Tune in to tune out: authors on music and the writing process

Roddy Doyle, Sarah Crossan and Shane Hegarty on the role songs play in their craft

We often wonder what might have been in the head of an author while writing their book. We don't always imagine it was Metallica. Or Charles Mingus. Or Mogwai. Or – as was either coincidence or trend when contacting authors about music and the process of writing – The Dubliners.

"I'm working on a film script based around a bunch of people who used to know each other and get together again and I have actually been listening to The Dubliners a lot," says Roddy Doyle. "Thematically it kind of relates to the story and filled the room with an atmosphere."

Sarah Crossan, writing the screenplay adaptation of her most recent novel, Here Is the Beehive, has been listening to the band's version of Carrickfergus so much she hardly hears it anymore. Which is how she wants it.

“I’ll have a playlist of about 25 or 30 songs, and just listen to those repeatedly. But then a particular song will speak to the book and I will just listen to that on repeat. You know when you listen to a song so often that it just irritates you? It doesn’t irritate me. I can’t hear it. But it’s in the room,” she says.

There are many authors who prefer to write in silence, who can’t bear the intrusion of music and how it might drag at their focus, trip up their rhythms, let words and voices babble over their own thoughts.

And there are other writers who want to not just fill their heads with sound but use the music to infuse their work with whatever mood is carried with it, to match the frequency and rhythms of their story, or simply to eke extra productivity out of themselves when they might otherwise wane.

Stephen King has previously talked of heavy metal being his writing companion. Metallica. Anthrax. Never Ozzy Osbourne. Colson Whitehead will write to a playlist of 2,000 or so songs. Electronic music, rap, punk. The Ramones were among those banging away in his ears while he wrote The Underground Railroad. Gabriel García Márquez, meanwhile, once said he "wore out" his Beatles records while writing One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Creating a space

This writer’s experience of writing to music began when working on my first children’s novel on the daily commute – often on the floor of a stuffed train carriage. The music created a space that didn’t physically exist, shutting out voices, the electronic announcements, the brake and shunt of the train itself. I would tune in so I could tune out.

Later music became a way to fill the silence that suddenly dominates when you step out of an office job and into a working world that is largely made up only of you and your own thoughts.

Perhaps surprisingly, Roddy Doyle didn’t write The Commitments while listening to music. “I thought, this isn’t something you do. It’s a distraction.” Bands only became work colleagues later, filling the silences of a day that had suddenly gotten much quieter.

“I shifted overnight from being a teacher in the company of, you know, dozens or hundreds of people to being alone. And it could be a really long day.”

He has a record player, which he picked up when adapting The Snapper for the Gate Theatre a few years ago. “The Snapper is kind of precious to me. The book. The film. The whole experience. Everything about it. So I thought I’d indulge myself in something and I bought a record player, not an expensive one, but that’s the one I have here and a growing collection of records.”

Doyle enjoys the “ritual” of getting up to change the LP. He also uses Spotify, which allows for the regular discovery of new music and finding the specific sounds that will match his work. The result is personal soundtracks to his books.

He associates Charles Mingus with his most recent novel, Love. "Don't ask me why. I think it's the rhythm. When I get to the afternoon I find something like Philip Glass, Charlie Mingus, Horace Silver. These guys, there's a rhythm there that helps get another hour's work out of me.

"It gives an energy to the room and gives me an energy. I've said before many times, but Philip Glass's Music for Changing Parts got me through A Star Called Henry. And writing the follow-up, Oh, Play That Thing!, opened me up to a whole world of jazz that I'd previously slammed the door shut on."

Instrumental music

Instrumental tends to work best for Doyle: post-rock, minimalist music, “a certain type of jazz”. Talking to him about music quickly becomes a trading of recommendations, a back and forth of “have you heard?”

He listened to cellist and composer Oliver Coates through the writing of short stories last year. A  current favourite is the Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and London Symphony Orchestra collaboration Promises.

“I think there is a link between the music and productivity, definitely,” says Doyle. “Now whether that’s the rhythm getting into the fingers and into the brain I’ve no idea. It’s a bottle of Lucozade really.”

Does Doyle listen to match the pace or mood of a particular chapter?

"Put on Luther Vandross for the riding scenes?" he laughs. "No."

However, music offers a change across projects when the surroundings do not.

“If you’re going from finishing one piece of work and moving into an entirely different piece of work it kind of makes solid sense. I can’t actually uproot myself and go to a different room. And I think that would be just plain stupid. But I can change the shirt and I can change the music.”

Literary association

Recent Laureate Na nÓg Sarah Crossan also associates her books with particular songs. For Moonrise – about a young man whose brother is on death row – the song was Natalie Merchant's I May Know the Word. She landed on it after realising that Merchant was serial killer Aileen Wuornos's favourite singer; the song Carnival played at her funeral.

“Sometimes I’ll listen to a song and it’ll have the texture I want to capture in that book,” she says. “Generally I think my books are about loneliness, about the loneliness of the human condition. And that’s where I want to be when I’m writing. And I have the playlists in Spotify, and when you messaged me about it I looked through them and thought, my God they’re all sad songs. Not a happy song amongst them.

“So for the writing it is a lot of music with a wistful energy. And a lot of Irish music. A lot of folk music.”

Before writing, Crossan will often run – “because that’s about rhythm” – and, as a writer of verse novels, she often listens to poetry as she does. This combines to motivate her writing, even if work itself is done to music.

“I put them [songs] on repeat so often I stop hearing them. But somehow they create a feeling in the room. So, it’s not like if I’m writing an exciting scene I’ll put music on that I have not heard before and is exciting, because that’s a massive distraction to me.”

Crossan tries not to take the work music with her through the day, "because otherwise my life is just a series of sad moments. I have a running soundtrack and that's stuff like Footloose and Shotgun by George Ezra, very tacky stuff you can bounce to. So, I have different soundtracks for different parts of my life, but not for different parts of the writing."

Editing process

She switches the music off for editing, though, when the loose flow of creating a story has to give way to a focus on every line, every word and the spaces in between.

“When I’m trying to work on the rhythm of the language and making sure that there’s no stickiness to the verse, then I would be working in silence. So, when I’m reading the work aloud to myself in the editing, there’ll be no music in the background. But on the first draft there’ll definitely be music and played very, very loudly. To the point that it’s silent. I don’t know how to explain it any other way.

“Whatever the feeling is that I get from this song, that’s the feeling I want the reader to have when they read the book. I play that song on a loop hoping that somehow through the energy of the universe the melody will make its way into the work.”