How music can improve your writing and deepen your children’s story

1024 754 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

Do you listen to music while you write? I absolutely cannot write, read, work, think, basically live my life in silence; I’m one of those people that turns the TV on as soon as I walk into a room because I crave the background noise, and thanks to an unexplained bout of tinnitus in my right ear that’s lasted six years and counting, I’ve become accustomed to rain sounds and white noise when I sleep, too. So it’s no surprise that I have Spotify playing permanently whenever I’m at my desk.

If you manage to find the right soundtrack it just might spark ideas, inspire new plot twists or help you bring scenes to life.

Background noise to aid focus

When I work, I can typically only listen to very specific tracks: they need to be relatively chilled (but not so slow and relaxing that they send me to sleep) and ideally won’t have vocals so I don’t end up singing along and forgetting to write. I know a lot of people can’t concentrate with music in the background and I totally understand that, but listening to the right sort of music has been shown to aid focus and increase creativity so if you’re always dismissed the idea because you think it would be too distracting, give it a try.

I mostly like listening to jazz, thunder sounds, instrumental covers and electronic chill-out tracks like Morcheeba and Massive Attack. Loads of people swear by coffee shop background noise, too, although that doesn’t work so well for me. You’ll find hundreds of playlists on Spotify if you search terms like concentration, focus, ambient or white noise, but it you want a place to start, here are some of my favourites:

If you don’t use Spotify, try Last.FM or YouTube Music.

Let music take you back to your childhood and get into a middle grade or YA mindset

Something I see a lot when I’m editing is a struggle to really get into the mindset of young readers. It’s easy to accidentally slip into an adult voice or write from a nostalgic perspective about your own childhood which kids today won’t necessarily relate to. ⁣⁣Cheryl B Klein’s The Magic Words recommends using music to get into your audience’s frame of mind and remember how it feels to be young:

‘On YouTube or in your music library, find your favourite songs at ages eight, twelve and sixteen. As you listen to the song now, try to remember listening to the song *then*. Where did you listen to it […]? Identify one specific time you heard it and write down all the situational and sensory circumstances of that moment.’⁣

This is fabulous idea and it works really well! I’ve got a few songs that instantly transport me back to my school days and they act like shorthand when I need to put myself in my readers’ shoes. Children by Robert Miles and Pretty Fly for a White Guy by The Offspring both bring back vivid memories of dancing in my bedroom with friends while we played the cassette tape over and over and over again, feeling giddy and utterly invincible.

When I listen to Gina G’s Ooh Aah Just a Little Bit I’m instantly transported to my school playground in the summer of 1996 with my friends Clare and Candice. We were listening to it on cheap, tinny speakers plugged into my walkman and bouncing around the field, maybe even doing cartwheels. I can feel the cotton of my blue summer dress against my legs, the sun on my skin, the smell of freshly cut grass. I was so happy and I feel like that again every time I listen to it (I’m listening to it right now as I type and I’m bopping around in my chair). Kids today won’t have a clue who Gina G is, of course – most of our childhood pop culture references won’t be appropriate for middle grade or YA stories, sadly – but the emotions I felt while listening to it are universal and timeless. Excited about the summer, enjoying the freedom of playing on our huge school field miles away from everyone else, probably giddy on the thrill of sneaking a Walkman into school, the sense that nothing matters except having fun with your best friends.

When I listen to Moloko‘s The Time is Now or Madison Avenue‘s Don’t Call Me Baby, I immediately think of my work experience placement at Office Angels recruitment agency in Kingston when I was 14. Those songs were in the charts and playing on the radio constantly while I stuffed envelopes. It brings back feelings of insecurity and uncertainty as I tried to figure out what I was supposed to be doing, where I was meant to go and what to say to everybody. It also reminds me of being given a twenty pound note to go buy lunch for the temps and realising I’d lost the money when I got to the supermarket till. I was so terrified of going back and telling them that I utterly panicked and just froze in the queue, but thankfully I remembered my mum had given me £20 for emergencies and I used that instead. Phew! The main character in my WIP isn’t temping at a recruitment agency but I can use those feelings of nerves anxiety in other scenes.

Try this: Listen to five songs you loved as a child or teenager and let your mind wander back to how you felt while you listened to them. Do some free writing for ten minutes; don’t overthink it, just write whatever comes to you. Once you’ve finished, analyse what you’ve written. Is there anything there you can use when writing your middle grade or YA character?

Make your emotional scenes more vivid and realistic 

I have to admit I’m terrible at the whole timed free writing approach and I hate everything I come up with whenever I try it. But I know it works brilliantly for some and music can act as the perfect prompt because it’s so emotive and often stirs up memories we thought we’d forgotten. There’s a Placebo song I used to listen to on repeat but now every time I hear it I remember the day my boyfriend dumped me at a train station and the track came on my iPod while I travelled home alone. Waaah! And there’s a brilliant song by Simple Minds I used to adore but my best friend had it play at her funeral as the curtains closed on the coffin (it was her parting joke) and now I’m taken back to that day and those visceral emotions whenever it comes on the radio.

