When I’m working on a novel or script, playing an imaginary soundtrack snaps my head back into the project and gets me ready to write – a kind of hypnotic trigger.
As a teenager, I used to make over-elaborate compilation tapes. Then I got into making complicated iTunes playlists. Since 2011, though, Spotify has been my go-to playlist playground, with what feels like all the world’s music a click or two away and clever algorithms to help me find pieces connected by mood.
The first book I recall making a soundtrack for was a now-abandoned conspiracy thriller police procedural called Long Knives. If you’re curious, here’s the playlist:
Although it’s one hour and forty minutes long, the most important tracks are the first two. The first track, ‘Electroconvulsive Shock’ by Peter Broderick, is a kind of instrumental overture that sets the mood – forlorn, minimal, ever-spiralling.
The second is a song, ‘You are a Knife’ by Danish band VETO, which I imagine playing over the opening credits of a TV adaptation or film version.
The funny thing is, neither of these is the kind of music I usually listen to. They were chosen purely because they seemed to work for the book, as if I was the music editor on that imaginary TV adaptation.
I used to make visual mood-boards and sometimes still do; this is an extension of that.
In this particular case, I think I was also after something that would help me picture the action as if it was a Scandinavian crime drama on BBC4, all washed out colours and frosty cityscapes. The theme tune I choose doesn’t sound unlike the one from The Bridge.
The book that eventually got published, The Grave Digger’s Boy, also has a soundtrack. This is more melancholy, with lots of solo piano and mournful cello, as befits a book about memory and obsession. Here it is if you fancy a listen. The same thing applies – I probably wouldn’t wander around listening to most of this music for fun and couldn’t tell you much about most of the artists.
The single most important track – one that I ended up playing on repeat for hours, sometimes – was ‘Theme’ from the 2009 soundtrack album And in the Endless Pause There Came the Sound of Bees by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.
There’s a passage in the book where the protagonist, Ben, is with his mother on a beach. I found it difficult to write and extremely emotional. This music – quite cheesy, now I listen back – seemed to suggest ‘bittersweet’ perfectly and helped me access feelings that I keep buried most of the time.
Sometimes, I berate myself over the time I spend tinkering with these playlists. Why have I just wasted fifteen minutes trying to find just the right piece of music when I could have been increasing my word count? Classic displacement activity, you idiot!
Except the more I think about it, the more I think my brain knows exactly what it’s doing.
First, it’s a way of engaging with and meditating on the project without jumping straight into writing. I’m restless with a short attention span – not great for a would-be novelist – and struggle to spend time thinking when I could be cracking on. An hour spent in Spotify focusing on the mood and tone of the book, with the plot and characters slowly marinating, is progress, even if it doesn’t always seem that way.
Secondly, the playlists are important because they help me envision the finished product and conceive of it being credible and successful. If there’s a TV or film adaptation it must be good, right? And it’s certainly no worse than some of the stuff that does end up on TV. This tactic is vital in overcoming impostor syndrome and the fear of the blank page – of the 80,000 words left to write.
Once I’ve got the soundtrack, it also makes me more productive. I can listen to it while I’m walking and thus force myself to think about plot or character problems. It also means that wherever I am – the canteen at work, a hotel room, a train – I can immediately slip back into a virtual version of my own work space.
There are a couple of bits of music that I use in less specific ways.
The first track from Brian Eno’s Music for Airports has become a sort of magic reset button I can hit when I’m suffering from writer’s block. I don’t know exactly how I trained myself with this habit but it works: I hear the first couple of cycles of the piano loop and the tap comes unstuck. It also seems to magically slow my heartbeat when I’m stressed. Handy, that.
My other half isn’t a fan of Michael Nyman or Philip Glass and I’m not sure I am, necessarily, except when I’m writing, but I do find them useful.
Glass – specifically this slightly weird playlist I made myself – doubles my productivity in short bursts. Repetitive, insistent… A kind of amphetamine for writers.
Nyman, on the other hand, is where I turn if I’m working on characters and need to give my emotions a prod. In particular, his soundtrack for Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland is a go-to, giving ordinary lives a kind of poetic grandeur it’s easy to deny them.
And his song ‘If’, written for a Japanese animated adaptation of Anne Frank’s Diary, is similarly soupy but what can I say – I’m a sap. It makes me well up and sometimes I need to be in that state to write what needs writing.
One of my current works-in-progress, the title of which I’m going to be coy about for now, has a soundtrack and theme tune already. The score is a mix of Shostakovich, Bernard Herrmann and David Shire – dark, moody and just a touch spiky. The theme is this wonderfully wonky piece from Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols:
That should give you a clue about what you can expect from the book when it’s done.
And my most recently published book, a collection of ghost stories called Municipal Gothic, has its own playlist, too. It’s a mix of genuinely unsettling field recordings, discordant modern classical music and synthesiser instrumentals. I don’t listen to it for fun but when I want to get into the right frame of mind to write about revenants and ghouls, it’s just the thing.
You’ll notice that I go to quite a bit of trouble over the cover designs, too. That’s another version of the psychological trick I described above: if I can see something that looks as if it already exists, that feels as if it’s got a physical form, it encourages me to make it happen.