Writing to Music

Aaron Gilbreath
January 29, 2017
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Hemingway supposedly said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” Thankfully, that’s a misquote, because it’s one of the stupidest, most counterproductive pieces of writing advice ever. You shouldn’t rely on intoxicants to fill pages any more than you should confuse¬†intoxication for creativity. But when it comes to music, there’s an interesting dichotomy that reminds me of that booze quote: do you write to music or not?

Maybe because I like to write about music, people often ask me if I write to music. I do when I draft, but I revise in silence. Some writers and visual artists find it effective to write someplace filled with background noise and activity. The noise stimulates them, keeps them focused. A recent study shows that moderate ambient noise at a pub or coffee can increase abstract thinking and encourage creativity, which explains why there’s now an app to replicate that at home. I understand the appeal. I find that din productive, too. I love working in coffee shops, so I use them when I need some sort of boost that works better than caffeine. I employ music the same way.

Music energizes me and helps muffle the part of my mind that over-edits while I write; that way I’m not second-guessing so much that I barely get out any finished sentences. Music lubricates the process, speeds the flow, and that generates the words that pile into pages. It doesn’t matter what kind of music. When I draft, I don’t have a particular type that works best. What I play depends on my mood. Sometimes I crave gritty fast stuff run through fuzz pedals and LSD. Sometimes I crave something silky and mellow, like piano trio jazz. I like it loud and I like it instrumental. I just like something, because once those sounds fill the room, they block some little internal editorial function that would otherwise counter my productivity. Then when I revise, I turn the music off.

Because of the meticulous nature of revision, music interferes with my process. Revision is all about deepening, layering, and improving sentences, paragraphs, and the story’s structure. It’s about making structural choices about not only the shape of the sentences, but about story’s architecture. The right word, the right rhythms, the right phrasing, the right order, the right sequence and right shape, toggling back and forth between the big picture and the details. To do that fine work, I need to concentrate. The rhythm of music interferes with the rhythm of my lines, just as a song’s lyrics interfere with my words. I find both distracting. Although music helps me turn on my mind while drafting and open the floodgates, music makes it hard to concentrate while I’m trying to hear my own voice and shape it on the page. With music on, all I can hear is the singer. That’s one too many voices at once for me, too many words from other people. So I revise in silence. Then after a hard day’s work, I blast some music and celebrate. Sometimes I dance when no one’s looking, or go into the basement and turn up our electric guitar. A life without music is no life. I can’t take silence for long.

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