Music and Writing: The Genres That Inspire Me

By: Mary Anna Rodabaugh in Book Writing
on March 18th, 2019

The funk soul brother, check it out now. The funk soul brother, right about now. The lyrics repeat before a lengthy syncopation of “about now” builds in my headphones. What can I say? Fatboy Slim is one of my trusted sources for creative focus. He helps me drown out distractions like no other, and I don’t find myself singing along or contemplating the lyrics. They just glide through my brain like incoherent babble, a white noise of muse as I plunk away at my keyboard. Sweet momentum.

A flurry of movement catches my eye. I peel my eyes from my laptop to locate the moving object. Ah, some guy just got his coffee and is setting up shop at the table adjacent from mine. I take a sip of my iced coffee and dive back into my article: Furry Valentines and the Companionship They Provide. I relish the rare opportunities I get to be a journalist. This article would be published in the February issue of a local newspaper geared toward seniors.

Ever since my parents gave me my first CDs, a box set of ’50s and ’60s music, I’ve clung to the medium, allowing melodies to accompany me through nearly every task in life. I read the first four Harry Potter books while listening to Barenaked Ladies. I once wrote a four-page love poem to a college crush while listening to the Boondock Saints theme song on repeat. (It didn’t end well). I regularly meal prep and clean my house while blasting reggaeton and 2000s hip-hop. Shout out to my dance partner, The Swiffer. Throughout life, music has never let me down, especially when it comes time to focus on my writing.

Writing is my lifeblood, but sometimes the daunting blank canvas of inspiration invites my mind to mirror it. I’ll watch the cursor blink, trying to provoke me into typing down some words. Yet I come up empty. It is paralyzing. I find myself looking around for distractions. Sometimes it is my phone. Sometimes it is chores. Eventually, though, my heart and mind get reignited, and it’s always music that helps make it happen. However, much like life, not all relationships are created equal, so when it comes to cracking open my creative vaults, I call on different friends for different times:

Atmospheric Electronic: Also known as “ambient chill” music, atmospheric electronic is a soft blend of sounds pieced together in almost cinematic fashion. It is the kind of music you think of when standing on the top of a mountain, looking at a valley below. It is powerful and lyric-less, making for a great soundscape of immersion. This type of music is “big things” music. When I need to write something grand, epic, or insanely powerful, I turn to atmospheric electronic. Maybe I have a character about to make a big life change. Or maybe as a reporter, I’m about to expose a possibly controversial topic. Atmospheric electronic gives me that motivational push I need to think big. Some example artists include Bonobo, Little People, and ODESZA.

Feel-Good Acoustic Instrumental: This kind of music contains traces of ambient chill, but the drums, guitar, and riffs are very deliberate. If you’ve ever seen the show Friday Night Lights, most of those backroad Texas farmland tracks were by Explosions in the Sky. You know, those aerial shots of Dillon Texas with silos silhouetted against the sky. Feel-good acoustic is meeting-someone-for-the-first-time-and-feeling-a-spark music. It is spending-a-summer-night-on-a-porch-while-staring-at-the-stars-and-sipping-a-cold-beer kind of music. I rely on this type of music when I need my characters or subjects to express their emotions and let their guard down. I appreciate the lack of lyrics, so the music can be a driving force in the inspiration instead of the words I hear. In addition to Explosions in the Sky, you might want to try out This Will Destroy You and Sigur Rós.

Modern Piano Instrumental: Classical music is sophisticated and complex, but, in recent years, modern piano instrumental has been making its way into the mainstream. Most artists are pianists and composers. Some craft brilliant covers of well-known songs (“Pachelbel’s Canon in D,” anyone?). Others compose their own music. The first time I heard Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi’s “Experience,” I had to stop writing and feel every second of the song. I swear, my heart cracked open. I wanted to scream and bang my hand on the table in affirmation. It was (and still is) so powerful and profound, and took me right where I needed to go. I listened to the whole thing on repeat as I wrote an article about passion and purpose. I implore you to stop what you’re doing and look up Ludovico Einaudi, then take a moment to listen to David Nevue and Yiruma.

World Music: If you’ve had enough instrumental music, it is time to put some lyrics in your ears. World music is the way to go. First of all, music in other languages is both beautiful and inspiring, and does not distract you with familiarity. You can appreciate what is being sung without singing along. If you keep making the same mistakes or keep falling into the same creative pitfalls, world music might be what you need to get you going. Unchartered territory can be uncomfortable but fresh. I call upon world music when I need some unchartered territory or need to freshen up my writing. Perhaps I’m too cynical or melancholy as a first-person narrator. African beats or Swedish punk rock will pull me out of that zone. Reggae is good for relaxation and calming the mind (plus it is happy). Personally, I’m a fan of Damian Marley, Senegalese artist Baaba Maal, and DJ Rekha’s “Basement Bhangra Anthem.”

EDM: By now, you already know how much I adore Fatboy Slim. He’s helped me many times when I had to crush a twenty-five-page paper in college. Just like EDM gets your heart pumping and makes you want to party all night . . . it can have the same effect with writing if you surrender to it. EDM lets you get lost in the beats while you type or handwrite letters. Those letters turn to words and the words turn into stories. As the music builds, so does your narrative. Beyond Fatboy Slim, have a listen to Daft Punk or Deadmau5.

Motown and Classic Soul: When I need a hug from music, someone to tell me everything is going to be okay, I turn to Motown and classic soul. I know the lyrics. The tunes are familiar. But Motown and classic soul give me confidence as a writer. I call it “happy music,” and it makes my hands dance across the keyboard. I love getting a little musical TLC from Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, and Otis Redding, just to name a few. By the first few notes, I’m smiling ear to ear.

Now, these are my friends. The ones that have stayed up with me through all hours of the night during college deadlines, and the ones that have walked alongside me when poetic melancholy seeps into my bones. We have roots. But everyone’s trusted circle is a little bit different, and I expect that yours would be too. While you build that circle, though, my friends are your friends. We’re here for you.

My coffee cup is empty now, and I am completely in the zone until about two minutes into “Rockafeller Skank.” The only downfall of this epic song has arrived. At 2:04, the track speeds up so fast and loud, it sounds like a warning alarm. I swear this part tests the integrity of your headphones or speakers. Without fail, I turn down the song a few notches for fear of disturbing my neighboring comrades. I look up, but no one makes eye contact. Whew.

The song ends, and “Praise You” begins. I smile. This song always puts me in a good mood. There is something about the happy vibes it puts out. You can feel it in your bones.

Before I know it, forty-five minutes have gone by. My article is complete. I pop out my headphones and take a deep breath. Thank you, Fatboy. You’ve done it again.