Why, or why not, music?

By Lucy Callaghan
From Julian Barnes to Hannah Kent, authors on the role music plays in their writing

There’s music playing each morning while Irish author Niall Williams writes in his County Clare cottage. It might be Mozart’s Requiem, Bach’s Cello Suites, Van Morrison or The Gloaming. “Music”, he tells me, “sounds out the real world; [it] screens it off and creates a musicscape in which to work.” This aural landscape helps Williams find what he calls “the place of composition”, the place where he edges out the “constant doubt that anything I write is any good”.

He’s not sure how it happens, but it works: Williams is writing his tenth novel, has written plays and screenplays, and co-written four books with his wife, Christine Breen. His first novel, the poetic and lyrical Four Letters of Love, was an international bestseller, and his ninth, History of the Rain, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2014.

In contrast, Julian Barnes, award-winning novelist, translator and author of many short stories and essays, “never, ever” has music playing while he’s writing. “Prose,” he says, “has its own music, rhythm, pulse, and ‘real’ music cuts across it disastrously”. Barnes briefly tried listening to a Shostakovich Prelude or Fugue each day before working on his novel about the composer’s life and music, The Noise of Time. He thought it might set him up for writing about Shostakovich. But that didn’t work: “It gave me no help with the writing and I abandoned the experiment after three sessions,” he says.

I wrote to Niall Williams and Julian Barnes – along with other fiction and nonfiction writers including Hannah Kent and Robert Dessaix – because I was curious about whether they have music playing when they’re writing. I am inclined to have minimalist, ambient music on in the background while I write. Something by Bing & Ruth, Max Richter or Jóhann Jóhannsson plays so softly that I don’t so much listen to it, as let the gentle waves seep into my mind. It shuts out the outside world and leads me inward, allows me to focus on what I’m writing.

How does this work? Is a subtle music infusion a pathway to a writer’s imagination or inspiration? If so, what types of music lend themselves to this? Why does listening to music suit some writers and not others?

What the authors who replied told me reflected Oliver Sacks’ view in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, that we all have “our own, distinctive mental worlds, our own inner journeyings and landscapes”.

When Hannah Kent wanted to inhabit the bleak fate of Icelander Agnes Magnusdottir in her first novel, Burial Rites, Laura Marling’s music helped take her there: “Certain songs gave me the emotional cues I needed to very quickly access the world and narratives of my characters, and forget myself and my modern world. It expedited that process of engagement … kept me steering in the right direction.”

Kent identifies “a sensibility, an emotional atmosphere” in Marling’s work that took her “straight into the mind of Agnes Magnusdottir”.

This passage into a character’s interior with the help of music is a mysterious process. The music Kent hears creates a different world in her mind; she is able to go deeper than imagining Agnes’s looks or gestures, and is transported into her emotional core. Kent sees Agnes, hears her, is her.

Burial Rites and The Good People both had their own playlist, Kent tells me. Icelandic choral work or tracks by Sigur Rós, Lykke Li or Marling played on repeat for Burial Rites. Music by Agnes Obel, The Chieftains, the Moulettes or Rioghnach Connolly accompanied The Good People. “Repetition was necessary,” she says, “because lyrics can be distracting if the song is new”.

Niall Williams echoes this: “The CD will often play on repeat, and I never listen to anything new while writing. Familiarity is important.”

Kent’s and Williams’ comments made me wonder if music functions for them as some kind of moderating persuader that frees the mind to wander unhindered into creative territory. If through some form of neural collaboration, familiar, iterative sound sequences encourage, even stimulate, the music of language.

In This Is Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin describes what happens when we hear music as an “exquisite orchestration of brain regions”. He explains how the oldest and the newest parts of the brain connect through a precisely choreographed “neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems”.

British science writer Philip Ball describes this process as a conversation between the brain’s hemispheres: “No other stimulus”, he writes in The Music Instinct, “comparably engages all aspects of our mental apparatus, and compels them to speak with one another: left to right hemisphere, logic to emotion.”

