The creative process is often a solitary affair, wherein the creator must form a bubble around themselves, delve inward, and then tangle with their demons. While musicians have an obvious soundtrack to the creative process—I mean, their act of creation is to make that soundtrack—us less-than-musical creatives, if we desire background music, will have to look toward the work of others.

Writers, painters, woodworkers, mathematicians, jewelry makers, and more; we all tap into the same process.  For me, as a storyteller, my soundtrack operates on a scene by scene basis. Sometimes, the best soundtrack is simply the world outside my window, and I’ll use the sounds of the breeze, passing cars and voices on the street to create my world.

But at the same time, when I begin delving deeper into the storyline, I always create a musical soundtrack for every book I write: a list of songs, put together, that capture the tone of my work.  These soundtracks can get quite long, as I do a lot of writing, but I’ll give a few examples.

Art by Shelley C

Art by Shelley C

For The Cage Legacy, my soundtrack was suitably dark, angry and tragic, as would befit the story of a serial killer’s teenage son. There was a lot of Clint Mansell.  Some Smashing Pumpkins, as well. As Ethan is the kind of brooding 2000s-era high school millennial that nostalgically listens to 90s grunge, some of that made its way on there.

One piece in particular that I kept coming back to was Peter Gabriel’s dark, moody take on Arcade Fire’s song, “My Body is a Cage.”  Unsurprisingly, the whole “cage” thing in the title was definitely what led me to the song, but even today, it captures a certain emotion that always takes me right back into Ethan’s story.


Now, this brings us to Pale Highway, which possesses a different tone altogether.

Whereas The Cage Legacy was about adolescence, Pale Highway is about an older man nearing the end of a long life. Pale Highway is a contemplative character study of this brilliant man losing himself to an unbeatable disease, while racing against the clock to do one last good thing for the world before his dementia claims him.

For Pale Highway’s soundtrack, the music that I kept coming back to was the work of The Album Leaf, an ambient post-rock project by Jimmy Lavalle. There’s something so unique about the Album Leaf’s sound that totally captures the tone I envisioned in my head when crafting Pale Highway.  The two albums that most influenced me were 2001’s One Day I’ll be On Time and 2006’s Into the Blue Again; in order to fully appreciate both albums, both should be listened to in their entirety, where every track builds upon the last.  For the purpose of this post, however, these are the parts that had the most impact on me:

Naturally, as I write this post I’m listening to “Gust of…,” sipping on some coffee and enjoying the view of life outside my window.  Autumn is just starting to whisper clues about its arrival, but that beaming summer sun looks to be holding strong for at least another few weeks.

So, that’s me.  What about you guys?  When you’re working on your various creative projects, whatever they may be, what sort of soundtrack do you have?

29 thoughts on “What’s Your Background Music?

  1. I listen to Audioslave, Incubus, Bush, 30 Seconds to Mars and RATM 😀 working on something that involves conspiracy, modern warfare, fallen heroes, espionage, black ops with a little hint of guy looking for his girl…

  2. I’m smiling while reading this post.
    I think that music can bring out so many emotions in us. I love hearing you have a soundtrack of playlists when you are writing.
    I actually have a different playlist for everyday life. Hehe
    I have a playlist for.. . Waking up, making breakfast, getting kids off to school, cleaning, running, driving, etc..
    A playlist for everything…
    Yes, they can change daily 🙂

    I just loved this post. ❤️

  3. Its fascinating how music can influence how we write isn’t it? It brings so much to any story, and it really gives an added level of depth to the story and characters. I don’t tend to listen to music when I’m writing as such, but I do always have the radio on downstairs, so there is always a mixture of music, news, and interviews, drifting in and out of my day.

  4. I hardly ever listen to music when I write. I find music to be a distraction to me in many ways. If I listen to music while writing, I will usually just find some classical music on the radio to listen to. I know it sounds horrible, but I actually don’t listen to music much at all. My favorite place to be when I write, is out somewhere enjoying nature. I love listening to the sounds that nature provides and anything more usually interrupts my train of thought.

  5. Actually, as a songwriter I have used music (but not the actual melody for the specific song) to evoke a mood and generate ideas when writing lyrics. For creative writing for my personal blog. Hmmm….Hearing the everyday sounds from outside and those of my sweetie working in the next room over, keep me balanced when I am writing about my Dad’s Alzheimer’s. For business/client writing I usually listen to a certain set of instrumental pieces (two faves are Ken Bonfield’s guitar solos on the CD Mystic Morning and a double CD set by Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel) that both please me and “eat up” enough of my attention to help me focus (a common tactic for those of us with ADHD). And I almost always have an internal song or tune repeating in my head throughout the day (right now it’s Brooks & Dun’s “My Maria”) and it changes from day to day. Lastly….Crappy writing days usually result in really loud 1980’s and 1990’s pop blaring out of my office 🙂

    • Oh yes, different soundtracks for different processes! Fascinating stuff, and I can see how each different “soundtrack” would suit each different creative process rather well. I find it especially interesting how you use background music while writing a song; reading you describe it, that actually makes a lot of sense, and seems like the perfect way to get one into the correct mood for the song one is about to write.

  6. Usually I prefer it quiet when I’m writing. But when I need a musical background, I choose the ones without too many words, or with words I don’t understand (like Japanese rock or French) to prevent me from singing along and lose my own words 🙂

  7. I listen to a specific play list of classical and post-rock music like Sigur Ros, EF, Mogwai, etc. I don’t vary it according to the type of music it is, it’s always the same very long play list. I think it was a tip from Stephen King but I could be wrong, that it’s about the ritual of getting into a certain head space, a cue to the brain that this is writing time, the daily writing slot, so muse, please, do your thang 😉

    • Oh yeah, that absolutely hits the nail on the head; getting in that certain head space, the “flow state.”

      Mogwai is also a favorite of mine, love listening to them while working on a project. Overall, I find that when writing, I’ll tend to listen to more post-rock than anything else.

  8. I listen to mostly familiar music for background noise. I found when I try a unique alternative rock channel, for example, I am listening with my mind fully engaged in the lyrics and bands sound. If it is a song I know the music is just like a fan blowing. So, mainly my song list is 70’s through 90’s songs, folk, pop and rock. I like bluegrass, symphony or jazz in person though not so much on radio. This was a fun interactive post. I liked your guests and your responses, too.

    • Interesting, that makes sense; when you encounter a new song/band, you’ll be more actively “involved” in the song, since it’s new and unfamiliar. Songs we already know, of course, are SO familiar that we can anticipate all of their beats, high points and low points as they come, and thus write according to the expected mood, either consciously or subconsciously.

      Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it! There were definitely a lot of fun responses to this one, yours included. I love learning more about others, and so posts like this tend to be some of my favorites.

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