(Lots of) Music to Write By

I do use music while I’m writing. If I’m doing something that needs pace and energy, I’ll play something loud and strong. If I just need to cut out the rest of the world, I used to often tell iTunes to give me an hour’s music and I’d just write until it stopped.

Not true.

I used to intend to do that but when the music would stop I regularly carried on because I didn’t notice.

One or twice I’ve sat with headphones on and nothing playing, again occasionally because I’ve forgot but sometimes to just cut out some sound, cut out some people.

Now I’ve got a newfound addiction to Apple Music and its 30 million tracks – just a moment ago, I called out to my iphone “Hey, Siri, play Eighties pop music” and that’s exactly what it’s doing.

What I have never done and can’t imagine ever doing is compiling a list of music to suit certain writing moods. But this is the age of the internet, if it can be imagined, it’s been imagined and it’s right here:

Within that little writerly brain of yours in incredible potential. So many ideas, so many intricate plots and mind-boggling character arcs. You’re amazing, really. Oh, consider the possibilities if you had the proper music selection to listen to for each and every scene?

Welcome to SoundFuel, the only writing music directory you’ll ever need!

Music is like a drug – a very powerful one. It stimulates our brains, pricks at our hearts and ignites in us a soaring range of emotions. Music is the fuel that every wordsmith needs to craft excellent works of literature. Whatever the mood, genre or theme you may be looking for, you’ll find scores of epic soundtracks to fuel your creativity and enhance your writing experience!

SoundFuel – Music You Can’t Write Without : The Directory

They’re right that this is a directory rather than a list: my calling it a list is like taking the old Yellow Pages phone books and calling them a leaflet. There is a lot of music here. A lot. In the time it will take you to just read the directory you could’ve actually written something.

But who wants to do that?

Read the full piece. And thanks to Alex Townley who found and shared with the same combination of who-would-do-this and secretly oooh-might-be-handy attitude that I’ve now got.

Not too hot, not too loud

I may be addicted to Apple Music but there’s an argument that I should turn it down a bit. Also, in a week when it’s been bleedin’ hot, there’s a more obvious argument that cooler equals better.

This is an interesting piece about our whole working environment, from noise to temperature and how it affects our creativity. Here’s a bit about music:

Far from blasting music through out headphones, it turns out that a moderate noise level is the sweet spot for creativity. Ambient noise gets our creative juices flowing unlike silence, and doesn’t put us off the way high levels of noise do.

Here’s how it works: moderate noise levels increase processing difficulty which promotes abstract processing, leading to higher creativity. Or, in other words, when we struggle just enough to process things as we normally would, we resort to more creative approaches.

In high noise levels, our creative thinking is impaired because we’re overwhelmed and struggle to process information efficiently. I know I’ve felt this when it’s lunchtime in my co-working space, or my neighbors are renovating their apartment while I’m trying to work.

How to Optimize Your Environment for Creativity with The Perfect Temperature, Lighting and Noise Levels – Belle Beth Cooper, Bufferapp Blog (12 February 2014)

Read the full piece.

Via Lifehacker.

Apple Music is good

As I write this to you, it’s about 5am and I realise I’m not in the mood to listen to any music. More often, though, if I’m here working away on my own and most especially when I have to really concentrate on the job, I will be playing music – and now I think that means I will be playing Apple Music.

Certainly for the next three months while it’s free, anyway.

Apple Music is like Spotify, Pandora, Rdio and many other services: you can listen to just about any music you like, just about whenever you like. Streaming music should be a familiar concept to me because that’s surely what radio has always been yet somehow I find it hard to get used to the idea. I’m so used to buying music, whether that is on vinyl, CD or download, there is the choosing and the buying and the playing.

Now there’s really just the playing as you don’t buy an album per se and I think you don’t choose in quite the same way. You explore, you sample, you don’t think about whether to invest some cash in this artist or that album.

I’ve liked the idea enough that I got a free Spotify account to try it all out and for over a year I’ve been playing it a lot in the car. Only, Spotify defaults to trying to recommend music to you and I always disliked or even loathed its choices. They made me feel very old and I don’t need any help feeling very old.

Spotify stops recommending stuff if you create a big enough playlist of favourite choices. I created such a playlist: 50 or so tracks that I like a lot. Only, I’ve ended up playing just those 50 over and over. I’m not unhappy: sometimes it’s perfect, sometimes it’s not.

