Thursday, March 22, 2007

In The Mood

by Bill Cameron

On my iPod I have a playlist called "Mood Music." When I go out to write -- and, alas, I can't seem to write at home -- I listen to a few songs on my way down to the Starbucks where I do my writing. At that point, I just listen to whatever comes up at random. I'm just looking to get into the mood.

Some days it's easy. Some days I leap out of the blocks in the mood, so my iPod with its magic playlist serves as a talisman rather than a tool. I've got it if I need it, and more often than not that's enough. When I write, I tune out what's going on around me anyway. The background noise of the coffee shop is just texture, and whatever's playing through the store sound system (i.e., whatever CD Starbucks is currently pushing) adds to the texture. I like sound, I like motion. They contribute to getting me in the mood.

And some days, that's not enough. Some days I have to put the talisman to work. I put on the headphones and click the play button. Listen to what comes up. Because I selected the songs pretty carefully, almost always whatever the random number generator inside the iPod settles on is the song I need to hear. And if not that one, the one after, or the one after that.

"Mood Music" is only 120 songs long. They cover a wide variety of styles, though in theme they are more narrow. Rock and roll, alternative, folk, classical, oldies, newbies -- name your style and it will probably be there. I admit that a few genres are poorly represented. I like the idea of jazz better than the sound of it, and with only a few exceptions I can't abide country. Still, I got Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck in there, and a Faith Hill. There's pop music and and its philosophical opposite (Philip Glass), hits and B-sides. The famous and the obscure. Paul Simon, Outkast, Unicorn, or The Rolling Stones. Whatever gets me in the mood.

One of the things that grew out of "Mood Music" was the soundtrack for Lost Dog. These are songs that I think capture some of the mood of the novel. Not all of it, and what gets me in the mood might be a turn-off to others. But at various times these were songs I listened to get myself in the mood, among many others.

"Pressure's On" James
"Hairshirt" R.E.M.
"Straight to Video" Mindless Self Indulgence
"The Crystal Lake" Grandaddy
"My Weakness" Moby
"Unchained Melody" Righteous Brothers
"The Kiss" The Cure
"Sweetness Follows" R.E.M.
"Out To Get You" James
"Everloving" Moby
"Say Say Something" James
"My Sundown" Jimmy Eat World

So tell me. When you feel yourself start to dry up, what do you listen to to refresh yourself? What do you read, or watch, or do? What gets you in the mood?


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

If I'm not in the mood (or hit a glitch in the writing process) I do something physical to loosen the writing gears. It can be a chore around the house, like running the vac or cleaning the bathroom, or a simple walk around the block. I often find that to get into the mood, I need to get my mind off of it and give it a rest. It's amazing how many wonderful ideas have come to me while cleaning. And it's productive in other ways, too.

Mark Terry said...

Once upon a time I used to listen to music when writing. My wife got sooooo sick of Paul Simon's "Graceland" and Basia's "Warsaw London New York."

Now I can't seem to write with music. Every now and then I might be able to re-write or proof with instrumental music on, but anything with vocals just screws me up.

Too bad, too. I used to listen to music while I wrote all the time.

I also have days--I think you know what I mean, THOSE kinds of days--where I just have to lean back, close my eyes and put on something like Eminem's "Lose Yourself" that's so angry and so honest that it gets me back in a fighting mood.

Amanda Stevens said...

I do playlists for each book. Currently:
Dead but Dreaming – Fields of the Nephilim
Renaissance – Virgin Black
Sleepless – Voice Industrie
Alone in a Crowd – A Covenant of Thorns
Drama of the Wicked – The Vision Bleak
The Host of the Seraphim – Dead Can Dance
Leda’s Secret – Die Form
Last Exit for the Lost – Fields of the Nephilim

Joe Moore said...

I think one of the most critical ways that mood is created in movies is the musical score. So, many years ago I started collecting what I thought were particularly good movie scores (not sound tracks that usually include songs with distracting lyrics). I consider the guys that write movie scores to be today’s classical composers. As each CD comes in, I convert to MP3 on my computer and either choose a particular movie score to correspond with the scene I’m drafting that day or click on random play. It’s amazing how the music adds an element to my imagination and creativity as I write just like it does when I watch a movie. If you want to try it, go to and search for any of these heavy hitters.

