The Age of Aquarium

dorypicThere are two types of writers: Music-Playing-In-The-Background Writers and Shaddap!-I’m-Writing! Writers.

For most of my professional career, I fell squarely into the Shaddap camp.

That’s not to say I can’t write with background noise. When I was a newspaper reporter, I was surrounded by it. I don’t think that environment prompted great writing, exactly, but I was prolific, and, once in a while, I’d come up with a story I was proud of. (I still love the articles I wrote about the nutty lady who kept pigs in her house.)

But the Shaddap writing philosophy was what I had always sought out.

Last summer, my employer moved me to a new building and, in it, a modern, glass-walled office. Working in what could be described as an aquarium would not have been my first choice – or even my 20th – but I adapted. (The installation of shades aided the adaptation process considerably.)

I even found ways to have fun in the new space; for example, I grew particularly fond of writing little witticisms on my glass door in marker:

Please do not feed the Editor. He is on a special diet of bacon and wine.

Glass, however, isn’t very good at muffling sound. And, unlike my days at the newspaper, I had difficulty tuning the noise out.

The noise I experienced in the newsroom, though loud, was always the same type of noise – a constant, dull, indistinct rumble of a half-dozen people simultaneously saying what sounded like “rhubarb” into telephones.

The noise in my new office was not constant, dull, or indistinct – so it could never quite morph into white noise. Every word I heard was crystal clear. What’s worse was that most of the words I was hearing were being uttered by teenagers:

“Ohmigod, did you hear what Cathy said to Kennedy when she saw her in the Math center?”

“Oh, my Gawd, I know!”

“She goes, she goes…”

“I know! I was, like, there! I was, like, ‘Oh, my Gawd!’”

Being distracted is one thing. Being distracted by this can cause physical pain.

So I converted. I am a Music-Playing-In-The-Background Writer!

My only challenge was figuring out a good musical fit.

The music needed to be bright and appealing, but couldn’t call too much attention to itself. So lyrics were out. I tried polka and bluegrass, but they were too toe-tappy. I discovered that Enya should not be listened to while either writing or operating heavy machinery. The Penguin Café Orchestra, a group I love, was a near miss; its songs kept me bright eyed, but prompted more humming than writing.

And then, success!

SchroederGod bless the beautifully bombastic Beethoven. I’ve always been fond of the fellow, but never more than now. His tympani and brass cancels out every trace of teen angst loitering outside of my door. What’s more, his music keeps me more alert and energized. So that’s one less cup of coffee I need every day.

Thanks to this fine composer my new office suits me just fine.

So powerful was his impact, I now play my old Beethoven LPs when I write at home. The music hasn’t improved my productivity much there, but it has made me more polite. After all, when Beethoven is on, I no longer need to shout “Shaddap! I’m writing!” to my loved ones.

Do you listen to music when you write? If so, which artist gets your creative juices flowing? (Feel free to post YouTube links in the comments.)

97 Replies to “The Age of Aquarium”

  1. This is something I do no understand. Years ago, I played music to write. Anything would do, but nothing deafening. Now I can’t stand anything. Off and on, I’ve tried Mozart, he used to work well and then I tried some light jazz. I can’t think. Maybe it has something to do with multi-tasking or my maturity (I never use the “o” word so don’t you say it either). 😀

  2. I enjoy writing to all kinds of music. It all depends on what kind of mood I’m in. Right now I am listening to Leonard Cohen. I may listen to Bowie, Annie Lennox, The Commitments, The Chieftons, The Cranberries, Amy Sky or some Irish music after that. If I am by myself I can get almost anything done with music but if He-Who is home I am all about “Shaddup!”.

      1. Oh yes! They are on my list. I have a very long list and it is very eclectic.
        Today I took your suggestion and have been listening to Beethoven since I read your post. I found a six hour YouTube has been playing while I write.
        Whether driving or writing the one CD I have that always motivates me is oddly…”A Passionate Life” by John Tesh. Now how obscure is that?

  3. I occasionally listen to music (movie soundtracks, mostly) to get in the mood to writing, but I’ve never been able to listen to music while I write. But if I did, it would have to be classical or soundtracks. Like Beethoven!

    1. Movie soundtracks are great. I can’t be too familiar with the movie, however, or I’ll be to busy imagining the scene rather than what’s on my computer screen. (In other words, pretty much anything by John Williams is out.)

  4. I prefer silence to music for writing, but I would definitely prefer music to that type of talking you were trying to drown out. I think I would have to go for the no-lyric thing like you because otherwise that’s just like having some talking going on isn’t it. Beethoven you say…

  5. I listen to music when I write, but I’m still trying to nail down what my writing method really is. I’d like to try out pure silence for a change…. I just need one more room to make into a study.

    There is a great difference between just noise, and sounds you can’t ignore. I think it has to do with how constant the sound is. When the sounds come and go in volume and subject matter, they become harder to ignore.

