All through my school years my friends did their homework while listening to pop music. That never worked for me because song lyrics distracted me from what I was supposed to be doing.
To prove my point about song lyrics, I challenge you to read or write anything substantial while listening to the following exuberant lyrics: Independent Women. Or how about this great song: Soul Vaccination by Tower of Power.
What I needed to hear when I did my schoolwork, if anything at all, was music specifically designed to exist in the background, music that thrived as the sidekick rather than the main character.
Pop music is entertainment, not background music.
What type of music is best suited to help create mood, theme, scene, and characterization? What compositions are elusive and subtle, and yet are sufficiently assertive for their mysterious purposes?
Movie and video game soundtracks
What I’m speaking of are movie and video game soundtracks.
"What?" you ask.
If you want to immerse yourself in a creative and unique atmosphere that sends you to a distant land, then listen to a movie or video game soundtrack because they are specifically designed to do just that. You can do this for free by going to Youtube and entering into the search field the movie’s or video game’s name, followed by the word soundtrack.
"But, I’m not into video games," you say.
Who says you must know where the music comes from? Most of the games listed at the bottom of this post I have never heard of and have never played. But I have listened to their soundtracks countless times because they provide such extraordinary mood-enhancing background music, and that's what matters.
Listening to soundtracks is ideal when writing because they thrive in the background:
Soundtracks sound pretty but aren’t heard.
They're attractive but aren't the center of attention.
They give life but aren't the life of the party.
Unlike pop songs, soundtracks often last for hours. Open up Homeworld and you’ll be freed from your present thoughts for three hours and nineteen minutes. The Surviving Mars soundtrack goes on for a whopping five hours and 14 minutes! The last two hours consist of original soft and pleasant pop and country songs. I didn't know such tunes existed.
If you listen to Thief: Deadly Shadows on its own, you will be hideously bored. But if you listen to it while writing something creepy or suspenseful, it will create for you much mighty magical muse muscle.
I'm not into western movies. But their musical scores definitely have their own style. Listening to this track takes me to the untamed west. This beats cramped air travel, and it's free. I find the musical score of Westworld to be haunting and mysterious even though I've never seen the HBO show.
I’ve heard of famous authors who have taken illegal drugs for inspiration. Too bad they didn’t know about soundtracks.
When you invite guests over for dinner, put on a good video game soundtrack. Even your most hoity-toity guests will not stick up their powdered noses at this music. Or even this for a more pensive mood.
I put on music because people rarely do anymore, and because the purpose of soundtracks is to create a certain mood. Our guests don't react to the music, but they do seem to know something unique is happening to them. On their drive home they say to each other, “We should be more like the Richardson’s.”
Background music is like using spices in good cooking. If you can taste them, you’ve put in too much.
What does all this have to do with writing?
Soundtracks will help you as much as they will help your dinner guests. Hearing calm, romantic, or exhilarating music will spurn your imagination in the direction you choose, which in turn will help you enrich your stories.
Caution: Not all soundtracks will help you
Unfortunately, most soundtracks will not be helpful to you when writing. I am forever searching for more and better soundtracks that promote a wider range of feelings and imaginative thoughts.
With only four bullet points I can describe why most soundtracks are not useful to you when writing.
are too loud (distracting)
are too boring
are too recognizable
Background music cannot be too recognizable because its purpose is to take you to a faraway, untouched, and unfamiliar place. You don’t want the music to distract you by reminding you of Hobbits or stormtroopers.
Avoid soundtrack compilations (collections) of the “most romantic” or “most exciting” soundtracks. Good ones are very rare because they usually don't provide enough of each movie’s musical content. Just when the theme music gets good, the track switches to the next movie. Sounds that yank you from one place to place is worse than useless.
The best soundtracks I’ve found so far
The following soundtracks have helped me richly while writing. I will continue to develop this list as I discover new music. While I’ve organized these pieces into categories, most can be applied to several categories.
Honor, loyalty, beauty, perseverance
Tension, suspense, adventure, determination
Strength against overwhelming odds
Exuberant, enthusiastic, exaggerated, over-the-top, whimsical
Never enough music
I am open to suggestions! Email me your favorite writing music at email@example.com, or add a comment at the bottom of this post. Let’s help each other become better writers as we fill the world with our creative, colorful, and stimulating stories.
As an added bonus, here is a compilation of exceptional classical guitarists. These aren't sound tracts, but they're pleasant enough to listen to while imagining new people and worlds.