Music to my ears (part one)

Taking a short break from NaNoWriMo and I'm sitting here listening to some music, trying to find some stuff to bombard my mindgrapes with (thanks 30 Rock) while I'm writing. I'm not one of those writers who like solitude or dead quiet to write by. I can but I prefer to shut out the world with a pair headphones and cycle through some of the movie soundtrack stuff I've got assembled on iTunes.

It's important to get the right mix of stuff on your playlist, it's no use having John Williams' Indy theme trying to rouse you into action while you're writing a quiet passage. Same goes for the slow melodious piano tunes when you're trying to have your hero beat down the bad guys.

Sometimes, I find tracks only after listening to the whole soundtrack in isolation but generally I seek out pieces that resonated with me during the movie. Occasionally, a song will catch my attention and I'll also throw that into the mix, just to change it up a little. This has been my method of madness for years now and seems to work for me.

I've listened to a lot of music soundtracks over the years, and owned many of them. My friends and I used them constantly as a backdrop to our roleplaying games so stuff like Danny Elfman's "Batman", Alan Silvestri's "Shattered", Lennie Niehaus' "Unforgiven" and Ennio Morricone's "The Thing" became staples.

I've found myself putting some tracks on repeat just to get the right feeling for a scene that I'm writing, borrowing a little of the energy perhaps from how it made me feel when I heard it in the context of the movie. It's sometimes surprising how powerful music can be when used effectively in a movie and there are many examples of where a movie scene has been heightened by the use of music. There are probably as many times where terrible music cues have ruined a scene.

I hate when music is used to "tell" me how to feel in a given scene. Used properly, music just enhances the emotion of the scene but doesn't dictate to you how you should feel. If the scene is moving to you then the music should move you further, but if the scene does not move you, then the music should not try to bully you to feel it. The differences are sometimes tiny but it's amazing how many times a little clumsiness with the soundtrack makes a scene fall flat.

From time to time, when I'm writing, a piece of music will suggest a scene to me by itself. Years ago, I got an idea for a roleplay and a story based on a piece of music from the electronic band Tangerine Dream. I bought a cheap tape of their greatest hits and one of the tracks, which ran about ten minutes I believe, started off as fairly unremarkable but built its way into something more and triggered a whole concept in my head. Another time, I was watching the television and a piece of music played gave me a vivid picture in my head of an entire scene that eventually turned into the last part of a seven part story I wrote.

The first time this creativity reared its head was while listening to Gustav Holst's "The Planets" suite. A great music teacher I had at school played "Mars" to us little brats and it always stuck with me. When I was older and finally saved enough money it was the first album I bought with my own money. Each part of the Planets suite is a dazzling musical interpretation of one of the Planets in the solar system and for me Mars is the most powerful; Mars, Bringer of War. It easily summons images of war and battle and is such a powerful piece of music that parts of it have been "borrowed" or copied by modern music composers. The rhythms and motifs of the piece show up everywhere. In fact, I believe some composers have gotten themselves in trouble for "being influenced" too heavily by it. Hans Zimmer and James Horner being two examples of composers who've borrowed the piece heavily. In fact, here's a cool little clip over at YouTube that shows the comparisons pretty well and also shows other stuff that's "influenced" modern soundtracks (if you're into that kind of thing, which I am):

So, what have I got cued up to listen to for my current story? Well, some Thomas Newman for sure. One of the famous Newman family of musicians and composers (Randy Newman is his uncle), he's written the soundtracks for The Shawshank Redemption, Scent of a Woman, American Beauty, Finding Nemo and Cinderella Man. I'm a particular fan of the main theme from Scent of a Woman and the Stoic theme from Shawshank. The Scent of a Woman theme starts of like some kind of pastoral rumination, an oboe plays a gentle tune as lush strings build giving the impression of a late summer evening or even an early Fall. Then at the one minute mark, the theme changes into a more rhythmical piece, more carefree, youthful and joyous, this time evoking Spring.

Scent of a Woman - Main Theme

With the Stoic theme we've got a powerful Cello piece that, from the moment I heard it in the theater, planted me in my seat. I walked in late to see The Shawshank Redemption (not like me at all) and as the camera zooms over Shawshank Prison, this is the piece that plays and it just blew me away. To this day it's still one of my favorite themes.