  6. I am a quiet writer…..since it is just me and hubby I do not get any noise from him. If he walks to my desk to say something, it is important enough for me to stop whatever I am doing, writing, paying bills, email…doesn’t matter. He gets my full attention. My annoying distraction comes from my dogs! The “going out” door is right next to my desk *groan* so when they want in or out I have to get up. No doggie doors because they are not practical where I live. Besides mine would want to bring stuff in with them! I know this because I will leave the doors open on a nice day. I almost had a squirrel in my kitchen once! They were so proud of themselves!! No squirrel dumplings THAT day though..ha ha ha!
    I have not tried classical music …..It cannot be anything with lyrics. I would get nothing done! Beethoven is great choice. Maybe I will think about that one! 🙂

      1. Unfortunately the squirrel didn’t make it 😦 By the time I found it…they had slobbered it to death! LOL! But I can tell you I have a relatively “squirrel free” zone in my back yard now. They will flit around in the trees making my guys bark A LOT!!!! But none have ventured down close enough to get caught again! Although my Yorkie almost got one dumb enough to look for an acorn next to my swing the other day. And I have GOOD dogs…thank you! (well most of the time) 🙂

  7. I not only write to music, I have playlists for certain projects.

    My Anti-Cupids playlist includes “King of Anything “(, “God’s Gift to Women” (, Tom Jones’ cover of “Kiss”, and “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy” (

    I love those characters.

    I also listen to an awful lot of Apocalyptica (heavy metal cellos) and Anne Rabson (of the Uppity Blueswomen), too, but those are for . . . different stories.

  8. I prefer silence over music when reading and writing. But, sometimes I turn on classical music, Enya, and soundtracks from movies like “Prince of Tides” and “Out of Africa” which are beautiful and not disruptive. I know what you mean about the being able to write/read when in a place where the voices sound more like a hum. But, just hearing one or two single voices impacts concentration. I like your solutions.

  9. If I’m actually doing a good job writing, I like silence. But that is rare, and when I’m putzing around with my manuscript, rearranging the words of one sentence 52 times, music is good. I have a whole playlist for it called “women for writing”. It is a shorter version of my “women” playlist which, not to be sexist about it, includes only female artists. Women for writing is female artists mostly sans lyrics…and Taylor Swift. Because I can’t do anything without some Taylor.

  10. I have listened to Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Cello suites when I need some music. It can bring me to tears if I’m in the wrong mood, though. I can also listen to blues occasionally as long as it’s instrumental only (thinking blues guitar/piano). But I usually prefer silence so that I can hear myself think. Otherwise, I tend to “listen” to music and stop thinking. But then I work in a cave that has no outside stimulation whatsoever, unless the odd person traipsing down the fire escape every 3-5 hours or so counts.

    As for you, sir, have you ever tried a white noise generator? I use one so that I can sleep at night. You can get a white noise generator app for smart phones (I use this in hotel rooms), or you can use the ones that therapists and most likely the FBI/CIA/NSA use outside their offices to mask sounds coming from within (or from without) their offices. Although Beethoven is far classier, just like you.

    1. I love Yo-Yo Ma! His classical stuff is incredible, but have your heard his “Appalachia Waltz” and “Goat Rodeo?” Fantastic!

      I used a white noise generator on my son when he was a baby — so now I associate the crashing waves and rainforest sounds with sleepless nights and poopie diapers. If I use such a machine now I’m afraid I’d experience flashbacks.

  11. It depends on the type of writing I’m doing. For casual blogging, music’s okay. But for more serious business blogging and other projects where I REALLY need to concentrate, quiet is better.

  12. I never listen to music while I write–I like it quiet–but your own conversion makes me wonder if I could ever evolve there myself. The boys are home from school today. Maybe I’ll find out sooner rather than later…

  13. When I saw the photo I thought you were going to have a blog entry on Finding Nemo. But I guess this is okay too.

    I find it almost impossible to drown out the voices of certain people, and teenage girls would certainly be on this list. It’s making my eye twitch just thinking about it.

    I almost always write with something on in the background, whether it’s the television or music. Usually it’s something loud with a good beat to it. Beethoven is lovely, one of my favorites, but I’ve never actually written to any Beethoven concertos or anything. Maybe I should try it and see what happens.

    1. Sorry to mislead you about Finding Nemo, my friend. When I decided to write about my fishbowl of an office, I couldn’t resist sticking Dory up there. Dory’s facial expression, by the way, is very similar to those worn by the “Oh, my Gawd!” girls.

      Are you writing to Rush? (The band, that is, not the Limbaugh.)

      1. Oh yes, let me clarify. I sometimes do use music with poetry writing. I separate that from what I call “fiction” writing (book, short stories). I wonder why I can handle music with poetry but not with the other kinds… !

  14. “Rhubarb” works well to describe what it sounded like hearing the indistinct babblings of people behind the glass door! Love the title also! Beethoven, he’s always been there for you.

