When I write, I listen to music. Specifically, I listen to the metal band Agalloch. I do not listen to any other music by any other band. Ever.
I have a playlist in iTunes called “Writing” that contains every album by Agalloch. My iPad and iPhone also contain the same albums, so that if I am writing on them I can listen to the same playlist.
(Does this meet the minimum standards of a “playlist”? The albums are just ordered alphabetically by title and the songs have not been curated — except, I suppose, by the band Agalloch.)
Why music, why metal, and why Agalloch?
Music is theorized to aid creative brain function and focus, when it does not require conscious attention and thus does not become a distraction.
Even if those theories are nonsense, I find that metal works well to erect a “wall of sound” and drown out intermittent noises. When I write in public, or even at home when I am not alone, wearing earphones also dissuades people from interrupting me.
Metal also shares many qualities with classical music in terms of its song structures, so (according to my own unproven theory) I achieve some of the supposed intellectual benefits (it's debatable) of listening to classical music (which I don’t really enjoy) while erecting this wall of sound.
The singer of Agalloch scream-grunts for the most part, so I have no idea what he is saying and I cannot sing along or become distracted by the vocals. I have listened to the same few albums by Agalloch almost every single day for years and I have no idea what any of the songs are about, although I catch a word here and there.
When Agalloch releases a new album, I buy it and add it to my playlist, but otherwise the playlist never changes and I never listen to any other music when I write.
Does this seem extreme? It is extreme. It requires no effort or thought. All the effort and thought goes into the writing.
I always start with the same song — “Limbs” — because the album it appears on happens to start with an “A” (as does Agalloch!) and so one time when I dumped all my “metal” into a giant playlist this band and song were automatically loaded at the start. By happy accident, the song begins with a high-pitched, whining drone-melody that lasts about 35 seconds.
Then the other instruments crash in and begin a slow churn. This signals my reptilian writing brain the way Pavlov would signal to his dogs that the bell meant supper.
This is my behavioural science approach to writing — and it works. When I hear Agalloch, I start writing. I don’t find myself stuck, wondering what to write. My body just begins, because I have trained it to begin when the music begins.
My Life Without Agalloch
Can I write without Agalloch? Of course. I am less focused, and more distractible. I always was, anyway: the music was a solution to this problem, so without the music I revert back to the problem. I’m no worse off if for some reason I need or want to write in a space without Agalloch.
Can I write with other music? Of course. However, since I’ve trained myself to work with Agalloch, different music becomes a distraction. I used to make playlists for each project. What a waste of time. At best, I would procrastinate. At worst, I created great playlists that distracted me to the point where I stopped writing and just started listening to music.
Do you need to write with music, or with Agalloch? Obviously not. What I recommend is nothing so narrow — the point is to create a series of simple triggers, behavioural triggers, that you can use to let your body and mind know that writing begins now.
I use three such triggers (it’s best, with this approach, to keep things simple and the elements limited):
- An alarm on my iPhone — it plays Elvis Costello’s “Every Day I Write the Book” five minutes before my scheduled writing time, to let me know that I should get ready
- Coffee, which I only drink while writing, or after writing (I start making coffee when Elvis tells me to)
- Agalloch (when I’m getting down to business)
The Final Flaw
The one drawback of the system is that I can no longer enjoy Agalloch. I’ve trained my body and mind to tune their music out.
Whenever I put on Agalloch’s music “just to listen to,” I start tuning it out automatically and begin to write. I can’t help it. I just start getting ideas for things to write, and since I always have a writing venue handy (like my phone), it’s easy to start.
I have sacrificed Agalloch on the desk-altar of the writing gods.