Wednesday, August 10, 2011

5 Musicians Who Made Me a Better Writer

Music is the one art-form I’ve resisted learning much about. It’s part of a long-term personal study to test if ignorance really is bliss, but it’s also because purely unconscious reactions to music are so helpful to my writing process. If tracks can elicit or sustain strong emotions for me, I have a much easier time writing the related plots out. Today I’d like to share five musical influences that have made much of my current novel possible.

1. Hans Zimmer
When the six-armed homunculus stood atop the prison, swatting pteradactyls from the sky and out into the monsoon, Hans Zimmer was there.

Nobody does bombastic music quite like Zimmer. He’s so good at the “big” sounds that I just assume soundtracks like Lord of the Rings belong to him. But fine, he didn’t compose “Minas Morgul.” The Dark Knight and Inception soundtracks have stuck with me longer for writing anyway. I keenly remember sitting in the theatre for Inception and thinking, “I need this track. I can put this on and finish that vampire story as soon as I get home.” And a week later, it worked like a charm.

Along the way he’s also had temporary hits with me – soundtracks that helped for a few months. A League of Their Own, The Last Samurai, Sherlock Holmes and Pirates of the Caribbean all have their catchy bits. I’d do jumping jacks if Zimmer scored any film adaptation of my books. Partially because that would mean it’s a big budget movie and I might hit the bestsellers list thanks to it.

In case you’re wondering, the homunculus fight song was “The Dream is Collapsing.”

2. Igor Stravinsky and those other Amazing Old Fellas
I’m uncultured. I first heard Stravinsky mentioned on the now-defunct Games For Windows podcast, when Shawn Elliot asked if videogames would ever have their Igor Stravinsky, the game designer who was great at everything he tried.

“Bullshit,” I told my speakers.

Then I listened to Stravinsky’s work. While not every arrangement stirred me, he had an astounding batting record. I played his discography and discarded plot ideas. I composed arguments set to “Duo Concertant for Violin and Piano- IV. Gigue” – The way one beat of violins ends and another picks up/I can hear where one person stops and the other picks up in bickering.

And just like that, there was a chase scene to “Moderato alla breve” from Symphony in C. At least two dramatic reveals came from “Allegro moderato” from Symphony In E Flat.

He doesn’t have the one great theme that I keep going back to like other classical composers. Even in revisions, when I have to walk around thinking over a problem, I’ve gone to “In A Major, Op. 92- 2nd Movement- Allegretto” from Beethoven’s 7th. I adore Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and am always trying to get fightscenes to work with it. Probably my all-time most inspiring song is Ode to Joy. I’m a sucker for the immutable greats. But Stravinsky’s work has somehow served as more versatile inspiration. I go to each symphony and movement less frequently, but the overall body is an inspirational toolkit.

3. Akira Yamaoka and Silent Hill
Akira Yamaoka is quite possibly the most talented sound designer I’ve ever witnessed. He composed the soundtracks for the Silent Hill videogames up until and including the Homecoming installment, and provided the score for the first Hollywood adaptation. He composed tracks to draw eeriness from a foggy screen, the somberness of sitting at the bedside of a dying lover, and terror from being chased by a giant wielding a meat cleaver. Part of his charm is an unmatched ear for ambient sound, and a similarly unmatched talent for blending it with traditional instruments, so that a guitar and the screeching of a steel door harmonize, as do static and a cello. Industrial sounds are as natural as any instruments, so that once you’re used to his style, there’s no novelty. This is just the way the music expresses itself.

Just as the Horror games benefitted from association with masterful music, the music has since taken on the benefits of association with that series. But I don’t write ripoffs of Silent Hill to this music. I summon it for frantic scenes, or ominous, or even serene ones. As creepy as Silent Hill gets, Yamaoka imbued it with some of the most tranquil songs I’ve ever heard to reaffirm places where you were safe. I’ve probably listened to the most hours of his music, both while writing and not.

My record is nine straight hours of one tiny track, “Silent Heaven,” looping as I wrote, went to bed, woke up the next morning and kept going to a breakthrough. Something in that track completely synched with this malicious disembodied voice I was writing into a character’s head. I’ve never had another experience like it. I presume the dorm mate downstairs hadn’t, either.

4. Ed Harrison
I have been trying to track this guy down. I think he’s got a tiny network on LinkedIn. He composed NeoTokyo, a soundtrack for an indy mod of Valve’s Half-Life. So he didn’t make a videogame soundtrack; he made the soundtrack for a fan-made spinoff. And it’s incredible. The music tops Bladerunner for noir and futurepunk feel. If he somehow reads this, please shake your own hand. You’ve got two, after all.

The album quickly became another toolbox for me. Songs latched onto and abetted particular instances of plot.

Walking the halls of the prison lost in thought? “Tachi.”

Encountering an alien creature larger than anything on this planet? “Out.”

Discovering the one room of people who not only need his help, but deserve it? “Beacon.”

Recently revising those scenes in the novel I’m left thinking, “It wouldn’t have come out this way without that song.”

