I’m sure most writers know the feeling: you’re sitting at your computer, listening to a song on YouTube, and then…it hits you. Your ears are still listening to the music, but your brain has dropped everything and is constructing a scene around what you’re hearing. It might be a love scene, a battle scene, or something introspective; it may involve characters you know and love, or complete strangers who have just waltzed into your head.

Inspired, you dive into your word processor and start typing away. You also rush out to purchase the song, because that thing needs to go on your playlist ASAP.

Or does it?

If you wander onto any writing board, you’ll find a wealth of people discussing the music behind their novel, and whether or not they need music to write. Some can’t seem to get any words written without a full musical score blasting behind them. Others need a cold, focusing silence to let their thoughts mature.

What kind of noise – or lack thereof – do you need? I got curious about how other writers work, and I asked around for opinions.


Music has long been a balm for the soul, and the twenty-first century has brought us all kinds of easy (and legal!) ways to obtain it. If you haven’t already built your own playlists or made a mixtape, you can always wander to YouTube, Playlist.com, or a myriad of other sites to discover music based on your interests.

Its accessibility has made it almost as important as the word processor. A song can set a particular mood, help you envision or frame a scene, and even give you that last-minute push to finish writing for the evening.

Music has its drawbacks, of course; the chief complaint I saw about it was that listening to it can draw you in too much, and before you realize what’s happening, you’re writing down lyrics as dialogue. Poetic, sure. Original? Not really. For that very reason, some writers stick to instrumental tracks only.

Actual Background Noise

One thing that surprised me was the amount of people who couldn’t focus with music but did not care for silence. They wanted some sort of middle ground—background noise.

When I say “background noise,” I mean anything that isn’t explicitly music or something you’re partially paying attention to. For some writers, this is letting the television drone softly in the background as they work. For others, it’s the sound of families, friends, or people in a coffee shop chit-chatting around them.  You may also like the sound of rain, the wind rustling through the leaves, or the ocean.

Those who appreciate background noise may be able to write with music, if they’re actually listening to it, but also are not quite all right with silence. It’s not unlike getting a sound machine to play softly while you sleep; ideally, you’re so involved in your work that whatever’s going on in the background just translates to white noise. You know it’s there, but it doesn’t bother you.


What happens if you can’t listen to music while you work, but the background noise is still too distracting? Try shutting it all down: work in silence. Close the door, put on headphones, turn off the television…whatever you need to do to be alone with your thoughts and your words.

This is a difficult maneuver for some; writing can be a lonely occupation at the best of times, and sitting at your computer with only the sound of your keys (or the scratching of pen across paper) for company can remind you of that fact. But once you’re able to really focus, you’ll find there’s zero room for distraction. You may even be more productive than before—or you may find that you do need noise.

Changing your background noise level is an easy way to change up your writing dynamic; it’s one of the easiest things you can change about your specific writing process, especially if you feel you’ve been dragging your heels on a process. I recommend giving each new process a couple of days. Let it sink in, let yourself get used to the noise or lack thereof.

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