How I Find Inspirational Music to Write By

GUYS, A Darkness Strange and Lovely hits stores tomorrow! I am…just…wow. Excited.

Anyway, last week, a question about music arrived in my inbox, and I thought would be fun to answer here. We discuss music pretty often on Pub(lishing) Crawl–plus, I know I share music a lot on my personal blog, as do a lot of the girls in Pub Crawl. And we’ve discussed in QOTM form WHERE we get our music, but that doesn’t quite answer this girl’s question, which has more to do with the “how” of music discovery.

I just LOVE the musical posts you do, and I uber-loved the playlist for A Darkness Strange and Lovely that’s up on the publisher’s site. Where do you find all this great music?

Music plays an incredibly, incredibly important part in my writing process (as it does for many writers). In fact, as I describe below, there’s often ONE PIVOTAL PIECE that will inspire an entire story. Lots of other songs will then go into the shaping and crafting of that story, but the initial spark and drive are all thanks to a single, usually orchestral musical composition.

In fact, here are a few songs and then the WIPs (works in progress) that sprang forth from those pieces.

Something Strange & Deadly version 2.0 was inspired by this piece of music from Alice in Wonderland. I BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW THAT. I’m not sure I’ve ever shared it online…

But yeah, I had just seen the newest Alice in Wonderland movie, which I did not enjoy at all…but whose music, I adored. At this point, I had written a bad first draft of SS&D, but I knew it was bad…and I knew I wanted it to be better. Then I heard this piece of music and imagined Eleanor sitting at a train station when the Dead arrive. Then, as if a movie was playing out before my eyes, I saw Eleanor being thrust into a world of corpses and ghosts from which she wasn’t sure “how to find her way.”

And so, the version of Something Strange and Deadly that you all know was born. 🙂

My never-ending WIP Screechers was sparked by “City of Rome” from the Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood soundtrack…

Like with SS&D, this was version 2.0 after I’d written a first draft that I knew was all wrong. I wanted to show a big, sweeping world, and I wanted there to be more depth to the culture, to the people’s lives, to the monsters, and to everything else. With this music, I could suddenly imagine a new opening scene (in a totally new world with a totally new main character) that felt RIGHT.

This music by Hans Zimmer led to version 4.0 of A Dawn Most Wicked.

Up until I heard this music, I’d been writing crap and not feeling super moved by any particular song on my playlist. In my constant scan for new music, I stumbled across “Zooster’s Breakout” from (of all things) the Madagascar soundtrack. And BAM! Suddenly a bustling New Orleans port appeared in my mind, with Daniel, pushing his way through a dense crowd and being towed along by some headstrong, brown-haired girl.

My most recent WIP Truthwitch was set off entirely by “El Dorado” by Two Steps from Hell.

I could vividly see two best friends getting into some WILD shenanigans that would come back to bite them in the butt. I saw pirates and sword fights and magic! All in this one piece of music.

It was, actually, as I fell into “El Dorado” that I finally started to really understand how vastly important music really is to my process. I realized that I need that One Song to get the ball rolling. For Truthwitch, “El Dorado” was that song and I had it from the moment I even started to brainstorm…and for the first time EVER–seriously, ever—version 1.0 was actually good. I actually managed to get a first draft RIGHT without any rewriting or major revising.

And that was how I realized that I have to have The One Song to write a book. There must always be at least one piece of music that sets off all my ideas—it’s like the match needed to ignite the dynamite. Once I hear The One Song, I see—and more importantly feel—how the story opens…and then everything falls into place from there.

Obviously, there’s more than just The One Song needed to produce a book. There’s a metric crap ton of daydreaming and brainstorming and then the actual writing. But it’s always this perfect storm of things: a thousand ideas swirling around, the right character surfacing within those ideas…and then The One Song. With that combination, the story just bursts from my heart and I simply have to get it onto the page as quickly and coherently as possible.

So clearly, I spend a lot of time searching the Internet for new music—trying to find The Song that moves me. Where do I search? How do I search?

First off, I got Spotify last fall. It’s free and amazing and I don’t know how I ever lived without it.

Moving on. In general, I listen to three kinds of music:

  1. Movie scores
  2. Video game scores
  3. Epic music/trailer music

I find that people often forget about video game scores, but when you consider the fact that even huge names like Hans Zimmer or Danny Elfman compose for video games, then you might realize how much you’re missing. I highly suggest simply googling “Best Video Game Soundtracks” because you’ll get a LOT.

