Music to My Ears

by Kelli Stanley

First, I gotta thank my hostess, thriller author extraordinaire Michelle Gagnon, and the rest of the fiercely fabulous Kill Zone team.

So I admit it. I’m old enough to remember the days before the Sony Walkman, let alone the iPod. The days before music and entertainment because so personalized, so catering to both whim and instant gratification, that you waited around listening for “Jack and Diane” to play on the FM station. It usually did, in between the Go-Gos and Pat Benatar.

Of course, the irony with all this personal cocooning is that people now have an even greater need to socialize and share … but instead of playing a boom box, you can post an iTunes play list or even pretend to be a DJ on Blip.FM.

And, of course, if you write books, you can share what you listen to through your writing.

Quick poll for authors—raise your hand if you’re influenced by music when you write. Do you listen while you type? Does it set the mood, the tone, the pace for your scene? Do you channel Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho for your serial killer segments and switch to Bach for your upbeat ending?

This is one way to use music, and I’ve heard other authors claim that they like writing with the volume up. Me, I’ve never been able to hear my words and Gershwin at the same time, so I don’t actually listen when I write. But to sort of set the stage, to get in the mood … that I can do. I’ve always been a fan of jazz and the Great American Songbook, an affinity that served me well with my latest novel.

Y’ see, listening is particularly helpful when you’re trying to lose yourself in time. Because City of Dragons is set in 1940, I immersed myself in a lot of music from the era—and had to be very careful to not access something anachronistic. I wanted to hear what my characters did, and I was writing about a period in American culture when music was truly a mass medium of popular entertainment … and when our entertainment—thanks to radio drama—was more audio than visual.

The music was key to me feeling like I could capture the past. And then it became about character, too, about my protagonist reacting to that world, particularly the irony of achingly romantic big band swing juxtaposed to the atrocities of war.

So I found myself becoming immersed in the music, actually using it in the book. And I felt confident about being able to, since some writers I greatly admire—like George Pelecanos and Ken Bruen—reference music and lyrics in their works.

The rub, of course, is the permissions phase … something I didn’t know much about. But warning, all you Springsteen fans who want to include “The River” in your latest novel … the author is responsible for either acquiring permission or rewriting the scene.

In my case, I found out too late and had to rewrite certain scenes, retaining a line of lyric and hopefully the flow and rhythm and emotion of the original draft. But—like a DVD director’s cut—I was able to link up a City of Dragons playlist on my website, so that, whenever possible, you can listen to the music my characters do.

It’s a cool way of sharing not just what I like to listen to, but what became an intrinsic element of the book, and a kind of instant time machine back to February, 1940.

So … how do you respond to music in books? And what’s on your playlist today?

Kelli Stanley’s second novel, City of Dragons, has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist, is an RT Book Reviews Top Pick, and an Indie Next Book for February. Kelli’s debut novel, Nox Dormienda, won the Bruce Alexander Award and was nominated for a Macavity. She lives in San Francisco, and frequents old movie palaces, speakeasies and bookstores. You can find out more about her and her books at her website:

27 thoughts on “Music to My Ears

  1. I love music, but I write with the TV on. It doesn’t mater what is on, because I don’t watch or even listen. I can play a film or say an episode of Law & Order “anything”or a CSI anywhere and I can start it over and over again and still have no idea what the episode is about because I’m focused on the page. This started when I was a kid and I did my homework to the sounds of the TV set.

    I have tried to write with music in the background, but it doesn’t work as well for me. When I drive I have a book on tape going, and I do concentrate on the story, and if I don’t have a book I listen to talk radio when its available or Public radio shows.

    I have 60s and 70s music loaded on my Ipod and while I’m working on the place I have the Stones, Beatles, and a mix of Chambers Brothers, Dylan, and the other artists that made up the sound track from my younger years. I also like opera and classic music as well as Bluegrass and Rockabilly. Yes, I do love music, but I go with TV first.

  2. Hi Kelli, welcome to TKZ, and best of luck with CITY OF DRAGONS. I have a huge collection of movie scores. I’m in such a habit of listening to them as I write, that without it, the silence is distracting. It’s definitely helped me create particular moods in my thrillers by listening to music that accompanied similar scenes in movies.

  3. Hi Kelli!

    I don’t usually listen to music when I write, mostly because I forget to turn the stereo on. But if it’s already on, it doesn’t bother me. Like John, I pretty much tune things out when I’m writing.

  4. Thanks for stopping by, Kelli. In my novel Deceived I wanted one of the charcters to sing “Anything Goes,” and did indeed get permission. The lyrics are thematic with what’s going on in the book.

