What’s the Best Music to Write To?
September 1, 2023
Many writers, myself included, write to music for several reasons.
Sometimes we write to music to simply block out distracting sounds (especially if you live in a major city or community where there’s a lot of noise). However, writers primarily write to music for the same reason many artists paint to music or athletes work out to music: it inspires you and puts you “in the zone.” Music stirs strong emotions and can motivate you when necessary.
Oftentimes a writer has to create the right mental conditions to wrestle with the blank page: this is a part of creating a personal work routine for yourself. The right music can set the right mood for your screenwriting and lead to greater productivity.
Personally, I can’t imagine writing without music. It’s an integral part of my creative process (whether I’m writing a screenplay or an article about screenwriting). Furthermore, I find certain kinds of music work better than others for certain kinds of scripts. I’ll even create a specific playlist for specific writing projects.
But what’s the best music to write to?
Instrumental Music Vs. Music with Vocals
In my interview with writer-director Edgar Wright (Baby Driver, Last Night in Soho), we discussed the important role music plays in his creative process. In addition to revealing he always writes to music and also creates specific playlists for specific projects, Wright gave his opinions on instrumental music vs. music with vocals:
“I find it easier to listen to score and instrumentals when I’m writing. If I’m listening to something with lyrics, it has to be something that I’ve heard like, hundreds of times. The thing that I can’t do is listen to new music with lyrics when I’m writing. When we were writing The World’s End — where the playlist in that movie is all of the songs from the characters’ youth — they’re all like, early '90s songs. So again, we had this playlist of like ’88 to ’93 and it would just be hundreds of songs, and we’d just listen to them on a loop, and they were songs that we knew very well, so it never distracted us.”
I’ve likewise found that new music with vocals/lyrics can be distracting but not songs I’ve heard many times before. In general, music you’re familiar with fades to the background easier than something new that demands your attention.
Instrumental music, however, can be either new or old and manages to fade into the background easier. Without lyrical content, there isn’t a competing narrative for your attention and the music essentially acts as a de facto score.
There are many different types of instrumental music and subgenres: electronica (e.g., ambient electro, chillstep), classical (e.g., symphonic, sonatas), jazz (e.g., bebop, free jazz), fusion (e.g., funky fusion, progressive fusion), and even instrumental rock music (e.g., post-metal, drone metal).
Classical, Jazz, Fusion and Ambient
As noted above, there are many different forms of instrumental music to choose from. I know a few writers who write to classical music, so that might likewise work for you (and many film scores are orchestrated and classical in nature).
I’m more of a jazz guy than classical, so when I take the instrumental route it’s usually hard bop or fusion from the 1960s and 1970s: This music has an evocative and cinematic quality, especially the work of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. Hancock also composed and recorded some great film scores (Blow Up, Death Wish). Oftentimes hard bop and fusion put me into the right frame of mind.
Also, ambient and electronica music likewise has a cinematic quality. Tangerine Dream is probably best known for their music in classic 1980s films (Thief, Risky Business), but all of their studio albums from this period sound like movie scores: Force Majeure (1979) and Tangram (1980) being my favorites.
I also think DJ Shadow’s 1996 underground classic Endtroducing… is a great album to write to. It’s instrumental hip-hop and the soundscapes DJ Shadow creates are both cinematic and highly evocative: his music really sets the mood.
Perhaps the most obvious choice and for good reason: if you’re writing a screenplay while a film score is playing, it will definitely make you feel like you’re writing a movie and ultimately that’s the mindset you want: you’re writing a movie.
In addition, most film scores are instrumental and thus aren't distracting to write to. From John Williams to Hans Zimmer, there are numerous soundtrack albums that feature film scores. I’ve written scripts to both the Jaws and Inception soundtracks respectively. The genre you’re writing in should also dictate what score you write to: if you’re writing an adventure, choose an adventure score, if you’re writing a horror, choose a horror score, etc.