Music is a “gymnasium for the mind” he says, a whole-brain phenomenon where intellect and feeling coalesce, fuelled by music as “food of the mind as well as of the heart”.

But does this mean that writing to background music modifies how a writer attends to either the music or the writing? According to Levitin, music and language share some common neural resources, but “have independent pathways as well”. And Ball says our brains have “accepted the need for unprecedented collaboration between departments” when responding to music. Perhaps this means that those who do write to music experience a particular kind of neural concurrence that allows simultaneous processing of music and language? A confluence that allows music and writing pathways to merge more frequently, more easily?

Both Levitin and Ball write about music stimulating the brain in ways that can assist with other cognitive tasks. Philip Ball’s own practice demonstrates it: while he generally doesn’t have background music playing while he’s writing, there are times when it’s useful: “When doing routine tasks, like preparing an index or checking proofs, I’ll sometimes use music.” Then, Bach Fugues, string quartets by Beethoven, Mozart or Haydn, or Ravel’s chamber music “gently massag[e] my mind to keep it alert”, Ball says. Music, therefore, functions as an ultralight metronome rather than lullaby.

To eliminate background noise and “create a focused internal environment”, he’ll also listen to that same music through headphones when reading or doing research at The British Library.

Art historian, fiction writer and author of Nest: The Art of Birds, Janine Burke lets the tempo of her work determine whether she listens to music while writing: “I might be writing very fast and intensively and I’ll put on some music to relax my mind a little, to take the edge off the intensity.”

Burke pairs that fast-paced writing with African music in a way that suggests the pace of the music encourages her writing to flow in a similar rhythm. Burke prefers polyrhythmic beats from Mali, because that music “really speaks to the soul and the senses”. As long as the lyrics are not in English – “otherwise the words get entangled in what I’m writing” – the music provides Burke with “joyous company, inspirational support and deep pleasure” while she is writing.

At other times, though – when she’s editing her work – Burke doesn’t want the intrusion of music, of “any other rhythm”, and she writes in silence.

Although Australian writer and social researcher Hugh Mackay plays the piano and sings in a choir, he never has music playing while he writes: “I find music as background to writing is simply a distraction. I need to be totally engrossed in the work.” For Mackay, music is helpful when working on a new writing project – to take a break from the writing, but perhaps also to distil ideas – and he’ll play the piano or listen to music.

For Australian author Robert Dessaix, music is never the background to anything. He writes in silence too. “I only listen to music in order to listen to music. Music should be listened to for its own sake.” Sometimes, though, ideas he can use creatively come to him while listening to music at a concert, or just before lights out – “but mostly as colours or shapes”, he says.

And award-winning Australian writer Alex Miller also never listens to music while writing: “For me they are two very different things, listening and writing. Each requires a very different quality of attention … writing takes all my attention.” But music is an essential part of Miller’s day and his sense of wellbeing, and there are times when he’s listening to music and thinks of something to do with his writing. Then, he finds “a connection that I’ve overlooked … the thought brought forward in reverie”.

Is it going too far to think that the conversation going on in his brain continues while he’s not paying attention, and makes a connection for him? That the left and right hemisphere bring the music and his writing together in their own exquisite orchestration?

Melbourne writer and musician Sian Prior has experienced something like this. While Prior prefers not to listen to music while she writes, writing and music have converged unexpectedly. Prior wrote a chapter of her first book, Shy: A Memoir, in a notebook while listening to a clarinet recital. She’d played the music herself – a Brahms sonata – as a young musician. “I wrote about the memories and emotions that music and composer inspired in me and the words flowed out with unusual clarity,” she says.

Then, what may be the first chapter of her next book formed during a baroque mandolin concert: “The music allowed some kind of space and clarity for thinking about the stories I want to tell in the second book.”

