Writing Mysteries to Music

Breaking my heart in a grocery store

If you think all writers are alike, here’s a question that will prove differently: Do you listen to music while you write?

            No! I say resoundingly. Here’s why. I’m sitting in my “spot,” which varies seasonally. In the summer, I can be found writing “in plein” at a table on my deck or in a beach chair with my feet in the sand. Winters, if I haven’t escaped to warmer climes where the beach location works, I am either in my Writer’s Shed or on the corner of my sofa. Regardless of where I am, you will not find music playing.

            Why, you may ask. It seems logical that music would complement writing. How better to induce a mood? If you’re a writer who pens murder mysteries and want to describe the overwhelming grief of the victim’s survivors, playing a little sad music might work, especially if you’ve just learned you’re going to be a grandmother for the first time and can’t stop doing the happy dance.

            I’m not saying music doesn’t influence my mood. I’m saying it does. I realized this most graphically one day many decades ago when I was in the middle of a grocery store aisle and was perplexed to find my eyes filling. I knew it couldn’t be the spices I was shopping for. They are sealed.

            I stood still for a moment pretending to examine the contents of my cart while I collected myself and tried to uncover the source for my sudden overwhelming sadness. It was a little unsettling since I considered myself to be very together back then. 

            It was then when the piece of grocery-store music brought in the weeping strings that I realized I was listening to Brian’s Song. Brian’s Song is the theme to the movie of the same title from 1971. It was a touching story about the friendship between Brian Piccolo and Gayle Sayers, a white and a black football player while Brian suffered from and died from cancer. It was a terribly sad story that moved legions of people, including those of us who don’t follow football.  There has even been a remake of the story.

            While the story was tragic and touching, it was the actual music composed by Songwriting Hall of Famers Alan and Marilyn Bergman and played in versions by Michel Legrand and Henry Mancini that had me on the verge of tears. It’s a beautiful instrumental that starts with singular piano notes, brings in the flute, then injects strings that would break your heat, and manages to hit whimsical notes amidst the melancholy. I am not the only one who has been haunted by the song.

            Music moves me and affects my conscious thinking in a way it does not other. While many, including most of my family, enjoy music as a complement to what they are doing, I am unable to get past the music. I am a confessed panster, meaning I write mysteries organically, as the story comes to me, without an outline to follow. Often the characters are competing busily in my head to tell the story I am trying to get onto the keyboard. Music influences the characters and me and creates discord in words.

            So, I opt for silence with sounds of nature in the background. That’s why libraries are perfect places for me and my pen. I admire other writers who line up their playlists, pull up their sleeves, and sit down and write. But for me the cliché that silence is golden is true.

            I wonder how other writers manage to listen to music and even watch television while they write. How does this work? Are they immune to the influences of surrounding sound? And will they share their secrets?

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4 thoughts on “Writing Mysteries to Music

  1. Michele,
    I’m embarrassed to say, I have a hard time listening to music. I mean really listening. So it doesn’t matter to me whether music is playing or not, because once I start writing I go inward and I don’t hear it. I do occasionally put on opera and sing along while I cook but never when I’m writing. I too love silence. If I’m home alone, I write in silence but I don’t need it to write. However, I do, or did before the pandemic, like to write in cafes. Something about the background noise created the feeling of working in an office.

  2. Catherine, that’s fascinating. I have less trouble in a cafe when the music is definitely in the background. And cooking to music is entirely different. I’d pay to hear you sing opera while you’re cooking!

  3. Oh, Michele,
    You would run from the room. My biggest disappointment in life is that I can’t sing opera, or any type of music. Maybe that’s why I block it out. Sour grapes.

  4. I need silence. I’ve tried creating playlists. I took a writing course that encouraged this, but it just distracts me.

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