The Well-Tempered Ear

What is the best classical music to write by?

March 31, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

A lot of writers like to write in silence.

But writing is such a solitary activity — like painting or creating art — that a lot of writers also like to write with music playing. It seems somehow less lonely, and sometimes even motivational.

Some writers prefer pop or rock or jazz.

But mostly I hear about writers listening to classical music.

I remember reading an interview with Edmund White (below), the writer of award-winning fiction, biographies and memoirs. An avowed, even devout Francophile, he said he liked to write to chamber music by Debussy, especially the cello sonata. As someone who loves also the chamber music of both Debussy (particularly the String Quartet and the Violin Sonata) and Ravel, I understand that.

I also recall Mary Gordon (below, in a photo by David Shankbone), who said in an interview with The New York Times that she liked to listen to Classical piano sonatas and string quartets, though it wasn’t clear whether that was just to warm up or actually to write by.

Myself, I am more predictable and probably more mainstream. Occasionally I wander into Classicism (especially Haydn and Mozart) and Romanticism. But generally I find nothing better to write by than Baroque music.

My preference is for J.S. Bach – especially his French and English Suites, his partitas, and his Inventions and Sinfonias over the 48 Preludes and Fugues of The Well Tempered Clavier. I love the rushing sound and cascades of notes of the solo keyboard music.

Bach means brook.

You might even say torrent.

What a well-named composer, no? The French writer Colette (below, in 1940 photo from the Getty Images) had good reason to describe Bach’s music as that “heavenly sewing machine.” I wonder: Did she listen to Bach while writing?

I wonder if, given the tapping of keyboard clicks and clacks, she might today use the term “word processor,” or at least agree to its substitution?

Anyway, Bach (below) works for me in adding momentum and increasing productivity, and also in allowing me to pay attention to it and then to turn away from it and then come back to it. You can just slip in and out of the dream, so to say.

Bach’s keyboard and violin concertos also work well, as do Vivaldi’s many string concertos. But the solo violin and cello works of Bach aren’t as effective I find, probably because they are too intense.

I also like the solo keyboard suites and sonatas of Handel and Scarlatti for the same reason – on the piano but NOT on the harpsichord which has too much distracting twang for me – though the more orchestrated works don’t work as well.

And the very worst for me is the voice – solo songs or choral works or opera. I love Schubert, but I simply cannot write, or write well, when someone else is saying words. That’s logical, don’t you think?

Then there are people who say they like the piano works by Chopin (below) to write by. I find Chopin’s music – like that of Schumann and Brahms – just too condensed and concise, lyrical and compelling, to do that. But here is a link to that writer:

But everyone, and every writer, is different. And a lot of it, I suppose is what you get used to.

The bottom line is: I have to like the music – but not too much. When I am writing, music often acts like the guy pounding on the drums in a slave galley, keeping beat and time. Its rhythm and flow keep me on task.

But whatever the music is, it must have clarity, similarity and repeatability. It must allow me to true in and tune out repeatedly.

What music do you like best when you write?

Does the music change with kind of writing – letters, journals, non-fiction, poetry, fiction?

I’d love to hear some specific tips and experiences and suggestions, or stories about yourself and other writers.

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