Edward Said has an elegant interpretation of how music can function like this in his essay, “Melody, Solitude, and Affirmation”. “One lives with music both practically and knowledgeably over time. One hears a composer’s work in more ways than those provided within the individual work’s discrete boundaries … Into this ‘hearing’ of a composer, there enter many components … internalised by the musician … or the listeners.”

Until recently, Zoë Morrison, author of Music and Freedom, never had music playing while she wrote. As a musician, Morrison can’t experience music as background; she tunes in to it, analyses it. However, that perspective changed after learning that Canadian writer Madeleine Thien listened to Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations on repeat to block out the noise of the cafe where she wrote Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

Morrison was subsequently listening to music by Vaughan Williams, when an idea about a character in her next novel formed: “I put the same music on through headphones and wrote about that character. I felt the music helped me move beyond the doubting mind and more easily into an intuitive state.” It helped, she says, that it was classical music, and familiar. Like Hannah Kent and Niall Williams, she played the music on repeat to keep the thread of the idea while she wrote.

While Morrison was writing Music and Freedom, engaging with music encouraged her in creating her work: “Even playing certain pieces on the piano helped me shape the story and convey different points,” Morrison says. Like Alice Murray, the woman at the heart of Music and Freedom, for Zoë Morrison, “music … makes you feel.”

Edward Said’s description of how music can anchor “the convergences of memory and intellectual history” helps explain what Prior and Morrison have experienced. Said registers “how a set of disparate things coming together consolidate and support each other” as he listens to a performance of Variations in D Minor by Brahms. He remembers things he’d not consciously retained and associations coalesce in his mind because of the music: an earlier recording of the music, a film score. Later, when he plays the music himself, a past teacher’s voice and gestures come back to him.

Philip Ball provides an explanation of the neural relay occurring here: the brain hears music as a “signal” and starts to pay attention, the cerebellum’s movement coordinator identifies the pulse and rhythm, and our grey matter communicates with the amygdala – the emotional centre of the brain – to produce a response. Then, “we call on the hippocampus to supply memories, both of the immediate past course of the music and the more distant associations and similarities it evokes.”

When I began exploring whether music supports writing, it was a casual enquiry, motivated by a simple curiosity about other writers’ practice. At first it was what Robert Dessaix describes in an interview with Creative Nonfiction magazine as a “nonchalant saunter around a target”. But it took me much further into writers’ lives and music than I anticipated.

Writers’ experiences of music as a source of consonance or dissonance while they write, as a conductor of literary current or circuit breaker, took me back to their books, to the music they hear and, in a limited way, to cognitive neuroscience – a new field for me.

I re-read their books and paid more attention to the tempo, the rhythm, the cadence, the mood and tone in their writing. I looked again at the harmony, the grace and the emotional shading in their work to see if I could discern whether, for those who have music playing while they write, their writing had taken on some of the music, just as an apple nudging a branch takes some of the branch onto its skin.

Whether or not they do have music playing while they write, I couldn’t see any differences. Their work, in all its diversity, has its own music, and this probably explains why they all feature on my bookshelves. A biased sample, the scientists would say.

What’s clear, though, is that where music is an accompaniment to writing, it can block out the external world. It can create a state conducive to imaginative thought, and more, to imagined worlds.

Haruki Murakami writes in Absolutely on Music, his illuminating conversations with conductor Seiji Ozawa, that to create “something where there was nothing requires deep individual concentration”. Music, for some writers, can be the arterial link to this concentration – whether it’s creating a work of fiction, or nonfiction.

More than sonic wallpaper, for some writers music can be a companion, a muse, an assurer deflecting doubt. It can be an agent of meaning, a conveyor of shape and colour, a cue for memories, reflection and insight.

Philip Ball told me it would take brain imaging while writing and hearing music to find out just how this happens. I’m happy to leave this as a mystery, and to remember to give way to the conversations going on in my head and encourage them to make the connections my conscious mind sometimes finds elusive.

Lucy Callaghan

Lucy Callaghan is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and editor.


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