Posted by: Nancy Keim Comley | May 15, 2012

You tell me, Music or Silence?

Right, it’s time for me to turn the tables. This week I want to ask other writers what they listen to while they write. It’s a subject that fascinates me.

You see, I’m dyslexic. Dyslexia is as much a part of me as being right-handed. A brief history of my schooling includes the fact that grades three through five were spent in special ed classes. After that I was mainstreamed. High school followed elementary school, then college and even graduate school to earn a master’s degree in folklore. For the most part my teachers were wonderful and willing to give me extra time and work. I still have what could charitably be termed adventures in spelling and grammar and my handwriting is, frankly, atrocious. Still, unless they see my handwriting, I assume other people can’t tell I have a learning difference.

Except for sound.

I don’t mean that I make any particular sounds, there is no distinctive dyslexic hoot. However, if I am in a room filled with voices, I have great trouble concentrating. If I’m not careful my ear will flit from conversation to conversation, hearing everything except what is actually being said to me. The only way to counteract this, I’ve learned, is to stare fixedly at the person with whom I am speaking. This  helps me to block out the other voices. I have also learned to tell people the reason. For several years I couldn’t figure out why in some social situations people would slowly back away from me. Then a friend pointed out my habit of staring at people in the manner of a potential serial killer.

If I need to read something more complicated than a comic strip and the room is noisy, I cover my ears. My family and friends are used to this; it’s just my way of coping.

So you can understand that while I love music, for the most part, it is a separate past time. Unless I’m doing something I don’t have to concentrate on, like washing dishes or cleaning, combining listening to music while I’m doing tasks can result in chaos.

Earlier this year I took part in a class over at LitReactor. The students chatted off topic sometimes and one question posed was “What do you listen to when writing?” Since my answer is ‘silence,’ I read the other students answers with an interest bordering on the indecent. I found myself asking, can people really can have entire playlists for certain projects? I remembered an acknowledgement I had once read by Douglas Adams. In it he mentioned listening to Paul Simon’s album “One Trick Pony” while writing a book.

So I put it to the readers of this blog, do you listen to music while writing? Does it really help you? How?


  1. I certainly do listen to music while writing. I never thought I would be able to; my attention is too easily kidnapped if I can hear a tune. It blitzes out everything else. But then I realised one day that I could harness it, to help me dwell on a mood or an emotion that I might be in danger of losing to the general chatter in my head. From then, I started making playlists for my books.
    I then discovered so many other people who do the same – and in fact I now host a regular feature on one of my blogs called The Undercover Soundtrack, where writers take me through the music that has helped them write their books. Nancy, do drop me a line if you’d like to guest (FYI the URL is here – )


    • I love your blog! I’ll have to read it more carefully, perhaps someday I’ll find a playlist that won’t distract me.


  2. Generally silence, or ambient sounds at most, for me. As a musician, I usually get distracted by music if it’s on while I am trying to write. Today, however, as it happens, I needed to be immersed in my thinking so I put on some Mozart piano concertos to help grease the wheels. I wouldn’t be able to use jazz or rock for this — for one thing, no voices! And for another, no drums, no emphatic beat. I’m a drummer and therefore love the beat, so if there’s anything too definite going on I get distracted. Something about Mozart, however, works well for idea flow.


    • Mozart works for most everything!


  3. I prefer to have music in the background, but I’m very picky:

    – Has to be instrumental (no vocals whatsoever)
    – Can’t be classical (not sure why)
    – Ambient music is okay but can’t have too many distracting non-music sounds
    – Not too jazzy

    So what I end up with is a blend of new age/ambient music — things like David Arkenstone, Ray Lynch, Mannheim Steamroller, Cusco, Deuter, etc. Though it does have some Irish and Andean folk music in it as well. Oh, and movie soundtracks: Lord of the Rings, the Pirates of the Caribbean films, the Narnia films, and such.

    And I’m constantly tweaking it, adding new tracks and deleting ones that are too distracting (sometimes I throw an entire album into the mix, only to find that it has a track with vocals or train sounds or whatever).


    • I’m beginning to feel an ongoing theme here, voices. I wonder if that is the key? I can honestly say I have never tried listening to only instrumental music.


      • Voices (lyrics) imply a story of some kind (unless it’s a choral work) — and we’re trying to write our own stories… so it is distracting to listen to someone else’s.


      • Yes–I find that if I try to listen to vocal music when I write, words from the songs creep into my writing. Or I just stop writing altogether so I can sing along!


  4. Wow, I’m similar in that if there is more talking going on around me whether its TV or people or radio, my ears can’t help but pick up them rather than on the conversation I’m having. It is very distracting and frustrating, which is partially why I prefer not to have the TV on when I have people over. I have thought that it was because I had sensitive hearing…. For my writing, sometimes I write in silence, just because the kids are napping and I don’t think to put some music on. If I do listen to something it has be wordless. I prefer listening to soundtracks like Pirates of Caribbean or Lord of the Rings…It can’t be classical for me because the music doesn’t seem to be going anywhere whereas with a soundtrack I connect the music to feelings to the movie. Of course there are always exceptions…but usually its because I can connect it to something or I’m familiar with it. Thanks for posting!


  5. I listen to music while I draw or paint, not when I write. Somehow, it is way too distracting. Once in a while I can listen to instrumental music on low volume-no voices.


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