Book Soundtracks


I’ve always written to music, but it wasn’t until I started listening to the Story Wonk podcasts that I began developing more structured writing playlists. Now, when I’m starting a project, I will typically begin by using one of my old playlists that is close in theme to the new story. I copy it as a new playlist and then start culling songs that don’t quite fit. After that, I start adding music.

The adding music part has gotten much, much easier since the advent of Apple Music. I’ve had Amazon’s prime music for a while, but the selection was never the best. Apple Music is one of the most comprehensive services I’ve ever seen, and it works with my iTunes and all of my Apple devices so, yeah. I am not getting paid to plug this service, but it works for me.

My book soundtracks are built around three different types of songs.

Type One – Story Songs

These songs speak directly to the story I’m telling. These songs end up being imbued with meaning from the book, and I rarely use them again for a different project. There’s a song called “Wild Horses” by Natasha Bedingfield that is forever tied to one particular character for me. Likewise, “Secrets” by One Republic is the cello-driven heart beneath one of my completed novels. I even wrote a short story that mirrors the narrative in “Breathe Again” by Sara Bareilles because the tale grabbed me every time I heard the song.

Story Songs always have words, because the words drive something about the story for me, whether it’s character, plot, or conflict.

Type Two – Worldbuilding Songs

Worldbuilding Songs help create the soundscape of the world in which I’m writing. When I was working on a contemporary fantasy/mystery/romance, my book soundtrack was primarily contemporary pop music. With my current project, I’m listening to a lot of traditional celtic folk music. The words of the songs don’t need to match the story, but they do need to exist within the same emotional landscape. For example, I have an epic fantasy project where 95% of the music is either folksongs or instrumental pieces. But there’s one character whose PoV soundtrack is made up entirely of songs by the band Stabbing Westward. That’s his worldview, and so I listen to their albums while I’m writing in his head.

Type Three – Emotion Drivers

The third type of song is the kind that stays in all of my writing soundtracks. These are usually instrumental pieces from film/television/video game scores. I will also write to classical music, but it has to have a strong emotional component. Most classical music is interesting from an intellectual perspective; the pleasure of listening to it is in discovering how the themes and motifs work together, and in untangling the various instrumentation, rhythm, and volume choices. That doesn’t work when I’m trying to write.

The pieces I choose evoke an array of emotional responses, from sorrow, to anger, to fear, to joy. I recently discovered the group Two Steps from Hell and have really enjoyed adding their music to my writing soundtracks. I also have many of the famous score composers represented, from Morricone to Williams to my recent favorites, Murray Gold and Bear McCreary. Basically, if you google “film score composers,” at least 60% of them are represented in my go-to writing playlist.

Here’s a brief sample of songs from the playlist I built for my alternate-history Victorian Fantasy Romance series:

  • Thomas Bergersen – Sun – “New Life”
  • Bear McCreary – Outlander – “The Losing Side of History”
  • Howard Shore/Annie Lennox – LotR: The Return of the King – “Into the West”
  • LEAH – Otherworld – “Shores of Your Lies”
  • Gotye – Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby – “Heart’s a Mess”
  • Mediaeval Baebes – Undrentide – “Isabella”
  • Gaelic Storm – Tree – “Black is the Color”
  • Cara Dillon – Hill of Thieves – “False, False”
  • Eilidh Grant – Masks and Smiles – “The Lea Rig”
  • The Corrs – Home – “Dimming of the Day”
  • Karine Polwart – Fairest Floo’er – “Can’t Weld a Body”
  • Jack Wall – Myst IV: Revelations – “Dream”
  • Yoko Kanno – Escaflowne the Movie – “Sora”
  • Daft Punk – TRON: Legacy – “Flynn Lives”
  • John Williams – The Empire Strikes Back – “Han Solo and the Princess”
  • Nobuo Uematsu – Final Fantasy IX – “A Face Unforgotten”

There are many, many more songs on there, but that’s a smattering of them. Do you write to a soundtrack? I know some people who prefer silence, or the background noise of a coffee shop. No way is better than any other- the only thing that’s important is that it works for you as a writer!


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