A key character in a story I was struggling with was a woman with a broken heart. She’d been cheated on by the man she had married, but continued to love him even after he went to prison for attempted murder. By the time I met her, she’d been living on her own for 20 years but still spoke with her incarcerated husband every day, determined to believe in his innocence. The piece was really focused on science — a controversial forensic technique — but I wanted the woman’s devotion to provide an emotional frame. Her love and sorrow were marrow for the technical explanations and historical context that formed the bones of the piece.

So I sought help from an unassailable source: Bonnie Raitt.

In all my years as a science journalist, I had never listened to music while writing. Work was something I did in the cocooned silence of my Brooklyn home. Which wasn’t all that quiet, given that I live on a truck route, catty-corner from a hospital, and across the street from a playground that is circled by ice cream trucks in the warmer months. Still, it felt noiseless at my desk, the sound of my typing interrupted only by the crunch of my procrastination snacks.

…it rocked my world. Soon it would classical and ambient it, too.

But a few weeks ago, I was with a group of journalists who were talking about listening to music while they work. They compared notes about matching music to the mood of what they were writing; one said she preferred Mozart for certain pieces and Beethoven for others.  “You can do that?” I thought.

The moment was a tiny one during a weeklong workshop dedicated to storytelling skills. It wasn’t part of the course curriculum and probably popped up by accident. But it rocked my world. Soon it would classical and ambient it, too.

 

I didn’t have to wait long to test out this crazy idea. A few days after the workshop, an editor finally got back to me with notes on the first draft of another assignment I was juggling. As I sat at my desk bracing myself for the rewrite, my eyes glanced at my phone, which lay nearby. Hmm. Should I try it?

I plugged in my earbuds, opened iTunes and scrolled down to the L’s. Ludovico Einaudi, a pianist and composer I’d first heard on a flight to New Zealand, seemed the perfect place to start. His melodic pieces are gentle enough to not overwhelm, yet vibrant and driving in a way that I thought might propel me through a rewrite. It did. That’s not to say magic happened; the revision still arrived one word at a time. But it was like walking on grass after a lifetime of traveling barefoot on concrete. Writing was still work, but didn’t feel as hard. And I wasn’t alone. Einaudi was there to help.

They compared notes about matching music to the mood of what they were writing.

Intrigued, I did a bit of research. It turns out that listening to music while writing is extremely common. I found an old Reddit thread filled with comments by avid listen-while-writing people recommending their favorite accompaniments. One person liked the “Pan’s Labyrinth” soundtrack. Another recommended noisli, which allows listeners to create their ideal blend of outdoor sounds — a crackling fire, chirping birds, a thunderstorm. In a timely interview, a science journalist mentioned she would be listening to Fela while she wrote a piece on Nigeria. Someone even posted a 563-song Spotify playlist created specifically for writing.

Science itself bolsters the case for turning up the speakers while working. A group of researchers in Taiwan found that background music improved concentration among a group of 89 workers — as long as they liked what they were hearing. And a host of studies confirm that music therapy ameliorates depression and anxiety. There’s also the idea of music as a distraction akin to going underwater, which prolific Japanese inventor Yoshiro Nakamatsu, aka Dr. NakaMats, says helps him find new ideas.

Tuning into a song might be the perfect way to solve a problem in the narrative structure or find that elusive verb. As I began to consider the songs and symphonies that might accompany me along my way through a story, the prospect of forming sentences and paragraphs was transformed from daunting to exciting.

And when I created a playlist to help me write about the betrayed-but-loyal wife, I could see layers in her story that I had not spotted before.

I can’t make you love me if you don’t.
You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t.

Bonnie Raitt’s ballad grounded me in empathy as I tackled the cold, hard facts of forensic science and applicable law. I felt I could understand this broken-hearted woman a bit more, and how she gave personal meaning to the bigger debate. Other songs I tried not only soothed me through a difficult assignment, but also maintained a thread of connection to a lonely person who had entrusted me with her story.

 

Music doesn’t always work for me. There are moments when I just need to stare at the screen in silence and force the words out. Sometimes my brain can’t handle the simultaneous presence of complex science and string quartets. And sometimes composers do weird things, taking a sudden dissonant divergence after minutes of calming stanzas. In other words, their narratives don’t always jibe with mine.

But these are small concerns. Discovering the power of listening to music while writing also has meant discovering music to listen to while writing. There are the luscious tones of Zoe Keating. The tidy, careful piano of Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports.” There is “Drive to the Field,” from James Newton Howard’s soundtrack to “Michael Clayton,” Hans Zimmer’s stirring “Time” from the “Inception” soundtrack, and Arvo Pärts’ “Spigel im Spiegel,” which is like a lullaby for grownups.

As my story of the woman and her husband and their tangled case worked its way to a final draft, it became less emotional. It works better that way — a good editor is still more important than a good soundtrack. (My piece is slated for the April print edition of Wired magazine, and will be online in March.) But now the playlist reminds me of a hard-won assignment, the privilege of telling someone’s story, and the brief stretch of time when I stayed up all night to do so. Or to let Bonnie Raitt say it:

Here in the dark, in these final hours,
I will lay down my heart and I’ll feel the power.

 

 

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