Also, try out video game soundtracks by Jesper Kyd (all the Assassin’s Creed, Hitman, and others), Lorne Balfe (I love Skylanders), or Inon Zur (Fallout 3 is brilliant, as is Dragonage).

Also, because epic music is starting to get “cool” and super popular, you can find it pretty easily. Spotify has a TON of albums from groups like E.S. Posthumous, Audiomachine, Two Steps from Hell, or Fired Earth.

And of course, we can’t forget film and movie scores. Beyond the greats (e.g. Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, Harry Gregson-Williams, John Powell, etc.), you’ve got a ton of “lesser known” composers (though they’re definitely getting some love these days!). Ramin Djawadi (Fright Nightcomposer, Game of Thrones, and now Pacific Rim) is one of my favorites, along with Ilan Eshkeri (Stardust), Bear McCreary (Battlestar Gallactica), Michael Giacchino (Star Trek, John Carter), or Trevor Morris (The Tudors, The Pillars of the Earth).

Basically, I start my search for new music (a search that happens at least once every two weeks) by googling all my favorite names from above. If those guys don’t have something new (they usually don’t), I start browsing through what Spotify recommends. For each artist, Spotify (or iTunes or Amazon) will offer suggestions of “similar artists” or “listeners also bought.”

I might spend hours just moving through video game soundtrack after movie score after epic music mix. I usually sample a song, and if I like it enough, I add it to a big playlist (ah, the beauty of Spotify–no money wasted). Then, while I work, I listen to that playlist. If a certain song pops out at me while I’m working, I add it to a more permanent playlist. If the song doesn’t even register on my brain as I work, then I delete it.

In fact, I was listening to all of the non-public Two Steps from Hell albums (they have them available on YouTube), and as I worked without paying much attention, this one piece just EXPLODED into my brain. I listened to it over and over and over…

It kind of kills me that I can’t buy this song or listen to it on Spotify. But YouTube will suffice. 😉 Ughgggasdfsdfssd,, I just LOVE it—especially from the 0:58 point on.

And no, in case you’re wondering, I don’t have a story to go with “Magika.” Yet. But it’s definitely the kind of music that will help drive a specific scene (something climactic, I think, where the hero finally makes it through all the epic awful).

You tell me: How/where do you find new music? Or do you even listen to music when you create?


39 Responses to How I Find Inspirational Music to Write By

  1. Jen Jul 22 2013 at 7:30 am #

    I used to be addicted to video game soundtracks. Especially Final Fantasy ones. I guess I was addicted to those games in general though.

    I”m doing a little excited for your the book tomorrow. I pre-ordered it!

    • Susan Dennard Jul 22 2013 at 7:53 am #

      Yes! FF has great ones–especially when you can find orchestral versions. Same for the Zelda games.

      AND YAY! Thank you so much for preordering!! <3 <3

  2. Amelia Loken Jul 22 2013 at 8:43 am #

    This was an awesome post! I rarely comment, but I too use movie and video game soundtracks as I’m writing. It started with my beloved Narnia CD, then when it got too scratched, I found Pandora radio online opened my first channel “Epic Soundtracks” and discovered a whole world of amazing music!!!

    Right now, I’m really into the “How to Train Your Dragon” soundtrack. Its really influencing my current WIP. I love Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer! But I’d never heard of “Two Steps From Hell”. Just listened to a couple of songs and am hooked!

    Thanks sooooo much for sharing. Have to tell you. I am NOT into zombies. Really don’t like the genre, but after reading so many posts by you or others (across the online universe) praising your series, I had to check out “Something Strange and Deadly” from my local library. I admit I skimmed over some of the living dead scenes, but I loved Daniel and the story hooked me. I’m still debating whether I want to read the next few (because I REALLY don’t like zombies) I am tempted to go ahead and open the next and the next…just because the story of the living was so good.

    Best of luck with the new release! And thanks for the recs!!!

    • Susan Dennard Jul 22 2013 at 10:03 am #

      YESSSS–How to Train Your Dragon was totally blasting when I wrote Something Strange and Deadly. “Forbidden Friendship” remains one of my all time favorite pieces, and it may or may NOT have been playing when I wrote a certain romance scene in a certain sequel…

      And yay! I’m glad you could handle SS&D–even if it required a bit of skimming past the corpses. There aren’t as many walking dead in book 2–not like in book 1–so I hope you give it a chance. 🙂

      Also: Two Steps from Hell–prepare to be obsessed.

  3. Amelia Loken Jul 22 2013 at 9:22 am #

    Gee, I realized that may have sounded like a back-handed compliment and I totally didn’t mean that!!!

