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I don’t usually write to music. It distracts me, but I do write with it. I have favorite music for getting into moods, connecting with characters, or inspiring story.

I credit my songwriter friend, John Elliott, and his music for inspiring this post. I’ve written with his music many times, and his new indie album Good Goodbyes released Tuesday. When John invited me to write a review of his album, I told him I don’t know anything about reviewing music. I do know I love this album, that it’s evocative and inspiring, and I’m excited to try writing with it soon.

Here are some ideas for writing with music, even if you’re not fond of playing it while you write.

  • Make playlists for a range of emotions and tones that you can listen to before diving into scenes.
  • If you don’t want to invest time in creating your own playlist, choose one song and see what playlist iTunes Genius or Pandora or a similar service creates for you.
  • Make a Pandora radio station for a character. Input a few of the character’s favorite songs and discover other songs they might like. Sometimes, the lyrics of songs discovered this way have led me to theme and story in surprising ways.
  • Choose a song lyric as a thematic touchstone. Paste the quotation at the top of your manuscript, whether or not you intend to quote it in the finished book.
  • Once you have a rough outline, find a song to represent each point on it. Listen to the songs together as a soundtrack and see if you learn anything new about your story.
  • Listen to a song with evocative lyrics and jot down the lines that stand out to you. See what happens if you try to write a story around those lines.
  • Find a song or music video that inspires you. Songs and music videos are so often like poetry, containing signposts of story but open to interpretation. Your own interpretation might become an original plot. Two music vids that always inspire me are Beirut’s “Postcards from Italy” and the Raveonettes “Dead Sound.” The latter has majorly helped me get into the mood for my current WIP.

If you’re up for a kick-in-the-pants, do-it-right-now challenge, try the one of the last two exercises with this video of John Elliott’s “Back Where I Was” set to a single thunderstorm. I recommend making the video full screen. Share a bit of your exercise or let us know how it worked for you in comments!

You can hear samples of tracks from more of John’s work and see more videos of his songs here.