What Do You Listen to When Writing?

I’ve been listening to this playlist now for almost three years, and it never gets old. I’ve listed them in alpha order by musician/band, but the order on my playlist is different, using the Ulysses’ Gaze tracks intermittently to provide a kind of cohesive framework. Perfect for writing. What do you listen to?

Afghan Whigs
The Temple
Dedicate It
Black Love
Going to Town

The Auteurs
A Sister Like You
Underground Movies

Lazy Files
Static/Diamond Bollocks

The Black Heart Procession
The Spell

Trailer Park

Sunken Waltz
Close Behind
Woven Birds
The Book and the Canal

Play Dead

The Church
Nothing Seeker
The Sexual Act

Shriek Movie Soundtrack (working titles)
Calm Before Storm
Intense Build

No Kind of Life
I’d Like to Hurt You

Darker My Love
Helium Heels

The Dears
Heaven, Have Mercy On Us
Summer of Protest

Death Cab for Cutie
President of What?

The Delgados
Keep On Breathing

Echo & the Bunnymen
The Killing Moon

The Lunatic

Eleni Karaindrou & Kim Kashkashian
Soundtrack to Ulysses’ Gaze
[entire CD]

Hearts & Daggers

The Future Sound of London
The Lovers
Goodbye Sky (Reprise)

Hotel Lights
You Come and I Go

I Am Kloot
From Your Favourite Sky


Someone’s Got It In For Me
Alaskan Pipeline
Hammer Strings

Joe Henry

Justin Sullivan
Navigating by the Stars


Lloyd Cole
Fall Together
My Other Life
People Ain’t No Good (Nick Cave cover)

The Long Winters
The Commander Thinks Aloud

Low Skies
Down Below Him

Magnolia Electric Company
Almost Was Good Enough

Matt Keating
(I Thought I Heard My) Head Explode

The Murder City Devils
Boom Swagger Boom

Stockholm Syndrome
Knights of Cydonia (crazy town live version from their site)
Space Dementia

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
She’s Leaving You
Loom of the Land
Ain’t Gonna Rain No More
And No More Shall We Part
Oh My Lord
The Sorrowful Wife
The Good Son
Sorrow’s Child
The Proposition #1 (with Warren Ellis)
Road to Banyon (w/ Ellis)
Gun Thing (w/ Ellis)

Over the Rhine
The World Can Wait
Give Me Strength

Post Blue

Pleasure Forever
Gideon & Goliath
Meet Me In Eternity
Curtain Call for a Whispering Ghost

Exit Music (For a Film)


The Refo:mation (part of The Church)
All See It Now

Richard Barone
Flew a Falcon
Sweet Blue Cage

Robbers On High Street
Hot Sluts (Say I Love You)
A Night At Star Castle
How It Falls Apart

Scott Walker
Cossacks Are

Songs: Ohia
The Body Burned Away
Ghost Tropic
Not Just a Ghost’s Heart

Everything Hits at Once
Believing Is Art
The Way We Get By

Arc-Lamps, Signal Flares
Autumn Leaves Revisited

Wish You Away

Tim Booth
Money God
Down to the Sea

Viva Voce
Yr Epic Heart

Willard Grant Conspiracy & Telefunk
Dig a Hole in the Meadow

Wolf Parade
Modern World


  1. says

    Space Dementia is one of my favourite writing tracks… n’ Nick Cave lives down the road! Ha.

    Actually, his soundtrack for The Proposition and Cliff Martinez’s (modern) Solaris score are also both on my writing playlists. I recommend both highly for very subtle background music… which still kicks ass.

  2. says

    It depends. Sometimes, it’s one of Bob Dylan’s albums, other times it might be some old Delta-style blues or something like Led Zeppelin. Then again, I don’t write fiction, so my choices are when I’m trying to write essays or years ago when I was studying for exams.

