I Can’t Write with Surround Sound

If you’re a parent, I’ll bet you can’t count the number of times you’ve told your youngsters to turn off the television, or the computer, or the iPod, and do their homework. And they’ve likely responded with a withering, “I am doing my homework.” Despite our skepticism, if the assignments are completed we don’t argue too strenuously.

There’s an ongoing conversation among writers about the value of music versus silence for effective writing. I’m sure you have an opinion. So does New York Times Bestselling novelist A.J. Hartley. In his post, “The Writer as Multi-tasker” on the Magical Words blog, he advocates silence.

“The short version,” he says, “is that decent productivity and multitasking don’t go together… Turn the music off… Turn the e-mail alerts off… Do one thing at once… Stay on task… You can work with music on? Good for you. Imagine how much more you’ll get done and how much better your work will be when you turn it off…  Writing is about you and the words. Everything else is distraction.”

In commenting on the post Daniel R. Davis says, “Oh, believe me, I can’t listen to music with lyrics at all while writing or trying to focus on anything else. I’m too much of a showboating singer not to sing along, which is incredibly distracting.  So I can relate as far as that goes. However, I’ve found that good, low volume instrumental music through headphones has the same effect on me as a music score in a film does, staying at that subconscious level where it evokes emotion without becoming distracting and that emotion helps to drive the scene forward.”

Personally, most of my writing is done in silence. I’m not able to concentrate in a coffee shop full of people or with music playing in the background unless it’s an instrumental classic played so quietly I’m not consciously aware of it. And if I’m not aware of it I can’t see the point of having it on at all.

So, what’s your opinion? Do you need sound or silence while writing? And if sound, what kind?


Published by Carol

A freelance writer of fiction and non-fiction living on the West Coast of Canada.

19 thoughts on “I Can’t Write with Surround Sound

  1. Usually I write without music (I can’t say “in silence”, because my house is rarely actually silent… but I tune out all that other stuff). Sometimes, though, I like mood music — stuff that “evokes emotion without becoming distracting”. Lately I’ve had the soundtrack to one of the Harry Potter movies playing on iTunes as I work — beautiful instrumental songs. 🙂

  2. I’ve been known to write while the TV is on. I’m not a bit TV watcher, but I’m not the only one in the house. I’m able to tune it out, though. I think that comes from having three kids at home and trying to write. Mother’s learn this skill. It’s do or die. lol! Although certain music puts me in the mood to write I’ve never tried writing with music playing. Now THAT I think would be distracting.

  3. I need silence–I am amazed at others who can write in Starbucks or some such place. I would be so distracted—watching all the people–unable to concentrate. Life is too interesting to me to be able to shut it off and write if it is all around me.

  4. Friend-husband has the TV on most of the time while I’m writing. But I’m two rooms away, and while I can’t close a door between us (no door), I can tune out the background noise. It’s much better, however, when the house is quiet. When he’s out of the house, I can turn off the TV.

    When my children were home, I waited to try to write til everyone was in bed and asleep. I got a lot done between 11:00 pm and 3:00 am. Good thing I’m a night owl.

  5. Oddly enough, when I write at home I need total silence, but I much prefer packing up and heading to my local coffee shop or the library to write. Perhaps it has less to do with the noise and bustle and more to do with justifying the expense of a Black Thai Latte from Caribou Coffee, but I get a lot more work done away from home.

  6. I work all the time with the music on — writing blog posts, editing freelancer stories, doing research. However, when I work on my fiction or creative non-fiction, the radio goes off. I find it distracting. But with all the other elements of my work, I find it strangely soothing. 🙂

  7. I write better with silence, and best with a preceding period of silence as well. I agree that a low-volume, peaceful instrumental playing in the background would not disturb me, but like you, I would turn it off if I had the choice. If I must write with distracting noise, once I establish concentration, the noise recedes into the background, and I am able.

    A man, who lived next to a high-traffic system of highways, was asked how he could live happily while constantly hearing the loud noise. His answer was: What noise?

    It is also amazing how God uses your blog post to give me His message. If I am going to finish my novel, I will have do it the hard way, by overcoming distractions. He has made it possible for me by providing a second computer and a gift subscription to Netflix. Now I can play National Geographic documentaries for my hubby while I tend to my blog. This will also provide time when I can revise my novel. Thank you for sharing such a great post! Blessings to you, Carol…

  8. Carol, I don’t turn the radio on until after prayer and devotions. However, when it’s time to write, I love jazz. I like background music. I also have a favorite Christian contemporary station I listen to.
    So bring on the music girlfriend and let’s write.

  9. I tend to write better in quiet it helps me to listen to what is written and how it is written better. Concentration and focus is key before pushing the publish button.

  10. I love silence, but I have to admit that certain scenes come better with the right mood, and the right mood occasionally happens through the right music. Not as often anymore, but tough times call for tough measures. Also, my house can be a noisy place and so I’ve learned to tune things out. I started writing at night when the boys would be in bed, but then it got so I wrote every chance I got. That meant while supper was cooking or during hockey games or Saturday morning wrestling. I think back to how noisy our house was and I’m amazed I ever finished my first book. Come to think of it, it did take 7 years. LOL. The first draft of my 2nd book took 4 months.

  11. It’s great to read everyone’s responses. Like Laura, on rare occasions I’ve written with the TV on, and like others I’ve had quiet music on, using it to tune out other distractions. However, when Daniel Davis mentioned quiet background music acting like score in a film does, “staying at that subconscious level where it evokes emotion without becoming distracting”, my reaction was that when I watch a movie, it’s a passive activity whereas writing is active. I’m an observer being manipulated in the one, and a creator doing the manipulating in the other. For me there’s a big difference. It’s interesting to hear how we all react in different ways.

  12. I like writing in silence, but when I think up ideas and jot them down, I often listen to music that corresponds to the tone of the scene I want to block out, fast music for action scenes, etc.

  13. I’d rather have silence, but with two teenage, autistic daughters, I’ve gotten quite good at writing with Disney DVDs on the telly, Disney YouTube clips on laptops, and Disney music on CD players going on in the background – usually all going on at the same time.

    Every day I thank my lucky stars they aren’t fans of Barney the Dinosaur 🙂

  14. Music. With or without lyrics. Either that or I’m stuck with loud dog snores. That is NOT conducive to writing romance scenes.

  15. Wow, what a response!

    Well, I said as much on Facebook, but the end result for my weekend experiment was that the silence didn’t work out. Maybe this is because I’ve been listening to music for ten-odd years. I’ve conditioned myself to focus with regular pop music playing in the background. If nothing else, the music keeps a certain beat going and my energy up. Plus at the write-ins, it’s the only thing that keeps me sane (and productive). It really does become white noise.

  16. Er, correction. I commented without thinking there. Silence can work for me, but mostly at home. In a coffee shop or public setting, I definitely need the music. Which sounds like total backtracking, but what I mean is that the silence didn’t work out for everything. Especially when the husband is playing his video games …

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