    I do listen to my soundtrack collection when I write, having set up different playlists for different moods. Psycho is definitely on there for the supsense scenes!

  5. Welcome, Kelli! I’m like John–no music, but TV on with sound turned off. I don’t know the music of my generation, or any other. (Same applies to sports knowledge). I’m completely tone deaf, and find music to be distracting when I’m writing.

  6. Usually I have the TV on, with the sound low – sometimes FAV DVDs.

    However, there are times when I need music for scenes. I like hard, hard rock for murder and the Love, Actually soundtrack for romance.

    Sometimes, I listen to music while I walk in the park and it helps me get into a scene (especially fight scenes for some reason). I don’t do this often, however, since walking seems to be my best brainstorming time.

    Thanks for a great post!

  7. Wow, thanks for the comment, guys–super interesting!
    Sounds like John and Kathryn use the white noise of TV as a concentration tool … I had the same experience growing up in a small house and doing homework with a football game on in the background. You don’t really pay attention, but something about the sound (or video) energizes you.

    And Joe uses movie scores for the same effect, as well as to enhance the mood, as does Jim.

    Very cool!! I love discovering how all you wonderful writers tap your subconscious! 🙂

    Thanks for having me over today, everybody!! 🙂

  8. Angela, funny thing you mentioned walking … that’s a great brainstorming for me. Moving around tends to get my subconscious working. Funnily enough, so does riding the bus!! 🙂

    Thanks for commenting!!


  9. Welcome to TKZ Kelli! – I often incorporate music in my books but I cannot seem to multitask and so I need pretty much silence when I write – so no music in the background for me. I do listen to my ipod when I walk up to the gym and that gets me inspired. On the playlist at the moment is Green Day…not sure what that says about my mood!

  10. I used to listen to music when I wrote, but not for a couple of years. I think it’s because I used to be a musician and I end up actually listening to the music; it’s hard for me to keep anything worth listening to as background noise. (Once in a great while I’ll put on something classical, but nothing with English words. Too distracting.)

    I’m also someone who is left in the cold with most musical references in books; I think that’s why Pelecanos doesn’t always resonate with me like I keep expecting him to. He and I are about the same age, but I know very little of the music he refers to, and knew virtually none of it during the time period he’s trying to establish. I never heaed anything by The Who that I could identify as such until 1989. On the other hand, ask me to break down the differences between Maynard Ferguson and Doc Severinsen or Mahler and Bruckner, and I’m all in.

  11. I used to have to write in a room where my three sons were playing Nintendo. Now that I have quiet, I really like it. But I also take dance breaks throughout the day. Get up from the computer, crank up some funk, and dance for 10 or 15 minutes. Then I go back to work…in the quiet.
    My characters have music in their lives as a backdrop to their activities, such as working out or driving. Their music choices add to their characterization, mostly by letting readers know their age.

  12. Kelli, thanks for the playlist! Some of the most wonderful music was written in the 1930s and 40s, some of my favorites!!!

    That said, I think references to other work (unless an explicit part of the plot or theme) whether it’s music or art or movies or clothing labels can be distracting if handled badly in a novel — short-hand characterization that just isn’t as universal as we think it is. However, for an historical work, including a sense of what the music was like, how it reflected the unique aspects of that era, can help tremendously, be it the radical new dance “waltz” or the rhythms of 1940.

    Can’t wait to read CoD!!!!

    I learned to write out in the desert, the delicious near-silence is something I crave. Living in the city, second best is a wide selection of natural sounds for white noise. I get too lost in any really good music to stay focused on my writing. But my husband the DJ thinks I’m a bit of a weirdo that way 🙂

  13. John — NPR or a really great audio book have gotten me up and down the Central Valley more times than I can remember. I can remember much more of Secrets by Ellsberg because it was audio, I think.

    Mexican metal radio is also quite good, but I can imagine it’s an acquired taste…

  14. I tend to listen to electronica/techno music when I am writing, especially if I am working an action sequence. Writing or working out in the gym are pretty much the only times I listen to music, it gets me in a particular zone, a rythmic mental state. Pink Floyd was the first group whose music I was truly drawn to as a teen.
    In addition to my writing and day job I am a percussionist (not a drummer, they’re different). When I am playing I find myself geting into the same groove as when I write or run to techno. Its almost a super focused trance in which I can create and adlib and make inanimate things come alive.
    By the way, if anyone is looking for some rather exceptional audio books, search my name on iTunes. There are four freebies up there for the taking. Just for you.