  3. says

    When I’m actually in the writing mode I tend to either listen to nothing or orchestrated type things (classical, soundtracks, and similar). I can’t listen to things with words because for whatever reason it distracts me. I find myself singing along. I also can’t listen to things with a defined beat (say, electronic music, hip hop, that kind of stuff). Basically, it’s orchestrated, instrumental type stuff. It all depends on my mood though. If I feel like I need the musical inspiration (say for battle/fight/attack/action scenes) then I put in music (I almost always need music for sad scenes). But if I’m just writing I’ll listen to nothing.

  4. says

    I’d like to totally back up Chris Billet’s recc for Cliff Martinez’ Solaris soundtrack.

    Based on that list, I’d also suggest picking up Cinder by Dirty Three (what Warren Ellis does when he’s not being a Bad Seed).

    I usually build a playlist of music for each thing I’m working on, though I do have a generic writing playlist (loads of Dirty Three, the Solaris soundtrack, the soundtrack to Lord of War, which also is amazing, and a few others).

    Some stories really want music with no words, others are keen on thematic resonance. I attack it on a case-by-case basis. My current novel project is made up of music published before 1987 (since that’s when the story takes place) with the exception of a sprinkling of tracks by Juno Reactor to thematically represent an introjected force into that world.

    Pretty much every one of my playlists ever has some Shriekback songs on it, but that’s because I’m a squealing Shriekback fanboy.

    Also? Nick Cave kicks my ass so hard. He makes it sound like words just have nothing better to do by march together in meter. Loom of the Land being among my favorites for its effortless storytelling.

    (Well, seemingly effortless, I understand the guy sweats blood over it)

  5. says

    Last year, nothing but jazz (lots of Sonny Rollins).
    This year, The National and American Music Club have been playing while I write. And the writing’s a lot darker. Coincidence?

  6. says

    I listen to understated, minimal film scores. I can’t work while someone is singing at me, so I leave anything with vocals for another time. Some on the playlist at the mo are Jeff Beal – Carnivale, Alexandre Desplat – Syriana, Cliff Martinez – Traffic and Solaris (definitely with Chris on that one).

  7. says

    I used to write in total silence. I gradually moved to a place where music has become my auditory cue to get to work. These days, I just put iTunes on shuffle and go. Here’s what’s coming next in the queue:

    Echoes–Pink Floyd
    Paranoid–Black Sabbath
    Let’s Dance–David Bowie
    We Have Heaven–Yes
    Street Fighting Man–The Rolling Stones
    Magic Bus–The Who
    Who’s Behind the Door–Zebra
    The Ballad Of Billy The Kid–Billy Joel
    Suffragette City–David Bowie
    Is There Anybody Out There?–Pink Floyd
    Between The Wheels–Rush
    I’ve Loved These Days–Billy Joel
    Next Homecoming–Collective Soul
    Walkin’ Shoes–Tora Tora
    All I Wanna Do–Sheryl Crow

    Yeah, I’m a hard rock guy. What can I tell ya?

  8. says

    I try to change what I’m listening to in response to what I’m writing. It doesn’t always work out so well – I guess I don’t always know what kind of music will match the right mood – but I do my best.

    Chris – good call on the Proposition soundtrack. I’m going to have to get that.

  9. Eddie C says

    Well the writing I do is thesis writing rather than fiction, but I do always do it to music. Largely my writing music is relatively non-intrusive, so an awful lot of modern minimalism (Philip Glass, Arvo Part, Gorecki, Steve Reich), and ambinent stuff like Stars of the Lid, Eluvium, and Eno.

  10. says

    Whatever’s on my playlist, though I’m finding Amp, Gustav Mahler, Yellow6, and The Future Sound of London to work wonderfully as of late.

    Oftentimes, I’ll write in response to what I’m listening to.

