Using Music to Focus Your Writing

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
― Aldous Huxley, Music At Night: And Other Essays

There are writers who can only work with the blinds shut and the door closed (ideally out in the middle of the woods in a secluded cabin); there are also writers who need to work in coffee shops with the hustle and bustle of the surroundings to ground them. Writing seems to either be crafted in a void, with an absence of sound or movement, or accompanied by a meticulous soundtrack. Different types of thinking and work require various levels of concentration and focus. Music can help focus and drive your work or it can be pure distraction. 

I prefer do my creative writing in silence. If I decide to play music there is a small, but strict, criteria: it needs to be instrumental and (preferably) from a game or movie soundtrack. At work it’s the opposite, I can easily focus and be productive while listening to almost anything. Everyone has different reactions to playing music while working. 

If you enjoy writing with some sort of mood music to spur you on, a good way to sort out what works best is to look for songs with certain beats per minute (“BPM”).  There are activities that can be enhanced by using specific BPM playlists. For example, when doing cardio exercise the best  BPM should be between 120-140. This stands to reason that writing, a much more relaxing activity than jazzercise would require a much lower BPM.

Like my music criteria above, everyone has little habits that they turn to when working.  When writing, my boyfriend uses Groovesalad  to put him into a more disciplined mindset; when programming, he listens to music with a higher BPM which lends to quicker thinking and problem solving. Some people do their best work while listening to high BPM songs since it forces them to match the tempo of the music. The key is to find what suits your writing style best.

I started using online radios or listening to full soundtracks because I found myself wasting hours crafting a “perfect writing playlist” instead of actually writing. Having someone else plan a playlist for me took away hours of searching for the “perfect” inspiration to write the next scene.

Below are some online options to start you off. This is in no way a full list of what is available, just examples of what I have used in the past. There are tons of paid online music programs you can use like Spotify, LastFM, Bandcamp or Rdio, but I tend to rely on alternate free versions whenever possible.

Full-Length Online Soundtracks (YouTube only)

Game Soundtracks

Film/TV Soundtracks

Free Online Listening

The best thing about online radio stations is that not only are there stations organized by musical genre, there are also stations that have playlists dedicated to certain moods or activities. For example, Songza has a parent music directory called Activities which is filled with sub-directories like ‘Barbecuing’, ‘Cocktail Party’, or ‘Reading in a Coffee Shop’ that are further broken down into applicable playlists.


Radio Rivendell – online all Fantasy-based music station



How to Calculate BPM

iTunes has its own BPM calculator which will need to be turned on. There is a New York Times advice column on how to turn on BPM tracking in iTunes. As with everything else, there is a WikiHow on How to Calculate the BPM of a Song.

There are programs you can download that will categorize the BPM of your music:

Often the easiest thing to do is to choose a playlist or album that matches the genre you’re writing or the scene you’re setting. For my novel, when I turned on music, I steadily switched between the Jane Eyre, Skyfall and Game of Thrones soundtracks. My older, smaller writing pieces were written exclusively to Sarah Mclachlan or Loreena McKennitt (McLachlan’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy was my go-to inspiration CD- it’s terribly melodramatic). 

Try listening to different genres and BPM to see what helps put you into a creative mindset. You might find you get your best writing done with dubstep blasting in the background (I doubt it, but who knows). Use different online radio features or find some full-length albums on YouTube  If you find something you love then consider buying the CD or donating to the upkeep of the websites. You might even find a shifting upward or downward BPM playlist to be the most effective.

Further Reading: