The Big Score

By Joe Moore

Over at Murderati, my friend Brett Battles  recently blogged about writing while listening to music. Since I’m a big believer in doing it, I thought I’d add my two cents to the topic.

Lets start by looking at the cinema. Arguably, a movie would lose its impact without music. Even in the days of silent movies, there was a live piano player in the theater whose job was to add drama to each scene. You can have the greatest photography, acting, direction, set design and script, but without music, the movie would probably fall flat. Not to be confused with what some call movie soundtracks–usually a collection contemporary tunes–movie scores are written and orchestrated pieces of original music specifically score designed for a particular scene. They enhance and  support the visual images. If you listen to a movie score isolated from the visuals, it can verge on being classical in nature. As a matter of fact, I consider names like Trevor Jones, Randy Edelman, Hans Zimmer, Ennio Morricone, James Horner, John Williams, Howard Shore, and many others to be our modern day classical composers.

I discovered many years ago that I could also use the element of music to help me write. Someone gave me the CD score to THE MISSION with Robert De Niro. It happened to be playing on my stereo as I started a new chapter, and I realized that the music set exactly the same mood as the scene on which I was working. So from then on, as I watched movies I would pay particular attention to the scores. If they evoked the type of mood I sought in my WIP, or just set a very cool, dramatic, romantic or spooky mood, I would order the CD and rip it to MP3.

I now have a huge collection of scores on my computer and rarely sit down to write without my MP3 player on “shuffle”. I don’t use any music with lyrics since I find that other people’s words distract me. That’s why scores work so well—in most cases they are instrumental.

So if you’d like to try writing dramatic scenes to music, here’s a short list of my favorite CDs that seem to have it all when it comes to creating a mood found in most mysteries and thrillers.

A Beautiful Mind, James Horner

The Bone Collector, Craig Armstrong

Breach, Mychael Danna

Burn After Reading, Carter Burwell

Crash, Howard Shore

Diabolique, Rand Edelman

A Very Long Engagement, Angelo Badalamenti

The Forgotten, James Horner

Gothika, John Ottman

House of Sand and Fog, James Horner

The Human Stain, Rachel Portman

The Illusionist, Philip Glass

The Lives of Others, Gabriel Yared

March of the Penguins, Alex Wurman

Munich, John Williams

One Hour Photo, Reinhold Heil

Passengers, Edward Shearmur

Premonition, Klaus Badelt

Runaway Jury, Christopher Young

The Sentinel, Christophe Beck

The Hours, Philip Glass

The Missing, James Horner

Unfaithful, Jan Kaczmarek

Amazon lets you sample the tracks before you purchase, so enjoy listening then find the one that fits your WIP.

Do you write to music? Lyrics or instrumental. What are your top five CDs for background music while you write?

15 thoughts on “The Big Score

  1. I have about three hundred songs in my iPod and I have them on shuffle. Iknow it’s weird, but I write best when the TV is on and its really just background noise. I rarely even know what the programming is. I don’t know why spoken words is better for me than music, but it may be because with three boys the TV was always on, or there was pandemonium in the house while I was writing.

  2. I’m also a devotee of movie soundtracks as background for my writing, along with more classic classical music. Among my favorite soundtracks are GLORY, THE CLIENT, MASTER AND COMMANDER, CRIMSON TIDE and SLEEPERS.

    But if the writing is tough-going, I sometimes need to resort to silence. When I’m traveling and the writing gets tough, I’ll head to the hotel lobby to write by hand in the middle of a crowd. Don’t know why it works, but it does.


  3. Hitchcock scores by Bernard Herrmann. Road to Perdition. Laura. The Big Country.

    I once tried to write a suspenseful scene listening to Kenny G, and there was absolutely no conflict.

  4. JRM, sometimes I use the “TV in the other room” technique, too. It’s sort of a writer’s white noise.

    JG, CRIMSON TIDE is a great choice for BIG scenes.

    Jim, the ROAD TO PERDITION is definitely on my list. Excellent choice.

    It’s interesting to note that a lot of the scores I use to write to are much better than the movies for which they were written. DIABOLIQUE with Sharon Stone is a good example. The movie was weak but the music is amazing.

  5. John, I’m glad you said something about Jim’s comment. Kenny G?????? There’s nothing I could write while listening to Kenny G. But, Jim does live in CA. They do things different out there, I’ve heard.

  6. Joe…score-wise, I’d also suggest the ones to UNBREAKABLE, and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. And second John’s suggestion of GLORY.

    But will also add that the score to THE MISSION remains one of my all time favorite to write to.

  7. I happen to do most of my writing from the comfy wing back recliner in my living room. Therefore about half the time I make use of the music channel on my cable tv box. I pipe either jazz or the “Soundscapes” channel through the sound system and relax.

    The other half of the time I have found that I have music already playing in my head that fits most occasions. My tinnitis pulses at a 4/4 beat and the Pink Floyd tunes “Us & Them”, “Good Bye Blue Skies”, “Astronomy Domini” and “Several Species of Small Furry Creatures Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict” randomly float out of somewhere in my cerebral cortex, usually at the right time.

    Although I must admit that when the walls start breathing I tend to use that time for a break.

  8. I can’t write with any kind of music on but I listen to my ipod while walking or working out and I find inspiration then. When I need to commit words to paper however I need silence.Currently I’ve been playing Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights song endlessly – I must be channelling the 1970’s inner child in me…sadly.

  9. As a former professional musician, I find it impossible to write to music, since I start paying more attention to the music than I do to my writing. I tune in to chord changes and vocal styles and riffs and whatnot, all to the distraction of writing.

    But I can certainly see how Jim’s suspense scene would get off track by listening to Kenny G.

  10. Basil, Clare and Mike, thanks for your comments. Even though listening to music or not while you write is a personal choice, if there’s a trick that makes us all writer a little better, do it. Even if it’s fuzzy slippers.

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