What I Listen To When Working and Writing

I am a child of the 80s. At least, I think I am. I was nearly 8 years old when the clock struck midnight on January 1, 1980, and nearly 18 ten years later. In my book, the awareness of an 8-18-year old during the 1980s qualifies as being a child of that decade. It makes sense, therefore, that I like 80s music. It’s interesting what a difference just a couple of years makes. For instance, Kelly, who is just a couple of years younger than me, is not particularly fond of 80s music, but instead enjoys 90s music. My thoughts on 90s music can be summarized by a single word: meh.

I also go through phases. I listened to 80s music for a long time. This reached a kind of pinnacle a few years back when we got Sirius XM satellite radio1 and I could list to the 80s on 8 channel as much as I wanted in the car (and later, anywhere thanks to the Internet subscription add-on). I still like 80s music, but it is no longer what I generally listen to when I work.

Of course, it depends on the type of work I am doing and what my mood happens to be. My “default” these days is the 70s on 7 channel. I find this to be an almost perfect complement to work I do at my day job because it keeps my slightly off-balance. After all, I am typically doing things like storyboarding designs for user interfaces. I do this work on an iPad using the Paper app and a Bamboo stylus. And yet, in the background is the music of my early childhood when an iPad would have been some serious science fiction: Styx, ABBA, Eagles, Elton John, Bee Gees2, etc. It is like having hot water poured in one ear while cold water is poured into the other ear. I like that. It keeps me on my toes.

If I am not doing design work, but writing code, I often listen to something a little harder. This usually involves one or all of the first four Metallica albums, but may sometimes include Def Leppard.

When I write, things are much different. It is very difficult for me to write with music containing vocals when I am writing because the vocals jumble the words in my head and completely blow my concentration. I often do my writing in the evenings, after getting the kids ready for bed, but before actually putting them to bed. During this time, they each get to pick a cartoon to watch3. This means that there is a TV on. So I put on my noise-cancelling headset and listen to a white noise album that is mostly thunderstorms and rain. It is just enough to block everything out without screwing up my concentration. Sometimes I mix it up, however. Recently I have been listening to the excellent Hans Zimmer score for The Man of Steel.

I have written before that for me, writing is sometimes like method acting. On rare occasions, when I need to really feel the emotion that I am trying to generate in my writing, I will listen to a carefully selected song that I know will help bring out those emotions. In one story4 I wrote a few years back, this song was Cold Play’s “Fix You.” In my current story, I have used the Royal Scots Dragoons version of “Amazing Grace”5. But for 90% of my writing, I am listening to white noise like rain and thunder, or nothing at all–when the house is empty.

How about you? What do you listen to when you work? And if you are a writer, what do you listen to when you write?

  1. Can I just say that I love Sirius XM. It is the kind of radio station I always imagined having as a kid, one in which you could choose the type of music you wanted to listen to and then listen to it to your heart’s content and without commercial interruption.
  2. I swear I typed the words “Bee Gees” here and “Night Fever” was the next song to play on 70s on 7.
  3. The Little Miss usually chooses Caillou, while the Little Man picks one of several superhero cartoons. Currently, it is a 2003 version of Spiderman.
  4. The story in question is “In the Cloud.” If you’ve read that story, I used the song in the climactic scene where the main character escapes from the spaceship on the surface of the Martian moon.
  5. Appropriate in the context of the story for several reasons, not the least of which that the main character’s name is Grace.