How We Use Music

Music can serve as a tool and inspiration for writers at every stage of their work. It can lead to plot breakthroughs or bust writer’s block, and it cropped up on the pages of several YA debuts this year including Under the Never Sky, Incarnate, and most recently, Seraphina. Here are some of the ways the writers of Pub(lishing) Crawl use music and a few of our favorite tracks.

Beat by Beat

Sarah J. Maas uses music in the outline stages of a book: “For each book, I have a really, really detailed playlist that has all the music that inspired each scene/moment listed in order. And when scenes get shifted around when I’m editing, I’ll go to the playlist and move the song order around, too.” You can check out a condensed version of Sarah’s playlist for Throne of Glass here.

Marie Lu occasionally matches music to scene as well: “I noticed I did this more with Prodigy than with Legend. There’s a dogfight scene with fighter jets at the climax of Prodigy, and for that whole sequence I listened to almost nothing except the Top Gun soundtrack and “Dragon Rider” by Two Steps From Hell.” Abbreviated versions of  Marie’s playlists can be found on her blog.

I don’t listen to music when I write, but I do sometimes use songs as emotional prompts. While working on Shadow and Bone, I used “Cosmic Love” by Florence + the Machine to get me back into the immediacy of the relationship between Mal and Alina. When it was time to get down to revisions and begin outlining Siege and Storm, I hiked to the beat of Placebo’s cover of “Running Up that Hill” by Kate Bush. Took me straight into Darkling space. You can see my Shadow and Bone/The Gathering Dark playlists here and my character-specific playlists here.

Bring in the Noise

Some authors (like me and Kat Zhang) prefer to work in silence. Others like to set the mood with instrumentals, often from film and tv scores.

S. Jae-Jones (JJ) is working on a story set in Meiji Restoration Japan and chose music from Shigeru Umebayashi’s score for House of Flying Daggers to help inspire her, particularly Lovers (Mei and Jin theme) and Lovers (Full Orchestral version).

While writing Taken and its sequel, Erin Bowman relied heavily on film scores. Her favorite composers include: John Powell (The Bourne Identity, Supremacy, and Ultimatum, The Italian Job, Jumper, X-Men: The Last Stand), Javier Navarrete (Pan’s Labyrinth, Inkheart), Alexandre Desplat (The Golden Compass, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), Hans Zimmer (Inception), and Vangelis (Bladerunner).

Incarnate author Jodi Meadows opts for Bear McCreary’s Battlestar Galactica, Hans Zimmer’s Batman Begins, and Ramin Djawadi’s work on HBO’s Game of Thrones. But she also steps away from film and tv composers with E.S. Posthumus, Ludovico Einaudi, Olafur Arnalds, and Lindsey Stirling.

Dance Break

Sometimes progress stalls and the only answer is… a dance number.

When I’m deep in the bunker and banging my head against the wall, I cue  Recent favorites for these solo stomps have been “Gangnam Style” by PSY with full choreo (natch), “Body Movin” by the Beastie Boys, “Shuffle” by Bombay Bicycle Club,  and “Living with the Dreaming Body” by Poi Dog Pondering. That last one always makes me laugh: She says my work is like eating cold oatmeal day after day and she’s right.

Susan Dennard has a variation on this: “I have an ‘Almost Finished’ song for when I’m almost to the finish line—be it the first draft finish line or revisions finish line or even copy edits. I’ll bust out ‘Break My Stride’ by Matthew Wilder. Then I DANCEDANCEDANCE and WORKWORKWORK until I finally cross the finish line.”


Julie Eshbaugh‘s husband is a singer-songwriter, and music influences her process in a unique and beautiful way: “My current work-in-progress uniquely coincided with work he has been doing with his band, Rose Parade… the songs helped me to see a blossoming romantic relationship from the boy’s side, since I’m writing from the girl’s POV, and my husband’s lyrics are from a boy’s POV.”

Click here to listen to three of the most influential songs:


Some authors like to create playlists that mesh up with the plot and scenes of their stories after the work is done. JJ says: “I do the Post-Draft Album, in which I trawl through my music library to find songs that emotionally, lyrically, and musically convey the trajectory of what I’ve written. (I agonize over song order too.)”

She has an example here that she structured as an album and titled, “What Grace Have I.” HIGHLY recommended.

Do you use music in your work? Or does your theme song just play when you walk into a room like Shaft? Let us know!


9 Responses to How We Use Music

  1. Roz Morris Sep 14 2012 at 2:39 am #

    I have an entire site about this! I started using music as atmosphere to conjure settings I hadn’t been to, such as Chennai in India. I did plenty of research, of course, but some well-chosen CDs completed the immersion. I then discovered it helped with chase scenes – one day I put on Fatboy Slim and surprised myself with the quirky twists that came out as I listened.

    Now I build soundtracks for each novel in the planning and writing stage. Some of the pieces are conscious choices, some attack me from the radio because they seem to grab something about the book. Anyway, if you like to read more about this, try my series The Undercover Soundtrack….

  2. Natalie Aguirre Sep 14 2012 at 8:47 am #

    So interesting to read how authors use or don’t use music in writing. I like to write in silence too but will consider your suggestions on using music. And congrats on the movie deal for Shadow and Bone. So excited for you.

  3. Leigh Bardugo
    Leigh Bardugo Sep 14 2012 at 10:40 am #

    Thanks, Natalie! As I said, I write in silence, too, but sometimes the right song can be a much needed jolt.

    Sounds cool, Roz!

  4. Rowenna Sep 14 2012 at 10:43 am #

    I have inspiration music–songs (and often just instrumental pieces) that speak to some element of what I’m writing and jumpstart me. Then I have background music–I love film scores and old church music–Thomas Tallis and Josquin Des Prez. Beautiful but not intrusive. And often quiet really is best for me.

    I have noticed that some music just isn’t compatible–I love bluegrass and fiddle music, but trying to write speculative or sci-fi to it just doesn’t work!

  5. Alexa (Loves Books) Sep 14 2012 at 11:46 am #

    I love this post so much! I think music is a great source of inspiration when I’m writing. There have been a couple of times when a song prompt gets me going, and a few other times when I think – I have the perfect song for a scene! Thanks for sharing; it was a lot of fun to see everyone’s musical inspiration/celebration :)

  6. JQ Trotter Sep 15 2012 at 8:34 pm #

    What a fun post. Music is such a wonderful source of inspiration, I think. Like most forms of art. A song can really get me the writing mood, particularly when I haven’t been. I like to make a Pandora station for each story I write, one that I like to listen to when I’m writing and another that I listen to when I’m revising — if I’m revising, it has to be instrumental. I tend to get distracted by lyrics.

    • Leigh Bardugo
      Leigh Bardugo Sep 16 2012 at 5:28 am #

      Smart! I’ve heard Apple is coming up with some kind of competing alternative to Pandora.

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