Music is a language we speak without ever being taught. There are so many different purposes for it, so many ways of creating it, and so many opinions about it, but we all speak it.
Films are especially good at employing music to play on our emotions and drive their big impact scenes. I’ve only watched one film with no music at all, a French film called Tomboy, and to start with it was such a jarring experience.
So what does this have to do writing? Well, music is one of my favourite ways to get inspired. I love finding songs that capture the essence of my characters, or invoke the heartbeat of a scene. I have dabbled in making playlists for different projects, and I’ve noticed differences between the pieces I use to write to and the ones I need for pre-writing inspiration, or character/theme exploration.
I’ve compiled a list of some of the best scores, songs, genres and artists I’ve used to write and plan my stories. This is not an exhaustive list, but these have always served me well. I hope they can do the same for you.
1. Ender’s Game soundtrack (composed by Steve Jablonsky)
Don’t judge the choices here solely on the films I pick – we’re just here for the music. Coincidentally, this was a film I really enjoyed, largely because of its score. One of the most undervalued orchestral instruments is the cello. When they’re given proper space to breathe and perform in music (looking at you, Pachelbel), they soar. Jablonsky’s use of the cello deepens the presence of the music and the inspiration capability.
Fantastic for: battle scenes; inner and external conflict; journeys, and characters facing big decisions.
2. How to Train Your Dragon soundtracks (composed by John Powell and Gavin Greenaway)
Want me to watch a film? Tell me there are dragons in it. I could write an essay on the reasons I love both of these films.
(SPOILER: the protagonist has a disability that is never treated as a definition, or a restriction, or a plot point. One of the best examples of great representation.)
The sequel is just as solid as the original, and I have high hopes for number 3 as well. These soundtracks never fail to spark my muse into inspiration, with their rousing refrains echoing a call to adventure. Whatever emotional energy you’re looking for, HTTYD probably has it.
Fantastic for: fantasy; adventure stories; emotional depth, and giving you a kick up the pants to get you writing.
3. Avatar Soundtrack (composed by James Horner)
If you haven’t heard of James Horner, you’ve certainly heard something he’s composed, unless the rock you live under is the size of Antarctica. With over 100 soundtracks to his name, including Titanic, Braveheart and Aliens – along with a generous smattering of awards (i.e. a lot) – basically anything by Horner is worth listening to. I’ve chosen Avatar in particular because I apparently have an affinity for fantasy and space and weird flying creatures. Seriously though, while the plot might fall a little too much into Pocahontas-in-space, the music is a marvel.
Fantastic for: chase scenes; exploration and discovery stories; world-building sessions, and capturing sinister undertones.
4. The Book Thief soundtrack (composed by John Williams)
If you haven’t read this book, put it on the top of your to-do list right now. Then watch the film and sob buckets. Then listen to the soundtrack and pen your own masterpiece. The music is as gentle and haunting as the story. If you’re planning to make your readers cry, scream and throw your book at the wall, take inspiration from this music.
When you’re looking for the right music, a good place to start is usually the soundtrack of a film than invokes the themes you’re working on. Horror music for a romance novel might leave you with some undertones you perhaps weren’t intending (that’s not to say it wouldn’t be an interesting story).
Fantastic for: dream sequences; flash backs and nostalgia; tragic and bittersweet stories, and slower-paced scenes that you still wish to embed with emotion.
5. The Lord of the Rings soundtracks (composed by Howard Shore)
Fun Fact: I walked down the aisle to ‘Concerning Hobbits’, because it gave me the feeling of coming home and of finding peace. The epicness of the story bleeds into the music and so, by association, our muses just flair in response. How could you not be moved, be flooded with inspiration, become one with your story after listening to these classic motifs?
Fantastic for: writing essays; fantasy and journeys; exploring relationships between characters, and giving your story an edge of insurmountable glory.
6. Pride and Prejudice soundtrack (composed by Dario Marianelli)
It’s just so pretty. You can’t hear it without imagining yourself lost in English countryside wondering if that rich young man will ever propose to your sister. Need to dream on your plot for a while? Lose yourself in this music and let it soothe you into writing bliss. Imagine Austen herself is sat next to you sarcastically commenting on your character’s predicaments.
Fantastic for: capturing emotions at a slower pace; inner monologues; romance writers, and considering landscapes and settings.
7. Post Rock – The Genre
The problem I have with finding writing music is that often a certain song will speak to my story, but I can’t write to it without the lyrics distracting me. That’s why this list is almost entirely soundtracks. On randomly searching the vague term ‘instrumental music’ on YouTube, I happened across the genre of post rock. It’s basically rock music mostly without the lyrics, and it’s fantastic for writing without distraction. My particular favourites are This Will Destroy You, God is An Astronaut, and If These Trees Could Talk.
Fantastic for: setting pace; action sequences; fuelling rage and passion; getting in the writing zone, and channelling your angst.
8. Sleeping At Last
As many friends of mine know, when I love music I love to the point of obsession. A YouTube rabbit hole led me to this one-man band, and I have not been able to stop listening ever since. With gently haunting melody and lyrics you’ll want to paint on your walls, SAL has been a bottomless writing and inspiration-in-general pit. The songs seem to have harnessed a crucial understanding about being human that we writers strive to imitate.
If you are not a parent and wish to understand the hurricanic atmosphere of childbirth, listen to ‘Life’. If you have never attempted to swim against the weight of the universe or faced the loss of someone irreplaceable, listen to ‘Saturn’. If you have not felt anxious about life, listen to ‘Pluto’. While not the same as experiencing these things, they offer a step in the direction of understanding.
And if you like Sleeping at Last, you may also appreciate Cloud Cult’s ability to capture grief, humanity and living. But if I start talking about them too I will literally never shut up.
Fantastic for: bottling emotions to throw at your readers in the right scene; considering character motivations and defining moments; and character development in general.
9. The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams (and basically any classical music)
Classical music, whether you like baroque, romantic, or any other period, is a treasure trove of drama, beauty and atmosphere. Whatever you’re writing about, there’s sure to be a piece that fits it – some of them even use actual cannons. I’ve highlighted The Lark Ascending in particular because it’s fifteen minutes of hypnotising serenity. It has the same refreshing quality as a brisk walk among autumn trees. If Howard Shore hadn’t been around, it would have been perfect for summing up Samwise Gamgee and the whole Hobbit vibe.
Fantastic for: concentration music; DRAMA; marathon writing sessions; peaceful scenes; bittersweet moments, and characters considering past regrets.
10. 4:33 by John Cage
This is by far the greatest piece of music to ever be composed or performed. Loved by fans of all genres, and although it began life among orchestras and classical musicians, it even has a death metal cover.
In all seriousness, sometimes we can rely too much on music. It’s good to pause in the silence and see your characters without the emotional crutch that music can sometimes be. If possible, head to a setting that reminds you of your story and breathe it in. Your words will come if you give them a little time.
Fantastic for: cluttered writer brain; blocked muses, and all genres and forms of writing.