Setting the Tone: How Listening to Music Can Inspire Fiction Writers


When I was in the early days of my MFA program, I listened to instrumental music while I was writing. Explosions In the Sky, maybe something classical if I was feeling particularly sophisticated. But then around six or seven years ago, I began listening to music with lyrics while I wrote. I don’t really remember when it shifted, I just know that at some point I found myself writing while other words were pouring into my ears. If this sounds distracting, I assure you: it can be! But I began to think of it as if I were getting a two for one special. Listening and writing began to feel like pulling the ultimate artistic hack; it was as if I was reading while writing.

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Realizing I could do this was a small breakthrough. I find that music does the same thing in writing as it does in life: it sets the tone. It essentially puts me into a frame of mind to write. It establishes the mood, dictates the vibe. It’s why we use it to soundtrack so many experiences—everything from weddings to funerals to simply going out to eat.

Music does quite a lot of things when we listen to it, but there is science behind its contribution to dopamine levels and its ability to pull out implicit memories. As a part of this dopamine-inducing, memory-creating magic, music creates a sense of expectation: the more we listen, the more we understand that the melody will repeat, that the chorus will come back around, that the bridge will shift from the last several verses and build tension.

I find that music does the same thing in writing as it does in life: it sets the tone.

The best songwriters use these expectations by changing the pattern on us, by holding off on that final tonic note until the end of the song, by making us wait for it. We begin to anticipate rhymes and the rhythm of the lyrics, we learn the melody as it repeats throughout the song. This listening experience leads to dopamine release.

Research has found that “music triggers the release of dopamine in both the dorsal and ventral striatum. This isn’t particularly surprising: these regions have long been associated with the response to pleasurable stimuli. It doesn’t matter if we’re having sex or snorting cocaine or listening to Kanye: These things fill us with bliss because they tickle these cells. Happiness begins here.”

And then of course there is the strong association with memory, which for me is key: the memories and emotions these songs evoke. As mentioned, music is closely associated with something called implicit memory, essentially your unconscious memory. Tiffany Jenkins wrote for the BBC that these systems are “emotional as well as durable.” Perhaps this is why Wilco’s “Jesus Etc” makes me think of Lollapalooza in 2008, falling in love with someone who wasn’t falling in love with me, or Margot & The Nuclear So & Sos “As Tall as Cliffs” will always remind me of dancing and singing in an apartment with my closest friends. So many of us have songs and lyrics that trigger memories of specific friends and kisses and cocktails and anecdotes and feelings. And if there’s one thing you need while writing fiction, it’s fucking feelings.

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Well before I started writing seriously, lyrics were my artform of choice. (Didn’t you also have a high school diary full of emo poetry?) I eventually would try to write a few songs, because that was the type of writing I was consuming the most. I didn’t realize the way my musical obsession was working its way into my fiction writing at first, but all the songs I listened to—and scribbled down the lyrics of on my high school binders and college notebooks—taught me things I would eventually work hard to incorporate into my fiction: things like poetry and assonance, rhythm, imagery, word play, simple dialogue, and ultimately brevity.

It did not surprise me at all when lyrics became a big part of my new novel, Lo Fi. The narrator writes her own lyrics and she also has them in her head all the time—at one point we had snippets of lyrics sprinkled throughout the novel (that is, we did until my editor let me know that we might have to pay for every single one of them.)

There is something about the simultaneity of the lyrics and the writing has helped me get into that specific dissociative state writing requires, while helping me channel the more poetic side of my prose. But there are things you can get away with in songs that you simply can’t get away with in fiction, like repetition or rhyme or sentimentality (the phrasing “tears in heaven” becomes maudlin quickly without a melody behind it). Luckily most people are not looking for a sentimental, redundant, rhyming novel.

And yet, living in the tension of this while writing allows us to start to internalize the elements of song that do work in fiction, the elements that we can incorporate into prose that can be effective in more limited quantities. You know, as they say: with a touch of restraint.

Living in the tension of this while writing allows us to start to internalize the elements of song that do work in fiction.

There are so many ways music can seep into fiction. A specific line or rhythmic moment that sticks with you can change the cadence of a sentence you’re working on. Maybe a rhyme makes you think of a different word in a scene or a metaphor turns one of your own on its head. There’s the succinct setting of the scene, of course, as well. A song only has about three and a half minutes, maybe twenty lines of lyrics. The compact nature of a song is what makes music work so well: a repeated chorus can become grating on minute ten even if it worked well at minute two.

But novelists can steal from this, too, choosing what words, phrases, images to repeat throughout the book to build theme, describe a whole scene in a short line rather than thirty pages. What about Taylor Swift’s lovely moment in “All Too Well,” where the lovers are “dancing in the kitchen in the refrigerator light.” Or The Replacements—”if being afraid is a crime we hang side by side, in a swinging party down the line.” These types of lines push me to concision in my own prose; why is it taking me twenty pages to get to the heart of this Halloween party? I turn on Phoebe Bridgers’ “Halloween” and consider the astute simplicity of her line: “Baby it’s Halloween/we can be anything.”

Sometimes all those words while writing can be distracting of course—it certainly is while typing up this essay—but when I’m handwriting, it really seems to work, and the moments of interruptions and diversion are also what make it so deliciously joyful to write. Pausing your pen to sing out loud: “I’m Mr. November, I won’t fuck us over!!!” gives a rabid jolt of energy, triggers a memory of a summer evening at a concert in Nashville, a bit of nostalgia for the year 2010—and, likely, at the least: some appreciation, some necessary intellectual pause.

And then you’re back. Let the charm of what you’re hearing take you somewhere else: another country, another city, another year, the memory of an old friend, first kiss, new love, last goodbye. Let yourself feel whatever it makes you feel—songs you love pretty much always make you feel something; the best shit should. And then, you know: write. Turn the volume up and see what happens.

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Lo Fi by Liz Riggs is available from Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.



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