On Music

Posted: February 8, 2011 in Nick Slosser, The Whole Works

“On Music” by Nick Slosser

In an earlier blog post, Jim Smiley talked a lot about mood music, listing various songs and artists he might listen to while writing a piece with a particular mood.  Aaron Hilton responded enthusiastically with his own list of songs and artists.  Writing with Aaron on a regular basis, I’ve gained some insight into his musical predilections, which include among other things an extensive soundtrack collection.  And I believe it works for him…and probably Jim Smiley too.

I also love music and have plenty of it to fit almost any mood, and occasionally I do just that.  For example, a gloomy, not-bound-for-a-happy-ending story might call for Concrete Blonde or Mazzy Star or the soundtrack to Chinatown.  More often, though, I’ll match the music to my story’s setting.  If I’m trying to cast my mind back to the early decades of the last century, then popular jazz is my weapon of choice.  Nothing puts me there quicker and with less pain than old-school crooners and husky-voiced torch singers.  And if my story is set in the 70’s or 80’s—post-Vietnam and Watergate, pre-cell phone and Internet—I favor bands with plenty of adolescent Cold War angst like Blondie, The Clash, Television, or X, while for 21st century stories, I might punch in The White Stripes, The Black Keys, or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

But music is a tough one for me.  It can hinder as well as help, feeding the need to create the right atmosphere before setting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards), which can turn into a deadly trap.  Finding time is difficult enough already.  If I suddenly realize I have a free hour or two, I’ve got to be locked and loaded, ready to fire.  I cannot allow myself to think there’s too much noise, not enough light, too many people, not enough cushion beneath me, or it’s the wrong time of day or the wrong kind of music or the wrong kind of pen and paper.  Worrying about too much/not enough/the wrong kind of anything only obstructs the writing.  It is nice when it all comes together, and the music and mood and time of day and everything else contribute to productive vomiting, but it’s not necessary.  And if you’re in the habit of going to a coffee shop, as I am, then you don’t always have a choice in the music being played.

While music can set a mood, it can also be distracting.  If Blondie or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are playing, I’m very likely singing along—at least in my own head—which is certainly not good for word-smithing.  Worse, music can alter or limit the writing.  Ever hear “Stuck in the Middle with You” and not think of that scene in Reservoir Dogs?  Listening to an evocative soundtrack, like Reservoir Dogs, can dampen the creative possibilities by evoking too many associations—associations that might creep into your story, or worse, push it toward the derivative.

Most often I like music to be simply background noise that allows me to focus when silence would be distracting.  But to be background noise, the music must not be distracting or tied to the story.  So there are times when I listen to punk or funk or surf or southern rock or anything but the logical, predictable choice.  Example:  Tejano music.  Aside from the few videos I’ve seen on mounted TVs while waiting for my bean burrito and Coke with real sugar, Tejano music does not carry with it strong visual or narrative associations.  And neither do the lyrics, which are ninety percent indecipherable to me anyway.  Tejano music is neither distracting nor does it nudge my story in any direction by dredging up images and clichés that are better left lying dormant.  So when I’m writing a story, sometimes the best music for me to write by would be my last choice for the soundtrack.

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