  11. says

    I’m actually pretty superstitious about the music. I usually try to find something that harmonizes with the mood of the scene I’m writing. Layered, immersive soundscapes are helpful. Whole albums only — it’s too jarring if every track jumps to a different sound. My go-to artists are Nick Cave for the dark and the bloody (more of his later stuff than what you’ve listed — The Lyre of Orpheus/Abbatoir Blues is brilliant, and Grinderman makes my knees wobbly), Sufjan Stevens for the transcendant, David Byrne for the cheerful, R.E.M. for the high-energy. Beirut has proven to be the lubricant for any kind of blockage. Tom Waits, New Pornographers, Neko Case, Arcade Fire, Damon & Naomi, Dylan, and the Magnetic Fields all have their place. And Elvis Costello is always there to kick me when I forget how to use words good.

  12. says

    (And, of course, it’s “abattoir”. *sigh* Abbatoir Blues is an entirely different, and entirely more Swedish, album.)

  13. says

    Jeff Vandermeer listens to Thursday! That kind of blows my mind – now whenever one of my friends looks at me askance for putting Signals Over The Air on, I’ll wave one of your books in their face. :D Um, in answer to your question, not that you’re probably v. interested, usually an album, on loop, of whatever I’m writing seems to demand, which is found by playing things that I think might be right until I start writing. Bluebottle Kiss seems to work well for that. (And essays!)

  14. says

    If I’m trying to figure out what happens next or other plot details, I need to have no music. On the other hand, if I’m revising, or if I know exactly what happens next and I just need to write it, then I listen to instrumental scores.

    Like SMD, if there’s music with words I get distracted and start singing along. I think it’s like this. Revising or writing is left-brain activity, so it helps if my right brain has something to do. Plotting, on the other hand, requires both halves of my brain – the creative half and the wordy half, so it’s better if neither half is distracted.

  15. Anonymous says

    When working on the one short story I’ve been writing for the past three years I listen to Richard Marchand’s electronica, which contrary to my progress, works marvellously to create the skittery, edgy frame of mind required.

  16. Laird says

    The Police; Soul Coughing; Ween; The Toadies; Fugazi; Queens of the Stone Age, Blue Oyster Cult.

  17. Josh Byrnes says

    Wow, When I sit down to write, I have a playlist that spans all kinds of stuff. I just put it on random and let it go. Some examples of what it contains: Tool, Mindless Self Indulgence, Mos Def, Sigur Ros, The Mars Volta, Moldy Peaches, The Eels, Nas, Weezer…just to name a few.

  18. says

    While it varies from project to project, there are certainly some reliable mood-setters. The Tiger Lillies, with their wide spectrum of work, generally has something to offer. In addition to Mr. Jacques, other crooners like Shane Macgowan, Tom Waits, and the aforementioned Nick Cave get my artistic juices leaking onto the page.

    For particular ambiance, I agree with the instrumental route: the soundtracks of Ennio Morricone, Basil Poledouris, Carter Burwell and Craig Armstrong are used as needed, as well as the phenomenal “Ravenous” OST. I’m also partial to such as Bach and Wagner, Kronos Quartet and Phillip Glass, Godspeed You Black Emperor and Jon Zaremba.

    Folk music of whatever region or people I’m working on does wonders as well. Not that I write Peter, Paul, and Mary fanfic–I mean traditional folk music, be it Irish, Appalachian, Klezmer, Romani, Slavic, etc. The young, hip derivatives of these traditions, like Black Ox Orkestar, do just as well in a pinch.

    Lest this all seem a little method, I’ve also been known to kick the Cradle of Filth, Bal Sagoth, Nile, andWhite Zombie.

    Oh, and two things of note for the Nick Cave fans: his soundtrack (with Warren Ellis again) for “The Assassination of Jesse James” if also quite atmospheric and tasty, and he will be on tour this Summer/Fall. Depending on locale, one could conceivably check out Grinderman or the man himself with the Seeds. Tragically, he won’t be within 500 miles of me at any time.

