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Music for Focus—and for Inspiration

· amwriting,Music

Writing and Music

Music has a big focus in the Fenway Stevenson novels. A couple of years ago, I wrote about some music that I see in my head during a few Fenway scenes.

The climactic scene of the first book, The Reluctant Coroner, for example—in my head, I’ve scored the whole thing to an instrumental tune by the Swedish band Wintergatan called “Paradis.” The final hits of the song’s coda hit with the bullets leaving the chamber in that scene.

About two-thirds into the second book, The Incumbent Coroner, there’s a scene where Fenway and McVie are in the front seat of McVie’s Highlander, watching justice being served (Dez bashes the door down to a warehouse), and Fenway realizes what she’s been missing in her life. For that scene, I’ve always had Vienna Teng’s “Never Look Away” (from the 2014 album Aims) running through my brain. I think the lyrics of that song are similar to what’s running through McVie’s head during their stakeout.

But a few readers have asked me what I listen to when I actually write my books. Some of my author friends write in silence, some listen to heavy metal, others listen to Broadway tunes or nature sounds.

I’ve found that I can’t listen to anything with words when I write—it’s too distracting. Ambient electronic music seems to work for me. In particular, an electronic artist named Kubbi (two albums in particular—Ember and Taiga) get me in the writing zone, and another artist named Tycho (I like all his stuff, but especially his album Awake).

Experiencing the Music

Over the holidays, my wife and my oldest son came home from a trip to Guitar Center (my son took up the bass guitar last year) with a cheap record player—as well as several records. I had a few records from my teenage years too—mid to late-80s music like the Top Gun soundtrack, Talking Heads’ Little Creatures, as well as some albums my father owned—a few Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass albums were my favorites.

The cheap record player skipped a lot and sounded bad, so I dug out my father’s old (but very good) record player from the late 70s and hooked it up to the system we have in our family room, and now the whole family listens to records. It’s a huge change from what how we’re all used to listening to music—on the go while doing other things, often streaming from Spotify while working out or driving.

Records slow that process down. First of all, you really can’t be doing anything else—the record player is in the family room, and you have to take the record out, put it on the turntable, clean it, brush the needle, then start up the record player… so it feels like the record is demanding your attention. It’s not just something to have on in the background. When we listen to records now, we’re experiencing the music.

One of the recent finds at a local record store (socially distanced and everyone wearing masks) was a vinyl album of Tycho’s Awake. I’d really only heard it while writing, trying to focus my attention and energy on getting in the zone and getting my two-thousand-words-a-day out. But listening to Awake on the record player, it demanded my attention and it became so much more than background music. It made me realize that music I had almost taken for granted was so much richer and so much more enjoyable than I’d thought.

Digging up my father’s old record player has been a delight—one of the bright spots in the last year. And it’s made me thankful not just for music that gives me focus, but for the music itself, for being able to listen and enjoy and concentrate just on the music.