Listening to music can help us tap into emotions we felt during a specific moment or period in our lives. If you’re struggling to describe how your characters feel, listen to a song that connects with their experience and emotions on some level for you. If I were writing a funeral scene, I’d listen to that Simple Minds track. If it were a romantic scene I might listen to Des’ree’s Kissing You and picture the moment in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet when the young couple first meet at the Montague party. SO MUCH EMOTION!

Try this: Choose five emotions or moods you want to evoke in your manuscript – sadness, anger, grief, excitement, etc. – and find songs that represent those moods for you. If you can’t think of any tracks off the top of your head, do a Spotify or Google search for terms like ‘angry songs’, ‘break-up playlist’ or ‘happy tunes’. Listen to each of them one by one and spend five or ten minutes free writing or just jotting down thoughts or memories that come to you. What do the songs make you feel? What images come to mind? How might your character feel listening to it?

Bring your characters to life with an audible moodboard

Did you ever watch Ally McBeal in the nineties? I rewatched it on Amazon Prime recently and was struck by how badly it had aged; there’s so much fat-shaming and homophobia that I had to turn it off after a few episodes. But one positive thing I did take away from it was the idea of a personal theme song. Ally has a vivid, highly developed inner world and is often plagued by obsessive thoughts in the form of imaginary dancing babies and Barry Mannilow. Her therapist suggests she get a peppy theme song that she can sing when she needs to pick herself up and banish negative feelings and she opts for Gill Hamilton’s Tell Him. We regularly see her bouncing along the street humming the track to herself.

So, what would your main character’s theme song be? What sums them up? What would give them the kick they need to turn up the happy? In my middle grade WIP, my protagonist’s theme song would probably be Ask by The Smiths because it would remind her to stand up for herself and ask for what she wants, or Star Star by The Frames as it encapsulates the ambition and determination shining from her – a great pick-me-up when she’s feeling down on herself.

Once you’ve got your theme song, create an entire playlist to represent your character in various situations feeling various emotions, and then a list for your antagonist and each supporting character. Every song on the list could represent a chapter in your manuscript. If somebody listened to your playlist, would they get a sense of your story and characters like with a Pinterest mood board?

Write the soundtrack to your book

Have you ever been walking along the street listening to music and a song comes on that makes you feel like you’re in a film? You start imagining yourself as the lead in a movie, all full of angst or unrequited love as you trudge home in the rain, exaggerating every facial expression for the cameras. Oh, just me then? Hey, don’t knock it ’til you try it.

Movie soundtracks work brilliantly for summoning moods and mental responses because there’s already so much emotional baggage associated with songs we recognise from key film scenes and we’re transported to that moment as soon as we hear the first note. I mentioned Kissing You by Des’ree earlier because it’s such a powerful song and that Romeo + Julie scene would be nothing without it. And how about that moment in Cruel Intentions when Reece Witherspoon comes up the escalator to find Ryan Phillipe waiting for her as Counting Crow’s beautiful Colorblind plays in the background? Be still my heart! (In fact the entire Cruel Intentions soundtrack is an absolute masterclass is film music). And who can watch 500 Days of Summer and not want to form a happy flashmob every day You Make My Dreams by Hall & Oates comes on the radio? And then there’s the instrumental film scores like Jurassic Park, Star Wars, Toy Story, Jaws or anything Christmassy.

If your manuscript were a movie, what songs would you choose for each scene? Think of the small moments as well as the dramatic events and plot twists. What song is playing when your main character first sees her crush? What sort of music is scoring the training montage as your protagonist learns to use a wand or sword?

Thinking of your book in these terms can really help bring the words on the page to life as you visualise the action playing out cinematically on a big screen. The right music can lend just the right tone to any scene and you might find that new ideas jump out at you while you listen.

Immerse yourself in the genre

To help get your head in the game when you sit down to write, why not listen to a playlist of music that instantly evokes your genre? This can be useful if you’re working on more than one manuscript at a time and need to switch between two very different types of story, but it also lets you immerse yourself in the genre you’re writing and the reactions your characters are likely to have to the events in the book. If you’re writing horror, listening to scary songs can get you into your protagonist’s mindset as they check under the bed for monsters or creepy quietly through the local cemetery at night. I used to write a horror zine and I created a spooky playlist for readers to listen to while they read it, to get them in the moon. Writing sci-fi? Try a playlist like Gaming Sci-fi or Essential Science Fiction Soundtracks to get inspired. I’ll be going into more detail about using music for individual genres in other posts.

If you’re planning to actually use songs in your book…

Remember you’ll need permission from whoever owns the rights to the song if you want to quote lyrics, even just a line or two. It’s fine to use the title of a song in your manuscript but the words themselves are considered a ‘literary work’ and therefore copyrighted, so legally you must ask the owner if they’ll allow you to reproduce them. Many an author has been burned by this so please don’t skip this step! My advice would be to avoid using lyrics in your book altogether because it can be incredibly expensive and almost impossible to get permission.


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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes