We’re not talking about writing a scene with a particular track in mind for use in your film’s soundtrack (an article for another time perhaps) but taking the time to curate a playlist for the purpose of the tone for a writing session. If you’ve got a sense of the mood you’d like to bring to a scene, you might want to take after several great directors by fueling your writing sessions with musical accompaniment.

Writing to Music

Quentin Tarantino famously dives deep into his significant vinyl collection not only for records he’d like to slot into his soundtracks, but for tunes that speak to the work he’d like to produce during a particular session: “One of the things I do when I am starting a movie, when I’m writing a movie or when I have an idea for a film is, I go through my record collection and just start playing songs, trying to find the personality of the movie, find the spirit of the movie… then, ‘boom,’ eventually I’ll hit one, two or three songs, or one song in particular, ‘Oh, this will be a great opening credit song.’” This method works to spark inspiration, and has clearly paid off for the pop-culture-savvy Tarantino, but there are writers who prove that this technique is not for everyone.

As pointed out by the Pulitzer-prize winning Tony Kushner (who knows a little something about working with music in mind following 2021’s West Side Story), music can have the unintended effect of guiding rhythm in unforeseen directions. If there’s a regular tempo to a song, and you find it makes an impression on you as you work, it might thumb its way into your subconscious, disrupting the ebb and flow of your scenes (film sculpts time, and you should always pay close attention to the musical rise and fall of your writing). Taken in by another tone entirely, you may be less open to discovering what the scene under construction could be. This mishap is the equivalent of using temp music in the edit; you might just grow too attached to a single perspective.

This hold-up presenting trouble for Kushner makes sense when you consider that he follows a regimented schedule; workman-like conditions keep him on track, and so doing he can avoid that most dreaded nightmare of the write: losing the thread. For The Fabelmans (now nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Golden Globes), Kushner and Spielberg set aside 4 hours a day, three days a week, and of course, no music. Whether music hinders or heightens all depends on what conditions you personally find stimulating. If you can’t so much as stomach the idea of sitting in a coffee shop for all its mind-cluttering white-noise, music may drown out distraction, or multiply it.

There are of course variations on this. Some find when writing a particularly sombre work that they require mood boosting pop songs to stay above the water. Depression is the productivity killer, after all. The only real answer is to give it a shot and pay attention to how the work is affected. Rituals are a writer’s friend; they keep your eye on the ball.

The Plusses and Pitfalls of Writing to Music
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