  19. Andrew says

    Fleetwood Mac
    – Go Your Own Way
    – I Wanna Be With You Everywhere
    – Hold me

    – Carry on Wayward Son

    – A Kiss from a Rose

    Over and over again

  20. says

    It varies… usually it’s just whatever I’m in the mood for at the moment, which is some variety of post-hardcore a lot of the time Albums by Oh Sleeper (“When I am God”) and As Cities Burn (“Come Now Sleep”) are in heavy rotation at the moment. I recently used seeqpod to set up a playlist of stuff I liked in college but never bought, which is currently doing the rounds. When I specifically want writing music I have a station set up at Pandora with a lot of Intelligent Dance Music (Amon Tobin being the main offender) that generally puts me in the right mood.

  21. Josh Byrnes says

    Oh, I also have found myself listening to internet radio stations as of late during writing sessions. I’m currently hung up on one called Zeilsteen. Anyone else have any other internet radio stations they recommend?

  22. says

    I’ve used music while brainstorming (all different kinds of music), and to get into a specific mood that I would need to write from, but during the actual composition, it just doesn’t matter because I’ll filter it out of my consciousness. Some noise needs to be there I’ve found. Something to keep part of my brain occupied while I’m writing so it doesn’t bother the other parts like a 10-year old at an amusement park.

  23. says

    Your horrifically poor taste in music leaves me speechless, but for this: I’ve lost all respect for you and will hereby discontinue my subscription to your blog’s feed.

  24. Alex Carnegie says

    I find purely instrumental music to be a lot less distracting and a lot more conducive to writing as well. Lyrical content gets in the way, in a sense, of the atmosphere and emotion of music that gets me in the right frame of mind. If I’m trying to come up with words in my mind, another set of words going into my ears doesn’t really help..

    Amon Tobin’s album ‘Foley Room’ is a good one, as are the two LPs by Burial, and stuff by Four Tet, hiphop instrumentals by Madlib and RJD2, and decent drum&bass helps as well.

    In terms of vocal stuff though, Buck 65 & Bike For Three songs are good- it is a little like spoken word poetry so it’s more like he captures moments and fragmented thoughts than “tells whole stories” in a lot of his tracks.

  25. says

    I’ve got a long Rhapsody playlist, something like a week’s worth of music, which includes Talking Heads, Gogol Bordello, a lot of South African township, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, an embarrassing amount of sappy Celtic, Beatles, TMBG, Violent Femmes, Nanci Griffith, Death Cab for Cutie, Fat Boy Slim, Leonard Cohen, Lhasa, Orchestra Baobab, Ofra Haza, Angelique Kidjo, and Barenaked Ladies. And some other stuff.

  26. says

    Ladytron — Witching Hour
    Daft Punk — Alive 2007
    Siouxsie Sioux — Mantaray
    PJ Harvey – Dry
    M83 — Saturdays = Youth
    Roisin Murphy — Overpowered

    I occasionally will write a blog post about music I listen to while writing at http://cesartorres.net/blog/?cat=13. I find I need to know the album well so it’s more of a mantra as I write. A new album distracts me as I’m trying to hear new lyrics and music.

  27. Caleb Wilson says

    Pelican and Ratatat are two non-vocal, non-boring bands I like to listen to while writing.

    Jesse: I love the music in “Ravenous”! I think it’s partly by Michael Nyman–his own music is great too. Kind of like a way weirder Philip Glass.

  28. says

    Caleb: I’ll have to check out more Nyman stuff–I also like most of the soundtracks to Peter Greenaway’s films so I dunno why I haven’t looked into him before…investigating the other two groups you mentioned as well, thanks!

  29. Matthew Pridham says

    I listen to instrumental music while writing. Otherwise lyrics have a tendency to appear in my text. Some songs but mostly just music.

    Favorites: Aphex Twin (particularly his “Selected Ambient Works vol. 2”), Autechre, Boards of Canada (“Music Has the Right to Children”), Goblin, Charlie Parker, Delerium, Current 93, Trent Reznor’s instrumental stuff, Erik Satie, soundtracks (“Requiem for a Dream”, “Fight Club”, “Inception”, “Event Horizon”, “Triangle”, “Tenebre”, “Hannibal”, “Paprika”, music from “Silent Hill” the game & movie, “The Ring”, etc).