Sounds Like a Story: Music as a Writing Tool

Recently, I fell hard for a new song, “No Rest” by Dry the River. The song was released in 2011, but I just now discovered it, which is how a lot of things work and why it’s disappointing that some people in power positions anticipate instant results after an opening weekend or the first week of a book’s sales. Some things take time to percolate and make it past the noise to reach the perfect audience.

Before I heard this song, I had a big revision on my plate, and I was stuck. So I did what I always do when I’m stuck: I pulled on my Converse and my headphones, browsed through my girlfriend’s most recently updated playlist (she’s my personal DJ), and headed outside for a walk, which I prefer to call “plotting.”

While I wandered, mentally banging my head against a novel wall, the sweet falsetto followed by the full-throated anguish of the vocals and the steady beat of the drums rushed at me. I clicked the volume higher — even though I’m already pushing the hearing loss — and set the song to repeat. Then, I listened to the words*:

Did you see the light in my heart? / Did you see the sweat on my brow? / Did you see the fear in my heart? / Did you see me bleeding it out? /  I loved you in the bed / I loved you in the best way possible

The tangled plot threads began to loosen for the following thirty minutes as I completed my lap around the neighborhood. As soon as I came home, I grabbed the Moleskine notebook where I keep all of my story thoughts and plots and scribbled the ideas.

Of course, this idea of music as inspiration is not new or unique. “Although it probably seems obvious that music can evoke emotions, it is to this day not clear why. Why doesn’t music feel like listening to speech sounds, or animal calls, or garbage disposals? Why is music nice to listen to? Why does music get blessed with a multi-billion dollar industry, whereas there is no market for ‘easy listening’ speech sounds? … The simple moral is that the emotions of music are ‘cross-modal,’ and can easily spread from sensory system to another.”<fn>Changizi, M. (2009). Why Does Music Make Us Feel? Scientific American.</fn>

Sounds good to me.

You’re the Inspiration


The author as a fabulous, full-throated singer in a former life.

I have loved two things more than anything else my whole life: Words and music.

These two loves created two career desires: I wanted to be a singer songwriter or a Solid Gold dancer. I also wanted to work on Fantasy Island, which I considered a real place back then, but the career path was elusive to my tiny brain.

For reasons I can’t remember, I quit ballet in kindergarten. I’m sure I had a good reason. Perhaps I believed that my time had come and gone.

That left singer-songwriter as the top career choice. Two problems there: I don’t have a great singing voice, and I don’t know how to play an instrument. That didn’t stop me. I still sang in choir, with as much passion as I could dredge from my diaphragm**. To up my songwriting game, my junior high friend, Angie, and I stayed up all night, splayed upon the carpet, writing reams of poetry in spiral bound notebooks. We watched videos on MTV and listened to KISR 93’s Friday Night Dedications to get us in the mood — and also in the futile hope that someone out there in radioland had scribbled our names on their hearts. No dice.

The songs — which I would later realize were actually poems because there were no musical notes associated with the words — were terrible, but that didn’t matter to me. I broke a lot of pencil lead and ripped through the paper, tearing through my feelings on Mrs. Turpin’s choice of Chamber Singers (which did not include me or Angie), one of my friend’s boyfriends who pushed her against a wall (I was mad, and I wanted him to DIE), and of course, teenage desires.

Aside from the inspiration and audio atmospheric benefits of music, these song/poem-writing power sessions were great exercises on packing details and emotion into a small amount space.