Ennio Morricone
Randy Edelman
Trevor Jones
Hans Zimmer
James Horner
John Barry
Howard Shore
John Williams
James Newton Howard

Mark Combes said...

Isn't music a funny thing? How it cuts to the quick? I can't carry a tune, nor play any instrument, but music plays a huge role in my life. And because writing plays a huge role in my life, they often overlap.

I'm like you Bill - sans headphone. That's a little too "close" for me. Put I open iTunes on my computer before I pull up the chapter I'm currently working on. And it's random, and the mood of the songs certainly filter into the mood of the chapter.

Karl said...

Hi folks,

I've never tried to write a mystery, but a great album to listen to while reading a mystery (depending upon the subgenre, I suppose) is Black Earth by Bohren & Der Club of Gore, available on Mike Patton's Ipecac label. Self-described as "horror jazz," it's both calm and vaguely unsettling, and it gives the experience kind of a Twin Peaks vibe. A friend introduced me to it, and I literally cannot stop recommending to people. Some stuff by Labradford might also work--it's about as minimalist as you can get, but it works well as background music because it suggests an atmosphere without being overly distracting.

(Bill, it's cool to find another James fan on this side of the Atlantic! And Wah Wah is a highly underrated album. I'm really psyched that they've reformed, and that a new record may be forthcoming.)

Good luck with the writing, everyone, with or without soundtrack!

M. G. Tarquini said...

Pretty much anything by ABBA does it for me.

Bill Cameron said...

Wah Wah may be my favorite, Karl. At least until I listen to a different one. I'm psyched about the new album too! A very underappreciated band! I will give Black Earth a listen. And Ipecac Recordings? Who couldn't love that as a name for a label.

Joe, I agree about movie composers. "Mood Music" features a number of movie tracks in it, including stuff by Trevor Jones and John Ottman. The Usual Suspects has a particularly powerful soundtrack, I think.

But, Abba. Well, yes. Of course!

Julia Buckley said...

I love ABBA! But I don't tend to listen to music while I write--maybe I should. I think I might be on a long dry spell now, and will have to take some of these un-drying suggestions.

Who is James? Should I know him?

Candy Calvert said...

I guess I'm in the minority who doesn't listen to music when writing--unless it drifts in under my office door when my husband's got his speakers cranked up to play air guitar!

I "brainstorm" while doing physical things--like working out on my crosstrainer while watching Dr. Phil. Don't tell anybody, but I have a pathetic crush on that big bald Texan. ;-)

Mark Combes said...


Give it a try. I have a small bookcase stereo set-up - nothing fancy - and I use that sometimes when the music gets to be a bit too much when I'm pumping it through the computer speakers.

I find silence deafening - odd as that sounds. It breaks my concentration. Try Joe's suggestion of non-lyric songs - soundtracks or something. It flips a switch in the brain - but don't ask me to explain how it works....maybe Dr. Phil knows huh Candy?

Candy Calvert said...

Dr. Phil knows everything.
And I understand--completely--what you mean about total silence, Mark. Very difficult for me; I need background noise. Too loud/too quiet unnerves me. I want it "just right," kind of like The Three Bears and that porridge . . .
Dr. Phil looks kind of like a big ol' bear, don't you think? Oops.

Todd ransom said...

It was nice to see Moby creep on to your list twice. Some Moby seems like it was made as a soundtrack for writing - high emotional content without being distracting or overpowering. Some of my favorite songs for writing:

Dumb - Nirvana
The Widow - The Mars Volta
The Three Shadows - Bauhaus
anything from Carboot Soul - Nightmares on Wax

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I can't listen to music while writing because I get lost in the music instead of the writing. But I can't write in complete silence either. In college I could never study at the library -- too quiet. But my apartment overlooks a major street in Los Angeles and so I have almost constant traffic noise. I guess traffic, fender benders, horns, screeching tires, and sirens are my "playlist." Oh, and let's not forget car alarms!