    I just meant that your writing and storytelling was so good, that I was able to ‘overlook’ the walking dead and read the entire book. No other zombie book has done that for me before. So, what I meant to say was, “Good Job.” Or to misquote Agrippa “Thou almost persuadeth me to become a Zombie-fan!” 🙂

  4. Michelle Roberts Jul 22 2013 at 10:17 am #

    I love, love, love soundtracks for writing. I’m constantly looking for new ones. I don’t usually make a new playlist for each project; I just have a giant “Writing” playlist in itunes. My go-to soundtracks are LOTR (obviously, ’cause I write epic fantasy), Prince of Persia, Game of Thrones, and Thor. I really want the Skyrim soundtrack, but don’t have the money right now.

    And now I’m drooling over Assassin’s Creed soundtracks. It’s perfect for my new project!

    • Susan Dennard Jul 22 2013 at 1:33 pm #

      YES!! Prince of Persia was on REPEAT when I wrote the third SS&D book! And I *just* discovered the Skyrim soundtrack (I love Bethesda games, so that’s what led me to it)–pretty epic as far as I can tell so far.

      Oh, and if you like Prince of Persia, you might like The Mummy & The Mummy 2–I binge listen to those 3 together. 😉

  5. Annie Jul 22 2013 at 1:37 pm #

    I wasn’t a huge fan of the movie Alice In Wonderland either (though I loved the cinematography!) but I agree, the soundtrack was amazing. I remember being obsessed with the song Alice for months after I had seen the movie. It is still one of my favourite Avril Lavigne songs.

    I’m not sure if you’re a gamer (I’m definitely not) but since we’re talking aobut Assasin’s Creed, I thought I’d share this: My friend showed it to me and I thought it was absolutely hilarious. I love all the Literal videos he does!

    • Susan Dennard Jul 23 2013 at 9:46 am #

      “Walk in slow-motion so you still look awesome!” Hahahaha. Love that.

  6. Annie Jul 22 2013 at 2:15 pm #

    You should check out Steve Jablonski (The Island, Transformers). Even though he usually works with Michael Bay he’s absolutely AMAZING. I just discovered Ramin Djawadi with Pacific Rim and love that score. I can’t wait to check out some of the lesser composers you mentioned.

    I have to be careful with movie scores, though. Because if the movie makes a strong emotional impact than the essence of that movie is so written into the music I can’t translate it into my own story. Like Inception is soooo Inception it doesn’t really bend itself well to other stories. I have to find music that is really good from movies that are just ok – like the music from Book of Eli is really distinct and as technically good as that film wasn’t it didn’t imprint itself emotionally enough that when I hear the music I feel the movie.

    • Susan Dennard Jul 23 2013 at 9:51 am #

      Yes! Steve Jablonksi is on one of WIPs (Screechers) list! I really liked the first Transformers (Scorponok–WHAT?! And Optimus vs. Megatron–whoa).

      But I totally agree with you on movie scores. If their TOO iconic, I can’t listen and write. The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars movie scores are like that for me…

    • Cailtin Vanasse Jul 23 2013 at 11:36 pm #

      I don’t write fiction but I’m with you on really iconic soundtracks evoking the film. When I listen to the Social Network soundtrack I can see pieces of the film.

  7. Kyra-Lee Jul 22 2013 at 4:41 pm #

    A great way to listen to music on YouTube and not have to worry about having to click the replay button is to replace “youtube” with “listenonrepeat” before the “.com” to watch it on repeat. Here is an example:

    YouTube version:
    Would turn into:

    I have listened to so many songs on YouTube and I get terribly worn out with having to click the replay button every three to six minutes (depending on who I’m listening too), so a friend showed this and I have never regretted it since. I can get so much writing done, too!

    • Susan Dennard Jul 23 2013 at 8:31 pm #

      NICE TRICK. Whoa. Whoa. This has changed my life, Kyra-Lee. I’m not even exaggerating–this is AWESOME.

  8. Rowenna Jul 22 2013 at 5:06 pm #

    I love film scores–I think Last of the Mohicans might be my favorite, and it’s super to write by. Especially writing action scenes!

    I also listen to a lot of orchestral music, and though I know classical sounds almost too dorky even for writers…there’s some awesome stuff to write by! Less Mozart and Beethoven, more Thomas Tallis and Ralph Vaughn Williams for me, though–I created Pandora stations around those two composers and it’s my go-to writing music. If you like film scores, give 2oth century composers like Vaughn Williams, Holst, and Satie a try!