John Carpenter’s synth-heavy scores are also very popular. In addition to myself and Edgar Wright, I know many Horror/Thriller screenwriters that write to Carpenter soundtracks. My favorite Carpenter soundtracks to write to are Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, and Christine, but anyone will do the job. Also, Carpenter’s Lost Themes (2015) and Lost Themes II (2016) give you more of his classic stark and moody synth work.
Rolling Stones, AC/DC and Wu-Tang Clan
If you’re writing a crime drama and want to have a Martin Scorsese vibe, playing some Rolling Stones should do the trick (I can’t think of a more cinematic classic rock song than “Gimme Shelter”). Pretty much any Stones’ album from any era will create a gritty and dynamic backdrop to your writing.
AC/DC’s music works in a similar fashion and it’s likewise been used in many films over the years. Stephen King enlisted the band to write original music and used some of their past songs for his 1986 film Maximum Overdrive; the corresponding AC/DC album, Who Made Who, ended up being more successful than the film.
Over two decades later, John Favreau used AC/DC’s music for the Iron Man 2 soundtrack, showing the band’s music was still connecting with listeners and still highly cinematic. If you want to write a fun and action-packed set piece, AC/DC will definitely get you pumped.
Despite being a hip-hop fan, I find most of it distracting when writing because the lyrics and storytelling are so in your face. However, Wu-Tang Clan is an exception, largely due to RZA’s production work, which is both atmospheric and cinematic (especially on 1993’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and the first wave of RZA produced solo Wu-Tang albums of the mid-1990s).
RZA often used symphonic samples from old martial arts films, which emphasized the cinematic quality of his music. No doubt this is why filmmakers have enlisted RZA to contribute music to their films: Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) respectively. If you’re writing an Action/Adventure with fight scenes, crank some Wu-Tang: it’ll help you to “Bring da Ruckus.”
Specific Music for Specific Scripts and Scenes
Ultimately, every writer has to use the music that works best for them. Try different artists and different kinds of music for various scripts; not every script is the same and neither should be the music you play when you’re typing away at it.
Many writers create playlists for a script they’re writing. In the above-mentioned interview, Edgar Wright revealed he did this when writing Last Night in Soho (“I had this monster '60s playlist.”). Especially when writing a period piece, the right music can help transport you back to a certain time period and make it easier to evoke. Wright revealed he likewise did this when writing The World’s End (all music from his '90s youth) and Shaun of the Dead (a burnt CD mix filled with John Carpenter and Goblin music).
As written above, I also create specific playlists for specific scripts. Like Edgar Wright, if I’m writing a Horror/Thriller, I create a playlist with a lot of John Carpenter (and darker heavy metal); and if I’m writing a period piece, I’ll create a playlist of music from the appropriate era. I load up the playlist with a massive amount of music, so when I shuffle it every day there’s some variation.
Sometimes I’ll even create specific playlists for specific scenes or sequences. For example, if I’m writing an action sequence, it might have only high-adrenaline music or if I’m writing a dramatic scene, it’s music that stirs me emotionally.
Also if you’re inserting music cues into your script, it might be a good idea to write to this specific music. You chose that song to create a certain mood, right? Well, writing to that same piece of music will likewise create the mood for you.
Your Taste, Your Voice
Writing to your own playlist filled with music that stirs you emotionally, can also help give your screenplay your voice. Many writer-directors from Edgar Wright to Quentin Tarantino to Sofia Coppola have created soundtracks for their films that are essentially playlists or “mix tapes” of their favorite music and it’s helped to define their voice as artists. The same method can work for you when writing.
So when you’re about to write a screenplay, think about what music works best with the material and what music best represents you as a person. After doing so, create a playlist and consider it the soundtrack to the movie you’re writing…!!
Written by: Edwin CannistraciEdwin Cannistraci is a professional screenwriter. His comedy specs PIERRE PIERRE and O’GUNN both sold with more than one A-list actor and director attached. In addition, he’s successfully pitched feature scripts, TV pilots and has landed various assignment jobs for Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount and Disney.