Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Writing and Music

My uncle, who is both a writer and a retired writing teacher (and who has read several of my works-in-progress over the years) has commented on occasion that the voice in my work is consistent in such a way that it seems everything is done in one sitting.

I had never thought about it, but I think part of what makes that possible is ritual. During the summer when I have all day everyday it’s not so important; I just sit and write. Doing NaNoWriMo last month forced me to think about how to get into the zone so that the isolated hour here and two hours there could be most productive.

Music is one of the best writing rituals I’ve found. Whenever I work on a novel, I tend to pick one CD (or one artist now that itunes makes it easy to shuffle all of an artist’s work) for that project. In the past I’ve written to And then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out by Yo La Tengo, the hundred or so hours of Dead I’ve got, and Enigma’s MCMXC. For this project, I turned to ( ) by Sigur Rós.

When finding music for writing, I look for work that’s interesting musically, but that can also fade into the background. I like lots of instrumentals and open spaces and maybe even some drone.

Last month, I found ( ) to be perfect for an eerie science fiction piece set at a research base on Mars. Perhaps on some level Sigur Rós appealed because they’re from Iceland, a nation whose landscapes are closer to what exists on Mars than almost anywhere else on Earth. The music is also otherworldly, and the lyrics are not sung in English so they don’t become a distraction.

By listening to ( ) in my car on my way home from work, I found that I would already be in my writing zone by the time I got home. I would brew a cup of tea (another ritual) and sit down to write. While writing at my computer, I used itunes and so could go beyond ( ) to include Takk… and “Sevefn-g-englar,” the epic track from Vanilla Sky that turned me on to Sigur Rós in the first place.

I have an easier time getting started when I’ve pre-focused my mind on the drive home. When I sit down the words come easier, and I’m in the frame of mind for a particular story because I think my subconscious is already tuned to that story’s frequency.

I was finishing some revisions on another novel at the beginning of the month and I found I could easily switch focus between stories by changing the music from Sigur Rós to the Grateful Dead.

What (if anything) do you listen to when you write?

Here’s a video of Sigur Rós performing “Sevefn-g-englar.” You have to love a guy who uses a bow to play his guitar. Enjoy.


  1. I find I get more done when I am listening to Jazz. Mostly Bop or Hard Bop style jazz. Coltrane, Miles, Horace Silver, Dexter Gordon, that sort of thing.

    • I like your taste in music. I tend toward jazz when I’m writing poetry, especially Coltrane and Miles. I’ve been listening to a little bit of Interstellar Space interspersed with the Sigur Ros.

      • I like all sorts of music. Jazz is great thinking music for me. Especially when I am trying to let my mind wander freely, and go where it will. It’s like aural drugs or something.

        Classical helps me focus, and rock brings out aggression, or silliness…depends.

        Thanks for the suggestion, I shall be checking some of that out.

        • It’s interesting how the improvisation of jazz is so conducive to one’s own improvisations. I tend to work the same way. It inspires creativity, especially Coltrane who seemed to be having an idea a minute. It can be very infectious.

          Have you read The Bear Comes Home? Someone with your tastes is jazz (bop/hard bop) would probably enjoy it.

  2. I agree – ( ) is a great album for writing. I saw Sigur Ros at Bass Hall a few years ago – it was extremely loud and incredibly intense (in a good way).

    As for the writing accompaniment, I often find myself listening to Air’s music – it’s uplifting, mellow and easily glides in and out of the background. American Analog Set is another good one. I occasionally listen to jazz (Sun Ra, especially) but it can get a bit distracting.

    • I’d love to see them. There are always rumors they’ll play ACL and I always hope, but it never plays out.

      Funny, I’m listening to Air right now. Moon Safari. Great album. AmAnSet is good too. I got to see them at ACL a few years back. One of my favorite ACL days.

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