    Basil Sands

  15. Thanks for stopping by, Kelli! I can’t listen to music while I write, either. But I love those songs- going to the Noir City Film Festival this week, it’s been great reliving that era via the soundtracks.

  16. I don’t listen to music when I write, Kelli, because I used to play music for a living for 30 years. If there’s music playing when I’m writing, I find myself listening to the lyrics and the arrangement and the chord changes. It’s just way too distracting.

    But you were talking about waiting for JACK AND DIANE on the FM radio. Well, young lady, I used to sit around waiting for THAT’LL BE THE DAY on my AM radio. FM was something that was in the big cities, usually one station per city, and it always played snooty stuff like classical music with the lowest of the low-key DJs.

  17. I guess I’m the oddball here–I don’t listen to music much at all. Just don’t connect to it (probably not helped by the fact I have utterly no rhythm and timing). One time I had someone at work task me to find music for a memorial, and I was mortified. Not only did I not know what to even look for, but I wouldn’t even be able to tell I was making good choices. Fortunately, a coworker had a New Age CD that satisfied everyone.

    Most often, I do tend to associate music with being annoying and too loud. There’s nothing like being on the bottom floor of an army barracks, and some guy on the fourth floor is playing is music so loud the floor is vibrating. And it’s two a.m. Or the first shirt comes from a block away to complain because someone in my building was playing too loud.

    I often do write with the TV on, though. That actually is less distracting than music.

  18. Thanks, Clare!! 🙂 I was wondering … do you think there’s such a thing as national music anymore? I was thinking of Australian music vs. US.

    But maybe that’s because I’ve been very partial to “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” since I was a little girl. 😉


  19. You’re right, Dana … music is like a coded reference, and in the last thirty or forty years has grown so splintered and fragmented that not everyone can be expected to be familiar with every song or genre … leading to confusion in the reading experience.

    Popular music in 1940 was popular music … songs tended to be covered by many people, played at home on pianos, whistled in the streets, and live remotes from small and large hotels all over the country fed an insatiable appetite for big band swing.

    For me, the music in City of Dragons forms a layer of background, part of the texture of the time, something for my protagonist to hear and react to.
    Plus, it’s just fun! 🙂

    Thanks for sharing!! 🙂


  20. So LJ, you’re a kinetic creative! 🙂

    People tend to learn or think or access information best primarily through one of three channels .. visually, aurally or through movement … sometimes a combination of all three.

    My music choices would make you think I’m a lot older! 😉 I love jazz, blues, swing from the 30s and 40s, and standards. Cool jazz and some bebop, too. 🙂

    Thanks for dropping by!!


  21. Thanks a million, Myst!! 🙂

    I get fidgety if it’s too quiet … I like a little white noise, ideally, the sounds of a city (well, some sounds of the city, not all!) 😉

    I think one of the most effective uses of music in a work–film, not a book–is Shadow of a Doubt. The way Hitch and the filmmakers wove in the Merry Widow Waltz was sheer brilliance. That’s the kind of music association that I aim at. Sigh … you can learn so much from film noir! 😉


  22. Generally, the TV is playing in the background to drown out anything that might distract me. I say that with a giggle, of course. But when I have to write an uncomfortable scene, either a murder or firefight, I listen to Dire Straits, Creedence, or Eagles to get the right mood. Firefights are hard enough to write on any level.

    When I’m writing the scene just prior to something deadly happening, I listen to Sadi, Etta James, Jann Arden or Buble, again depending.

    Music is crucial to writing a honest scene. It sets the mood without all the work.

  23. Thanks, Basil! I could never get into Pink Floyd, myself … but like I said before, my tastes have always run counter to my era.

    Except for new wave in the 80s and Springsteen and Joel … I LOVED the Go-Gos. 🙂

    Thanks for commenting!

  24. Thanks so much for having me, Michelle!! 🙂

    Speaking of Noir City, I’m planning to get over there tonight — an evening of San Francisco film noir!!

    Hope to see you!!


  25. Ah, Mike, that made me laugh. Thanks for the “young lady” epithet. 😉

    I like Buddy Holly, too … and remember when Linda Ronstadt covered that song.

    Music is a whole other creative channel, and I could see how you’d have to shut it off to hear the music of your own words …

    Thanks for stopping by!!


  26. Linda, sound is something we all have varying degrees of sensitivity to … I can’t stand certain low vibrations (sub-woofers in cars make me nuts) … and sometimes, music just isn’t for everybody.

    I grew up in a singing household–my dad always sang the country songs he knew as a child in Kentucky, my mom sang in choirs and taught me show tunes. So it was always a part of my world. 🙂

    Thanks so much for stopping by to share!!


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