Finding Your Writing Rhythm Through Music

Finding Your Writing Rhythm Through Music
Shelah A Johnson

Shelah A Johnson

The recipient of 9 awards from The Society for Technical Communication, is also a published photographer and has produced and directed more than 40 lifestyle broadcast segments focused on eco and small space living.

How music helped me find a better writing pace and create more interesting characters


 “Where words fail, music speaks.”

– Hans Christian Andersen

Hats off to all the fiction writers who can crank out 1000 words before noon. I bow to you with envy. I saw many days, sometimes weeks, where I could only get down 100 words a day. When you consider that Perpetual Gloom clocked out at over 70,000 words, it would have taken me 700 days just to get the first draft – of the first book.

This was not because I had writer’s block – I knew what I was writing, I had spent over a year researching the story, and my outlines were flushed out. Occasionally, and by accident, I would fall into a wonderfully comfortable and rewarding pace. What I now needed was to find a more consistent way to tap into the story’s rhythm.

I thought about what energized, motivated, and inspired me – getting behind the wheel of a fast car and cranking up the tunes. It clears my head, allowing ideas to flow freely and inspires creative dialog for exciting characters. Yet, when I return to my desk, I rest my fingers on the keyboard and stare at the computer screen – nothing. So, I started breaking it apart; what could I bring from my open road experience to my laptop?

Writers have a long and harmonious history with music

Authors have been using music to enhance their poetry for centuries. One of the earliest examples is Homer’s The Iliad, which is believed to have been composed in the 8th century BC. In the epic poem, Homer uses music to help transport readers to the story’s world. He also uses it to convey the characters’ emotions and create a sense of suspense and excitement.

Similarly, other authors have followed Homer’s footsteps, using music to add depth and richness to their stories. Charles Dickens, for example, often used music to set the mood in his novels. In A Tale of Two Cities, he describes the opening of the guillotine as “a dreadfully musical noise.” And in Great Expectations, Pip describes the sound of Miss Havisham’s clock as “the saddest and most dismal of all sounds.”

Authors are known to use music to add depth and richness to their stories and create a sense of atmosphere and excitement. In his book The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky uses music to great effect. In one scene, the protagonist, Charlie, is at a party, and the music is so loud that he can’t think. He closes his eyes and pictures the music as a beautiful waterfall. This allows him to escape the party and journey to a place where he is free to be himself. In another scene, Charlie is walking down the street and hears a song he loves. He starts to sing along, and he feels happy and free. The song fills him with so much joy that he doesn’t care who sees him.

Incorporating music in Perpetual Gloom was critical. In the first chapter, we are introduced to our young male lead, Monroe, who is seated on an old galvanized bucket inside a chicken coop, plucking away on a broken guitar. This simple introduction tells us quite a bit about his economic standing, passions, and personality – broke with hope. Music was also instrumental in helping readers follow a chronological storyline that stretches over three generations by introducing songs and musical styles that depict specific time periods.

Using Music as a Writer’s Metronome

But the question remained; could I harness music to allow me to find my rhythm more predictably and consistently?

Music has been known to help writers focus, block out distractions, and get in the right frame of mind. A recent discovery by MIT neuroscientists suggests that there is a  population of neurons that responds to singing, and then very nearby is another population of neurons that responds broadly to lots of music.”

Scientists worldwide are turning molecules into music by converting DNA sequences and particle vibrations into notes allowing them to recognize unseen patterns and create songs for outreach. Mark Temple, a medical molecular biologist and musician at Western Sydney University in Australia described the value of “hearing” DNA sequences; “I realized I wanted to hear the sequence. You know the combination of some sort of audio display and a visual display is much more powerful than either in isolation.”

These two discoveries make a great deal of sense to me. In my journey to uncover a pathway to my own rhythm, I found that particular music genres and vocals helped me create deeper character personas. It allowed me to “hear” the character, what was going on in their lives, and their period – careful not to interject my personal thoughts and experiences.

Since I am working with many of the same characters throughout The Boloney Trail trilogy, I created a song playlist reflecting the critical personas and adding new songs that reflect their growth and development over the series. This helps me find my groove and tap into a more consistent rhythm.

Do you use a playlist?

Here’s mine:

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Perpetual Gloom, A two rut-road along The Boloney Trail

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