The Crime Readers' Association

Music while you work?

9th January 2015

I recently saw this quote from Paul Auster: “I’ve heard of people who write with music playing. This is unthinkable to me because the music that you’re listening to is the music of the language that you’re writing.”

I’m afraid that I am one of the “people” Paul has heard of.

Since I discovered music in the mid-seventies — courtesy of the late John Peel — I listen to music whenever I sit at my desk. At first I listened to whatever was on the radio, but didn’t find all music conducive to work and at times had to either stop work, or stop listening. In those far off days, long before ‘Listen Again’, I usually took a break from my studies — assuring my mother that I was working.

The magical day I got a music centre for my birthday changed this. Like many people I have an emotional reaction to music, and as my collection grew, I experimented with different artists, discovering that, whilst listening to Pink Floyd aids the solution of difficult algebraic equations, Van Morrison and history essays didn’t mix.

Since I began writing, I have resurrected these habits and most of my scribbling is accompanied by music. I find that it can help me “get in the zone”. Action sequences flow better if accompanied by driving guitar rhythms and drums, but whilst writing slower scenes I listen to soulful ballads.  The only exception is if I need to concentrate on a convoluted piece of plotting. As I live in a vibrant suburb of Manchester, silence isn’t often an option, so I listen to classical music or the music of thunderstorms. I suppose I could invest in a pair of sound cancelling headphones but then I’d miss out on all that great music.

To make it easier, I downloaded my CD collection onto my PC and then bought a device that enabled me to convert my cassettes and vinyl, including scratches and hisses, into MP3 files. When music streaming services started, I seized the opportunity to discover new artists, listening to the reviewed albums in the culture sections of my paper. I have to admit though, that I tend to listen to the familiar music of my youth, and most of what I listen to is by singers I first heard in the last century. I’m not sure if it’s nostalgia, or the music was just better — it’s probably the latter — and the fact that like many things, good music needs to be experienced often to be fully appreciated.

I considered using music in my work. It can be great for signalling a mood or evoking a time, and many authors have used music to help bring a character to life. I imagine most of us can think of half a dozen ‘musical’ detectives. Morse with his love of opera, Rebus and the Stones, Resnick and Jazz, Dave Robicheaux’s love of blues and Cajun music, Inspector Banks with his eclectic tastes and guitar playing son Brian, and of course Dennis Potter’s “Singing detective”.

After long deliberation, I took a conscious decision not to use music to define any of my characters — others have done it far better than I could — but I want to acknowledge the part music has played in my writing. I decided to create a playlist for each novel I had published — one so far, so not too taxing.  I later discovered that Peter Robinson has produced Spotify playlists for his novels — another one of my great ideas which someone has pre-empted.

When choosing tracks I had to decide how to link them to the book. Some were literal, when a house containing a dead body is set alight, the Jam’s ‘Funeral Pyre’ was an obvious track, so was The Specials’ ‘Gangsters,’ when we first come across the bad guys — the really bad guys. I included other tracks because I listened to them, or something similar, when I wrote a particular section. Others evoke the emotion I want my writing to stimulate. When the detectives make a breakthrough, ‘Ain’t Got No – I Got Life’ by Nina Simone was perfect. The inclusion of a Smiths song is in honour of a scene in a Manchester pub. During the last century pubs in the city had to play a Smith’s track every 27 minutes as a condition of their licence.

The playlist to accompany my novel Brotherhood is on Spotify.

Which side of the debate are you on? Music or silence?

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