    • Susan Dennard Jul 23 2013 at 9:56 am #

      I have to say, most of my classical music is in the opera realm (I’m a Rossini & Mozart nut), and other than Gerswhin, I really know NO 20th century composers. I will TOTALLY look those names up! Thanks! 😀

  9. Kim Jul 22 2013 at 9:13 pm #

    I loved this post. It’s so interesting to see what music inspired Something Strange & Deadly and A Dawn Most Wicked. I find most of my new music through Pandora. It’s easy. You make a station based on a few songs you like and then it’ll show you similar music.

    • Susan Dennard Jul 23 2013 at 9:57 am #

      Yes! I use Pandora too–though my husband uses it more (we have a Spotify vs. Pandora wars all the time since Spotify also has the radio thing). 😀

  10. Diyana Jul 23 2013 at 11:27 am #

    OMG Sooz! First off, I have to thank you for sharing TSFH’s El Dorado. I listened to it, bought it, and have had it on repeat while my head EXPLODED and my fingers practically flew over the keyboard! Thanks to you (and thank heavens for TSFH!) I got more than 2.5k down today 😀 I usually aim to get at least 500 words a day, so I’d say it’s been a *very* good day 😀

    I love, love, love soundtracks and classical orchestral music for brainstorming. My current WIP was initially inspired by Stravinsky’s Firebird, but I had been wrestling with the beginning for a very long time. El Dorado just inspired that, maybe because my WIP involves two besties and wild shenanigans too? (Can I just say, YAY for BFFs and Shenanigans!!)

    And since it’s partially set in an alternate Venice, I am drooling over the Assassin’s Creed’s OST. Sigh, I feel my wallet getting slimmer.

    p/s: Have you heard the Infamous (game) OST? And the Perfume: Story of a Murderer (movie) OST? Also, I second Rowenna’s suggestion of Erik Satie. His Gymnopedies 1 is phenomenal 🙂

    • Susan Dennard Jul 23 2013 at 8:33 pm #

      DUDE, so many recs here–I am in HEAVEN. Thank you, thank you!! And YESSSSS, El Dorado is intense and wonderful and I TOTALLY understand how the words can just explode to that piece.

      You should also try “To Glory” by Two Steps form Hell. Once you get past the kinda silly guitar at the beginning, it’s INSANELY AMAZING.

  11. Marie Lu Jul 23 2013 at 3:38 pm #

    YES to everything in this post. Scores FTW! (On the subject of movies I didn’t like but had soundtracks I loved: Lady In The Water. The movie was such a clusterf*ck, but holy shit, “The Healing” on the soundtrack. I was IN TEARS. James Newton Howard, I just….can’t.)

    • Susan Dennard Jul 23 2013 at 8:35 pm #

      Oooh, Lady in the Water–I’ll definitely look that up. Also, you liking that despite the film is kinda like how I really love James Newton’ Howard’s Last Airbender soundtrack–though I refuse to see that film just on principle alone.

  12. Tim Jul 23 2013 at 3:38 pm #

    I’ve realized how important music is to my writing in the last few months. I can’t listen to music while I write, but whole scenes, character arcs and motivations are set to their own tune. Now I get bored when I listen to music that doesn’t summon a scene into my head.

    I’m going to share a few songs that acts almost as a soundtrack to my scenes. Since, you know, we writers have a show off just waiting to come out 😛

    One song is Nina Simone’s “Here comes the son”. It’s the scene where the first of two villains are killed.

    Another one is Jonny Cash’s going by the book. It perfectly summons the sense of impending calamity and destruction that will happen when the main character and the last villain meet. The final one covers the sense of determination that both the main character and the final villain have to take revenge, or in the MC’s case, hopefully, retribution. It’s called God’s gonna cut you down by Johnny Cash.

    You should watch an anime called “Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood”. It has a great soundtrack and I learned so much about writing from it.

    • Susan Dennard Jul 23 2013 at 8:39 pm #

      I’ve heard/seen great things about Fullmetal Alchemist, so I definitely want to look that up (and also the soundtrack). Thanks for all the other awesome recs too!! This is exactly what I want–my post turned out to be awesome for discovering new music too! 😀

  13. stephanie garber Jul 23 2013 at 4:05 pm #

    I’m so glad you wrote this post! I’ve been looking for new music. I use music a lot when I write, I feel like it makes the words flow so much easier. I am so thankful for spotify! Great post! And congrats on your book release today!