Playlists for Every Occasion

Unlike everything else about my junior high self, my need for words and music has never changed. For every writing project, I create playlists. I tend to have a country mouse/city mouse personality. After I write something about the South, I tend to want to leave it for a while. That’s when I turn back to Boston and workplace environments. Though my settings and genres are random, the playlists follow a formula:

  1. Pre-writing playlists: If I need a new idea for a story or an essay, I plug in the appropriate playlist and let the inspiration come. It’s like focused daydreaming. The songs depend on the genre. Country, Pop, 80s, Moody People Who Cry Black Tears. It’s all game.
  2. Character-specific playlists: In one of my current novels, I have four points of view. This is a first draft, so inevitably, one or more of these characters will lose their voice(s) in revision. But for now, it helps me to create a playlist for each character to keep the voices and the cadences separate. Observe:
    1. Early 80s techno and dance: All Elijah and Hue want to do is survive high school and dance ’til they’re dripping with sweat at Rumors on Saturday nights.
    2. Hardcore and Death Metal: All Garrett wants to do is reclaim his spot as the favored son away from his half-brother Elijah. Note: I become an even more-aggressive pedestrian when listening to this playlist. Stay clear.
    3. 80s country: All their stepmom Tessa wants is for everyone to get along and to have another baby to replace the one that was stillborn and maybe keep her husband’s eyes from roaming.
  3. Revision playlist: Revision requires a very specific playlist. Revision beats me down. Revision makes me feel a fool, a fraud, an incompetent buffoon. Sometimes, I need a gentle boost from Whitney, hoping for that one moment in time. Other times, I can’t stand myself and need Eminem to remind me: Success is my only motherfuckin’ option, failure’s not.

Exploitation of Emotion

audio-headphone-hearing-1591Generally, I prefer abstract lyrics because I can apply my own interpretation to the story and the atmosphere that the song evokes. Other times, the songs are stories within themselves, which can narrow one’s imagination. For example: listen to Sufjan Stevens on his track “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” You don’t get more specific — or traumatic — than a song about a famous serial killer who dressed like a clown. But let not the lyrics constrain you. Let the composers exploit your emotions: “We can exploit the timbral variety of the orchestra to great effect. The choices that we make in orchestration can reflect certain emotional traits that these timbral differences offer: the melancholia of the cello, the innocent sadness of the oboe, the mystery of the flute, the boldness of the trumpet, or the transparent beauty of the harp.<fn> Douek, J. (2013). Music and emotion—a composer’s perspective. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, 7, 82.</fn>

The voice itself becomes an instrument. When Sufjan trembles over the words “Oh my God” and exhales a quiet sigh at the chilling close of the song, the lyrics transcend the subject to express the horror of the killings and the terror that the next door neighbor could be “just like him.” That’s a rich atmosphere for a writer focused on physical and/or psychological terror.

“What to Write?” Will Become a Question of the Past

The beauty of this inspiration is that it frees me from the pressure of “what to write” or trying to write something that other people will like, which is an annoying thing that I hate to think about but sometimes the thought comes despite my best attempts. I let my mind wander. I kick my cats out of my Little Red Writing Chair, and let the mood take me wherever it wants to go.

Some of my favorite go-to artists for inspiration over the years and more recent additions (in alphabetical order because I don’t like to rank artists who are equally and diversely talented): 

  • Oleta Adams: That voice.
  • Luke Bryan: This won’t make sense to a lot of you. But I am a huge fan, so shut it.
  • Sam Cooke: Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, especially “Bring it On Home to Me.”
  • Kathleen Edwards: Raw, strong emotion, particularly the Voyageur album.
  • Patty Griffin: One of the top singer-songwriters in America and don’t even argue otherwise.
  • PJ Harvey: My Freaky Queen.
  • Frank Ocean: That voice. Those emotions. Seriously.

Regardless of the genre you write or the mood you need and why it creates emotion, music can be the thing to both start or unstick you. Plus, it’s fun to say: Honey, I’m going for a plot!


* My girlfriend and I are in the middle of a debate as to whether the lyric “I loved you in the bed” is correct or if he repeats the line “I loved you in the best.” Google is no help.
** During Boston’s recent Snowpocalypse, all the roads and bridges were empty. On a trip across the Longfellow Bridge, I sang “She Will Be Loved” in a similar, Junior High manner when I got to the middle and stood over the frozen Charles River. It was MAJESTIC.


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