It’s not as if I play the same 50 in the same order: unless you pay for a Spotify account, you can only play things on shuffle. It did just feel that some days Spotify got my mood exactly right and other days it didn’t.

You also get ads on Spotify every three songs or so. I got very used to those and, I don’t know, maybe I got close to paying for an account. That would remove the ads, that would allow me to play the song I wanted when I wanted, it would let me play an album in sequence.

I’ll never know how close I came, not now. For if I do end up paying for a streaming music service, it will not be Spotify. Not any more. It will be Apple Music.

I’m just trying to define why. Writing for MacNN.com about it, I concluded that I and we like it a lot:

We’d say love, but come on, the paint’s still wet, let’s take this affair a little slow for a time: we’ve got three months of dating before we have to make a commitment.

Hands On: Apple Music (iOS, OS X, Windows) – William Gallagher, MacNN (30 June 2015)

Read the full piece for more specifics about how it works and what’s good but after a night’s reflection, I think it comes down to two things that will help me while I work.

I think.

There’s the way I could just leave it running playing fairly random tracks but generally ones I like or am going to like: you give it some nudges about what you’re into as you set it up and it seems to do rather well with that information. That’s good.

But there is no question: the ability to just say aloud “Hey, Siri, play ‘Life is a Celebration’ by the Kids from Fame” and have it do that, that is startlingly great. Siri doesn’t work on Macs, which is going to be an issue as that’s where I spend most of my day, but using it via my iPhone and iPad for one day, I’ve become addicted to this feature.

They used to do this on Star Trek: “Computer, play some Bix Beiderbecke”. And it’s here.

My iMac returns home later today from having a repair done: when it’s here and I’ve updated iTunes, I’m going to see if I can use Siri to control it via my Apple Watch. My entire working day may change if it works.

NOTE: To play Apple Music, you need iTunes on your Mac or Windows PC, or an iPhone or iPad. Android stuff coming later.

Weekend read: You Are What You Listen To

Just typing that title makes me suddenly suspect this is going to be about talking yourself into things or positive reinforcement stuff. No. This is more specific. It’s more specific about music and what our preferences tell us about ourselves – and maybe show others about us too.

What are the personality attributes of people with these different preferences? If you are a fan of Sophisticated or Intense music, you tend to be very high on Openness to Experience—curious, creative, welcoming of new perspectives—and politically liberal; the difference is that people who prefer Sophisticated music tend to be docile in social interactions whereas people that prefer Intense music tend to be dominant with an impulsive communication style (what we might call “blirtatiousness”). Of all the musical preferences, those who like Intense music tend to be the least Conscientious—spontaneous, disorganized, lacking in self-restraint.

You Are What You Listen To – Todd B Kashdan, The Creativity Post (13 March 2015)

Read the full piece.

Music for concentrating by

This isn’t for me. I work to music a lot. A lot. If I’m writing something with pace I might use iTunes Radio’s Eighties Hits station. But usually I have various playlists and selections and albums and artists and I play them on whims. Also on headphones. Whims can be loud.

Actually, that’s the thing: usually if I need pace and energy then I’ll turn the volume up. Once or twice recently I’ve found I have to turn it down instead or occasionally stop it completely. (You cannot listen to Kate Bush in the background. Cannot. You listen to her properly. No choice.)

I think I’m lucky in that I hear lyrics, I hear the human singing voice, as just another instrument. Only when I’m working, that is. If I’m listening properly, lyrics are crucial. I wouldn’t enjoy Dar Williams so much if her lyrics weren’t so gorgeous. But when I’m working, I can have Meredith Brooks blasting out and it invigorates me, it doesn’t distract me.

Apparently it’s more normal for people need instrumentals. Normal enough that I just found this 45-minute video for you. Presumably you don’t watch the video, you just listen to the sound – like you do when the only YouTube copy of a rare track is one set to fan-made photography and badly transcribed lyrics. See if it does any good for you.

I’d need the buttons to stay down

This looks like a slice of our past and you want it, you want to try this.

Remember what it felt like to press play and record at the same time? Back before streaming and downloading and blogs and YouTube, music meant CDs and Smash Hits and the NME and taping off the radio — and this delightfully retro Raspberry Pi creation recreates that physical connection with music for the 21st century.