    • Susan Dennard Jul 23 2013 at 8:40 pm #

      Thanks, Stephanie!! 😀 I hope you like the music here, and YESSSS. I can’t live without spotify these days…

  14. Alexa Y. Jul 23 2013 at 11:16 pm #

    I hope you know that I had to listen to the Alice in Wonderland song REPEATEDLY while envisioning scenes from Something Strange and Deadly. It’s just SO PERFECT. You captured the tone and feel of the song into your story, and I love that! In fact, I love that your process includes finding that “one song”, as each of these ones that you’ve mentioned above sound particularly epic (and make me all sorts of excited for the ones for WIPs).

  15. Cailtin Vanasse Jul 23 2013 at 11:45 pm #

    Two suggestions:

    1) Have you heard the Journey soundtrack? My BFF swears by it. Link: (something less epic and a bit more meandering, the soundtrack to the Unfinished swan never repeats in the game allegedly:

    2) Have you tried Songza? It’s a curated playlist website so more for finding new things than listening to what you’ve already found to be good but I’ve really loved some of their playlists and they have a “concierge” with themed playlist suggestions based on the day of the week and time of day.

  16. Rebecca Jul 24 2013 at 3:06 pm #

    Love this post! I also love how you mentioned video game scores – some games have amazing soundtracks and I feel like they get overlooked sometimes. Jesper Kyd is one of my favorites (especially the Assassin’s Creed soundtracks – they’re just so epic).

    I too listened to the Alice in Wonderland song and could totally see the opening scene from Something Strange and Deadly…it fit perfectly. I can’t wait to read A Darkness Strange and Lovely!

  17. Ellie Jul 25 2013 at 12:01 am #

    I LOVE to listen to scores when writing! One of my favorites is the 2003 Peter Pan one by James Newton Howard. So gorgeous. Oh, and the Legend of Korra soundtrack, which just came out. I’ve been listening to that nonstop. Avatar: The Last Airbender and Korra are two of the best scored tv shows ever. Hopefully an ATLA soundtrack will be released one day. I can’t believe I never thought to try video game music! I just listened to City of Rome and loved it.

  18. Meredith Blake Jul 26 2013 at 1:16 am #

    Great post! I find myself listening to this type of music a lot of late. Another great composer is Jeremy Soule who composes for the Elder Scrolls series. My favourites are Morrowind and Skyrim <3 And this post of yours has given me much more to listen to 🙂

  19. Alyssa Jul 26 2013 at 2:40 pm #

    I adore this post! I used to listen almost exclusively to instrumental tracks while writing, but now I listen to a little bit of everything, just whatever inspires me. I have a playlist for my WIP over at Spotify, and I tend to listen to those songs on repeat while writing it. It helps me jump right into the atmosphere of my story.

    I’m in love with Two Steps from Hell. I listen to them all the time, not just while writing. The Fable soundtracks by Russell Shaw contain some of my all-time favorite tracks, and I also love everything Danny Elfman has ever done.

  20. Regency Jul 26 2013 at 9:57 pm #

    This post is my writing manifesto. I live and die by my writing soundtrack. I love instrumental music. I think people take it for granted, because we’re so used to using lyrics to convey meaning, but I just love it when a composer manages to do the same thing without a single word. You’ve name-checked some of my faves up there with the exception of John Williams , Globus/the Immediate, and Jerry Goldsmith. Every one of them has The One Song that I could write a novel about and every time I hear it, I get so inspired. I’ve got a Spotify playlist for that, too, and it really helps. My anthems for the moment include Bear McCreary’s “Something Dark Is Coming,” John Williams’s “In the House in a Heartbeat;” and most of E.S. Posthumus’s discography. I also have a weakness for tango and classical. I can’t ever decide if I wanna dance to it or write to it.

  21. Lauren Jul 29 2013 at 7:23 am #

    Congrats on the new release!!

    In college, I used to do homework with movie/video game scores playing in the background. So I definitely get how that’s inspiring to write to. (It also sometimes made me want to SAVE THE WORLD.)

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  25. Ember Jul 26 2015 at 2:44 pm #

    I know that this is around two years late, but I was wondering, where should the piece that has inspired your whole book be placed in the playlist? I was thinking the climax, but just making sure. Thanks!

  26. Hannah Dec 4 2015 at 3:00 pm #

    One of my favorite movie soundtracks to listen to is the soundtrack from Spirit: the cimmaron stallion. These songs are soooo moving and heartfelt that I get loads of inspiration. 🙂

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