    And, did hear you say, Feel free to post youtube in the comments? — Hahaha! Death metal, because of the indistinct growls and primal rhythmic patterns, can be surprisingly good background music — I keep it on sometimes as background music. While writing, I can also do Medieval music. I generally write with quiet but if I put music on, anything where there aren’t distracting lyrics or stark breaks in tone, or rhythm works. This is my latest favorite — enjoy:

  15. Such a good question! I used to be an absolute music-while-I-write kind of person. It was a requirement. But now… I don’t know if I’ve lost some cognitive functions or what it is but I prefer silence. If I listen to music it has to just be one song on repeat or a playlist of songs that I know by heart and no longer hear the lyrics when they play. It’s weird how something like that can change.

    1. The lyric thing was a big problem for me. I conic music was also trouble; for example, I can’t listen to the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th and write at the same time. I needed Ludwig to give me something a tad less familiar.

  16. Ha ha, I’m sure some guy somewhere did a study about whether the phrase “he goes” repeated often enough and at a certain high pitch could induce sudden writer death. I came over to let you know I nominated you for a Versatile Blogger Award and almost forgot because I was laughing so hard about this post.

    You can view the nomination at Dear Writers ( Keep up the awesome work! XO Laurel Leigh

    And btw, no music for me as I can’t help listening to it and getting distracted. But I can always write with Law and Order SVU playing in the background or on a BART train, as long as there aren’t teenagers saying “he goes.”

  17. If it’s late, I will listen to music to help me stay awake. Funny, because I should really be quiet while everyone else sleeps!

  18. Great question and I was surprised at how many people do listen to music. I prefer silence for two reasons. Firstly, I am old enough that I am experiencing frequent, What did I come out her for-itis and the only hope for me is to eliminate distractions completely. Secondly, if there is music or even conversation in the background I will start typing the background noise.

  19. Great post, Mike! Interesting question. I have never tried writing with Beethoven. Perhaps I should. It can only help 🙂 For the most part I write with whatever is going on around me, whether it’s [insert popular music group here], Mario Kart, The Big Bang Theory, Oh My Gawd conversations of the type you quoted, barking dogs, the thunkatathunkatathunktata of the washing machine (I don’t think it’s supposed to be making that noise…), or the rare moments of silence!

    1. An unbalanced washing machine has a craaaazy beat, you dig?

      You might as well try music, for I can’t imagine Oh, my Gawds, or Mario Kart or Big Bang providing all that much inspiration.

      And wait a minute — shouldn’t you be searching for new ideas in Punxsutawney right about now?

  20. I usually need background music to drown out noise, too (I also have tinnitus, so there’s no such thing as silence anymore, and it sucks).

    However, what kind of music completely depends on what I’m writing, and what mood I’m in.

    This past NaNo… I was beheading people to Christmas Carols.

  21. What’s an LP?
    Oh, sorry, I was channeling my inner teenager for a second.
    Please, please write a memoir piece where you use the description of everyone saying rhubarb into the phone.

  22. I have trained myself to write and think with classical music. Any other kind of music that I like (and I like lots of different kinds of music) distracts me too much. Maybe I don’t know enough about classical music to be distracted! However, Ode to Joy brings me to tears EVERY TIME it plays, so I try to not have that on my Pandora list. Then again, any violin playing that reaches the sweet spot will stop my writing, because suddenly my heart starts twisting and turning, like someone is in there giving it a tug (and a hug?). But generally, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, all the old masters work for my perfect background writing and reading music.

    1. I love “Ode to Joy” but it gives me chills rather than tears. For me, that’s Beethoven in a nutshell. Chills.

      The one piece of music that emotionally wallops me every time is a song by Roy Orbison. “She’s a Mystery to Me” is off his final album. Do you know it?

      1. I LOVE that song – and never heard it (even though I’m an Orbison fan). Thanks – it’s on my Pandora list. I’ll listen to it when I’m writing my love scenes (!).

  23. Loving it Mike, I’m more the ‘shaddup!’ type, but Beethoven sounds worth a try, though I think I might be more of a Mozart gal…and my knowledge and experience of classical musical is minimal to say the least. Blinds, Beethoven…oh for a warm cosy writing shed in the middle of an uninhabited forest!

  24. Quiet, please! Although lately have been enjoying writing at coffee shops. Surprised I’ve been able to tune out the noise. Fun post, Mike!

  25. As long as people aren’t speaking to me (i.e. interrupting me constantly) I find I can work well despite some noise around me at work. I’ll sometimes put my headphones on so people think I’m listening to music. (Ideal work conditions? sweet sweet quiet…)

  26. Occasionally I get tired of hearing just my own thoughts while I’m writing, and when I do, I listen to Mozart. Occasionally, I enjoy Frank Sinatra or the like.
    Great post! And I like your image choice.

    1. But ya gotta listen to your own thoughts! That’s the stuff you write down!

      I kid I kid. I know exactly what you mean. I wrote a post about how shoveling snow helps me write because it allows me to de-clutter my brain.

      Good music can sweep out the clutter, too.

  27. Working in a hotel and living with a wife, daughter, father-in-law and a dog, I’m certainly used to background noise. I used to listen to music while writing, but now the symphony of life is my soundtrack.

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