Raspberry Pi is the low-cost computing system that allows you to build all kinds of bespoke gadgets from basic components, teaching novices how to code and limited only by your imagination. British developer and maker Matt Brailsford has used the DIY system to combine the technology of today — Raspberry Pi, Spotify, and NFC tags — with the retro tech of yesterday to build a media server that streams different playlists when different cassette tapes are inserted.

Rewind: This Raspberry Pi cassette player plays Spotify tunes from actual tapes – Rich Trenholm, CNET (21 October 2014)

I don’t miss cassettes except that I guess that’s a lie, I see this and I do. Lots of memories, though a key one is of how the buttons would stay down when you press them:

Read the full piece.

Know your theme before you write

Sitcom comedy writing star – seriously, not only does he write superbly but he’s had a hugely popular blog for many years – Ken Levine this week answered a question about themes in one’s writing. A blog reader said how he had been recording some material for an album and was now finding it hard to discover what that music was really about. What it’s theme was.


Well, the first thing is I do is determine what the theme is before writing. The story, or in your case, album, should reflect that. Taking a finished product and sifting through it looking for gold is rather counter-productive.

This is a question I get a lot (and answer a lot). It’s an important point that needs to be repeated. Sort of like a “theme.”

When people tell me they just want to start writing and see where the story takes them, I tell them most often it leads to Death Valley.

Put in the time and effort to determine your theme first. And yes, I know – it’s HARD. The hardest part actually. But once you have it, the rest falls into place and it’s much easier to determine if you’re on track or straying. The theme is your compass.

Bottom line: what is it you want to say? And if you don’t have anything, then why are you even bothering?

Friday Questions – Ken Levine, ByKenLevine.com (25 July 2014)

He makes good points and perhaps I think that most because usually I agree with him. But it’s straight answers like this that have made his blog a daily read for me. Do check out the full Friday Questions from this week but then also the whole of the blog.

Shazam updated with Rdio playback

20140715-183707-67027567.jpgSeriously, you get something on your mind and then it is everywhere. I’ve been thinking a lot about streaming music lately and today Shazam updated to include some of that.

Shazam is the app by which you can hold your iPhone up toward a speaker playing music and it will tell you what that music is. You can probably find this app in the music section but I think it’s properly filed and catalogued under Alchemy.

What’s new today is that once you’ve heard some music and Shazam has told you what it is, it can now play you the whole thing via the Rdio streaming service. That is the specifically new thing in this latest update and it does require you to have an Rdio account.

But to try it out for you and also because I’d been meaning to try Rdio for myself anyway, I got such an account and then I checked Shazam.

It’s true. I went through all the previous songs I’d had Shazam identify in the bars and clubs of my exotic lifestyle and there was an Rdio button. But there was also a Spotify one. That’ll be because I have a free Spotify account.

So on the one hand, I caught the news about Rdio yet had missed the one about Spotify whenever that was added. And on the other hand, I went off trying Rdio all day. It has one advantage over Spotify: it lets you use all the premium features for 14 days so I was able to get it to play me entire albums in sequence. That’s as compared to Spotify’s free version only allowing shuffled songs and to iTunes Radio’s way of not necessarily playing you the album at all.

Dar Williams on productivity and creativity

I’ve said this before: I wouldn’t kill to write like songwriter Dar Williams, but I’d maim. She has a fine and long body of work, a now substantial discography but interestingly, she’s against being disciplined and productive. I’m obviously paying more attention and notice because I rate her so much but I think she makes these points particularly persuasively.

She makes them in an old interview on Songfacts where am unnamed interviewer presses on the point thisaway:

Songfacts: When you look at this collection, does it amaze you that you’ve accomplished what you have? I don’t want to ask you to brag, but there must be some moment of pride to be able to look at all these songs and re-visit some of your accomplishments over the years. How does it make you feel when you look at the songs that make up this collection?

Dar: Well, when I was in college, I put a stick-it on my computer, which was huge, that said, “Whatever you do is enough.” I had totally lost my mind, and I was coming back from that. So I would say to myself, you know, you’re supposed to do a ten-page paper, if you do one page you’ll get a D+. If you do two pages, you’ll get a C-, or if you do three pages you’ll get a C-. So that’s all better than an F, so why don’t you do a page?