5. God is an Astronaut
Being so uncultured, I don’t listen to many full albums. I just pull the songs I like and junk the rest. God is an Astronaut is a rare exception; I’ll pop in one full album and let it go. The music is so carefully constructed that the tracks move elegantly into one another, at least elegantly against each other. There’s nothing jarring about writing to All Is Violent, All Is Bright.

I sheepishly admit that if that album does go to a wildly different place at the end, I haven’t noticed. By the end I’ll have gone where I wanted in the prose. More times than with any other band or composer, I’ll finish a short story or chapter and realize the music ended a long time ago. God is an Astronaut delivers me into emotions that I can’t pull up on my own, but I can sustain. It’s like kite launching.

And if I surface from unfinished fiction, I’ve had great luck with hitting PLAY again and closing the deal. Enormous thanks to friend and podcastmate Max Cantor for introducing me to them.

So this is the music that’s meant the most to my writing in recent years. Please let me know what works for you. I'm always curious to expand my influences.


  1. The urge to recommend albums is very strong - but honestly I write to just about anything, depending on my mood. Usually older rock from the 60s-80s. Also not sure what might set you off.

  2. I feel like you just hit me over the head. I never looked to soundtracks for music, but the moods these evoke are breathtaking--literally. I'm having a hard time breathing thinking of the possibilities.

    I learn so much from you.

    My writing grew so much after one little comment you gave me--on the action between tagging conversation. Something clicked, and it helped me see other crutches too.

  3. Oh my god, please post more music. The last two are so gorgeous... how many more beautiful ones do you know? I'm using these to draw to.

  4. I'm so glad you have gotten so much mileage and value out of Ed Harrison and God is an Astronaut, John. It really lights up my day any time you mention that they have fueled your writing, and seeing them in this post made my week!

    For anyone touched by those two artists, I've stumbled on a number of similar bands and musicians over the years: it's also worth checking out The Album Leaf, Mogwai (particularly their track "Friend of the Night"), Mission Hill, Russian Circles, RJD2, Abakus, El Ten Eleven, Uyama Hiroto, Explosions in the Sky, and damn near anything that appears on the internet radio show "Midnight Snacks".

  5. I'm a huge fan of Zimmer and Stravinsky. Thanks for the intros to the other 3.

    Like Ross said, I can write to almost any type of music, although instrumental music is usually better (lyrics/singing can be distracting when you're concocting your own words).

    For me, quieter music, such as that of Eno, Fripp, Erik Satie, Bach's cello suites or contemplative jazz piano is good for very serene moments, esp late at night. On the other end of the spectrum, Ennio Morricone and John Zorn paint vivid scenes in my mind. Often I listen to jazz, it just feels good to my body.

    When I am not writing, good storyteller/poets like Bob Dylan and Lou Reed inspire me as a writer.

  6. I can write to almost anything. But usually I listen to Hindi or English music. Mostly pop, but rock and country as well. No instrumental only music and very little classical music.

    This week's fridayflash theme song is Character Deela, which is a hindi song and I am wondering if I should post it at the bottom of the post or maybe just translated lyrics.

  7. I write using Pandora playlists. For my current WiP, I've used the following the most: Pink (for fast paced scenes), Mumfored & Sons (for quieter or "normal" moments), and Evanescence (for creepy scenes). I've tried the instrumental stuff, but it really grates on my nerves for some reason.

  8. Ross, recommend away! Even if it doesn't work for me, at least my horizons will be broadened. I don't write to Rock, though, because I can't focus on my prose when lyrics pour in. I know writers are split on that. Some, including some of these commenters, have no trouble with it or even prefer non-instrumentals.

    Peggy, I was worried at first you meant my stuff was too blunt and obvious. But yes, soundtracks offer a lot of useful writing material, especially for people like me who can't write to music with lyrics. And I'm glad I helped broaden your awareness to tricks of prose. I'm always looking for more of my literary crutches and for how to rehabilitate the limp.

    Jemma, they are great! I also recommend Channel, Uyami Hiroto and Devin Townsend for positively beautiful modern stuff.

    Max, I enjoy R2DJ in my spare time and keep a CD in the car. Something about those albums just doesn't translate to much productivity, for whatever reason. There are a few odd tracks, though, like "Weatherpeople" that are helpful for how they play with established themes (in that case, the theme from Suspiria).

    Mark, lucky me I led with the two you enjoyed! That's almost focus-testing levels of good fortune there. I find non-instrumental work exceedingly distracting, even when it's in foreign languages. It takes some very crafty singing to blend in and get out of the way of my work, or a special mindset. And I adore Morricone! I simply don't have much of his work on my computer. The soundtrack to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is just about it, and things like Ecstasy of Gold have been longtime inspirations for me.

    Sonia, you can write to almost anything? That's wild! I'm so particular and testy. Maybe it's just my nature.

    Danni, meanwhile the other side of the moon! Only listening to stuff with lyrics and letting Pandora pick your stuff, as opposed to my instrumental playlists. You're a more versatile mind than mine, lady.


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