The Shawshank Redemption - Stoic Theme

For some of the more gentle moments its nice to throw in some Ryuichi Sakamoto. His music for Ralph Fiennes' version of Wuthering Heights David Bowie's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence are simply fantastic. Hans Zimmer has also written some wonderful pieces. Inception is my new favorite of his. It's great from beginning to end but "Time" stands out...(does the spinning top fall over at the end???...). Others cued up this go around are Dickon Hinchliffe (Last Chance Harvey), Cliff Martinez (Solaris), Dario Marinelli (V for Vendetta) and Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica), and some Mark Isham (In the Valley of Elah).

Anyway, I've stalled enough. Time to get back to NaNoWriting...

...are there any particular pieces of music you like to listen to? Any pieces I should add to my collection?

Let me know what you like to listen to.



  1. While I sadly say I have not heard of your musicians I do listen while I write and read. I totally agree with everything you posted.
    You will cringe to know I listen to pop, country, r n b and alternative.
    Though I do love a good power ballad;)

  2. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard are fantastic composers. I'm a personal fan of the Gladiator soundtrack. I also really liked James Newton Howard's soundtrack of Signs and The Village, Lady in the Water too. I use to listen to music scores a lot when I wrote in the past.

    However, I fell into the category of letting my mood be dictated by what played when listening to the music. Since then, I have switched over to music that is relatively easy to listen to. I like Ulrich Schnauss, his music is simply enchanting. I listen to a lot of Enigma as well. Devin Townsend is another artists I listen to when writing, but I lean on his album Ghost when writing, most of his music rather complex and layered, making it distracting. All I want to do is rock out when listening to the rest of his music.

    However, every once in a great white, I'll dig up The Dark Knight album and listen to that just because it's so great. Just last night I listened to Gladiator and it reminded me how much I love that movie.

    Great post!

  3. Hi Jenn - Thanks for stopping by. I don't dislike listening to songs but I guess I'm easily influenced 'cause sometimes when I'm in a writing groove and I then read back over it I find I've copied lines out of the song as I've been singing along...tunelessly...Look out for my new novel "Rolling in the Deep"...(not really). I draw the line at country music though but I guess even Carrie Underwood has to eat! :0)

    JacobG88 - Signs is a great soundtrack, I forgot about that one, I'll have to dig it out. I can't say I've heard anything by Schnauss or Townsend but I'll definitely check them out when I get a chance.
    I was reminded recently by a friend about the soundtrack to Rain Man by Zimmer back when he was just starting to assert himself on Hollywood movies. It's got a couple of really great themes in it. Gladiator is also a good soundtrack...and a very enjoyable movie. He also did a good soundtrack for The Last Samurai...he's been consistently one of the best for a while now.

    Anyway, thank u for stopping by and commenting.

  4. The music you listen to is inspiring!

    I'm old school really as far as instrumental music goes. I like Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Gershwin, (I know...he's not quite in the same eras as the others but oh! Rhapsody in Blue??? Yeah!), and the like, but when I get into writing...(covers head)...I listen to rock and roll. In my defense there's blues thrown in there. ;)

    I tune out the lyrics and let the beats pound through me. That's not to say that I won't be checking out your soundtracks. I'm a big fan of Danny Elfman's work but honestly haven't bought any of his cds. This I plan on rectifying. ;)

    I've also stalled on NaNo Gareth. :( I've been on the same chapter for two days. TWO DAYS! Arrg! Less than 8,000 to go and I'm stalled? (Shakes fist at the silliness)

  5. We meet again zencherry!

    I've already fired off the emergency flares to make sure you get some encouragement for Nanowrimo. You've got plenty of time so, I don't have any doubt that you'll get to the finish line. I'm lagging a good way behind and I still think I'm gonna make it.

    As has probably been proven by this blog, when I like something I nerd out big time. I'm also a big fan of classical music Maureen, I mentioned Holst (my fave) above but I've also got a bunch of other stuff ready to play if needed. I love Rhapsody in Blue...the jazzier version with the clarinet...awesome music.

    As I mention above, I can also listen to songs but generally I end up sitting there...tapping my feet and basically typing out lyrics, which isn't very helpful :0) Sometimes, on the odd occasion where the mood is right I'll rock out...or disco out some classics...and the occasional nonsense that no-one else likes. Soundtracks work best for me and it isn't unheard of for me to create my own soundtrack mix to write by just to stop me from veering off the (w)rite path.

    Anyway, enough lollygagging, back to Nanowrimo and see you around in the Twitterverse.


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