And it was really, enormously helpful to me. And then a friend of mind was kind of coming back from her lost moment, and I put the stick-it on her computer, and she took a very playful approach to this paper, really appreciating the fact that she wasn’t writing about something very tangible, and just giving it a very playful approach. And she got an A. Her professor said he read it for his wife. It was like, by letting the pressure go and allowing herself to do what she could in that moment, she released a sort of joy in the meaning of the whole assignment.

So it’s like I have a little stick-it on my inner computer that says “Whatever you do is enough.” And I don’t force lines, and I don’t force myself to write every day, and somehow out of that came seven albums that don’t, to me, feel forced. And that’s the only thing I’ll boast about is that there’s nothing about it that to me sounds like I said, “I have to write for 2 hours a day,” with lines where there were no inspiration. I felt it when I wrote it. And I think that experience coming back from being totally insane and putting that stick-it on my computer was a good beginning to a less forced work ethic.

Dar Williams – Songfacts (3 November 2010)

Be sure to read the whole piece: this is all she says on productivity but it’s a wide-ranging interview and she’s smart across it all.

Thanks to @groggy for pointing me at this.

Concluding the streaming music debate – a bit

Previously… I write to music, always have done, I get into ferociously irritating habits of listening to exactly the same piece over and over again. I get a lot of headphones as Christmas presents. I resisted streaming music because I had what I feel is a big collection. But then I tried streaming.

Actually, just to break the Previously and tell you something new: I’ve realised why I tried. I said before that it was iTunes Radio and that’s true, I got access to that early and enjoyed hearing new music. I’ve steadily less enjoyed the steadily increasing number of ads on iTunes Radio but I’ve also realised that its way of playing you types of music rather than letting you specify artists or albums and hearing only those got a bit wearing.

And I heard a song.

I forgot that I could check back in iTunes history to see what it was and instead stupidly spent a while googling every lyric I could be fairly sure I remembered. And I found it.

It was Come to My Window by Melissa Etheridge. Love it.

And I love it enough that I once again tried Spotify. At least with Spotify, I thought, you could name a specific track and play that.

This is sort of true. And it’s also definitely true now that Spotify is free on iPhone and iPad – which is almost certainly true because of the competition from services such as iTunes Radio. Everybody wins, and it earns the artists nothing. Or very little, anyway.

Last time I mentioned this, it was because I’d found this article explaining all the various streaming services and I intended to investigate them. I intended to do this because I was sick of iTunes Radio – I’ve since come back around to it, it’s a mood thing with me – and because Spotify was irritating. I realise they want you to pay a subscription price and not only do I understand that but, spoiler alert, I’m now today thinking of it. But for trying out the service, I thought free was helpful.

But Spotify wouldn’t stick to the music I asked for, it would bound off places playing me other things that might be fine, yes, but I couldn’t stop them when I wanted to. In the end, I would just quit Spotify and force it to restart again. You can’t do that very easily while driving.

Only, today I tried it again. Instead of my usual beloved BBC Radio 4, I had Spotify and a playlist with about 25 songs on it. Including the Etheridge. For 170 miles driving, maybe 2 miles walking and for 90 minutes on buses today, I listen to those 25 songs. Over and over.

There were many, many interruptions for ads and it worries me a bit that most of them were what’s called a house ad: if you can’t sell an ad spot to someone, you use it yourself to advertise something of your business. You want to have some house ads, but you need the revenue from outside companies.

But apart from those understandable interruptions, Spotify played me those songs of mine for a not-very-understandably long time.

I’m a fan. I think. I’m going to play it a bit more to see if I go off it as I have at times with iTunes Radio. And I’m going to wait a bit to see when iTunes Radio officially launches in the UK because the price for it includes some extra benefits and is also substantially cheaper than Spotify. Both Spotify and iTunes Radio start at free but then to get the benefits of the paid-for services, it’s £9.99 UK or $9.99 US per month for Spotify and £21.99 or $24.00 US per year for iTunes Radio.

But for the meantime, I think I’m a convert. That’s a very strange feeling for a man who remembers vinyl, who remembers CD coming in, who lived through DVD coming in and then dying away. But it’s true: I had a very good time today with Spotify.