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Monday, August 5, 2013

Play Me A Song

Shortly after turning in revisions for my third YA romantic thriller, I went for a walk. It was a beautiful spring day, with a vivid blue sky and puffy white clouds, a cool breeze mingling with the warm rays of the sun. I had my headphones on with Dave Matthews blasting (Don’t Drink the Water), and with each step I took, the heaviness lifted from inside me a little more, until I actually stopped and texted my husband: OMG, no one soothes my soul like Dave Matthews, except, of course, you.

I’ve thought about that brisk walk a lot since then, how some alone time with a favorite album literally rebooted me. That’s why music is called The International Language. Music transcends language. Music speaks to our souls and fires through our blood. Music heals. With nothing more than a few notes, a melody can transport us to another place, another time. One song, and I’m back in high school, back in the arms of my first love. Another song, and I’m in the gym at a basketball game. Another, and I’m nursing my first broken heart all over again. Yet another, and I’m dancing at my wedding. Rocking my newborn daughter. Saying goodbye to a beloved grandparent. Music is that powerful.

When my son was born ten weeks premature, I stumbled across information about music therapy, a technique utilizing music to create a desired physiological effect in the patient. In my son’s case, we had to wait a few weeks so as not to over-stimulate him, but eventually set up a CD player next to his isolette with a fabulous collection of African lullabies. The soft, melodic strains soothed him when he was fussy, and helped to level out his heart rate when he brady’d (sudden drop in heart rate).  Long after we brought him home, those lullabies were our go-to miracle.

Maybe that’s why music has become such an important element of my writing regime, because of its ability to evoke emotional and physical responses. I’ve talked to many writers who prefer quiet while they work, but for me, music transports me deeper into my story world. Music makes me feel what my characters feel, whether it be love or fear or excitement. Quite literally, music fuels me, allowing me to bleed that emotion right back onto the paper. (My debut YA, Shattered Dreams, was written entirely to Arcade Fire!)

In my most recent YA (Fragile Darkness), chilling visions draw my teenage psychic, Trinity, into the underground New Orleans party scene. Now, this isn’t a scene I’m intimately familiar with, but the second I began listening to Dubstep, the words flowed. My husband cracked up to find me trance-like listening to Magical World by Bass Nectar and Cracks by Freestylers…but it worked!!  In fact, Magical World went on to become the music for my first book trailer.

When it came time to ramp up the emotion, suddenly I had the theme song to the Dead Island trailer on repeat:

Talk about music that makes you want to cry!

Then, during revisions, I stumbled across Gary Jules’s version of Mad World, and not only did I instantly realize I’d found the perfect song for my next trailer, but the haunting combination of lyrics, rhythm, and voice infused with the exact emotional tenor I’d been looking for.

So the next time you find yourself stuck with just about anything, give music a try. Close your eyes, let the rhythms flow through you, and see what happens next.

You might be surprised.

A couple of recommendations:
Action & Adventure: the soundtrack from Gladiator 
Danger/Suspense: a few awesome suggestions from YouTube (,
And of course,
Romance/Love: Beyonce’s Halo and Unchained Melody by The Righteous Brothers
Sleep/Relaxation: Krishna  Das, Celtic, and Nature Sounds
Dramatic Instrumental


  1. Hi Ellie, I write with music playing. I have Native American CDs that I listen to when I am writing Native American stories. For the Isabella Mumphrey Action Adventures I listened to Mayan and Aztec music. For the historical Westerns I listen to bluegrass and for the Contemporary I picked a certain artist that had music that matched my main characters. I listen to music a lot. drives my non-musical husband crazy sometimes. LOL I agree music does evoke so many emotions depending on the song and the artist. Great post!

  2. I write best to classical music. If there are words, I want to sing along. I can't sing and write at the same time. So, I stay with Mozart and others.

    Great post!

  3. I love this post, Ellie. You are totally speaking to me. I have to find the right music for the right scene and it can make all the difference in the world.

  4. Ellie, I so agree that music fuels our muse and soul. I listen to classical music when I write because lyrics distract me. Don Campbell, PhD, wrote a book about how music helps us and I have his Mozart CD set to use when I write. He states that it heals (as it did with your son), increases creativity (which is what I hope for), and has other benefits. Another great post!

  5. Great post, Ellie! I, too, write to music, and since so much of my writing is Irish-themed, I have several Irish CDs on my player at all times. No lyrics, though. I find them distracting, too. But nothing inspires my Irish characterization like the fiddle, the harp, or the lovely tin whistle!

  6. Ellie, I guess music is used in just about every kind of therapy and for good reason. I write to music -- usually instrumental but sometimes pop music in a foreign language I don't speak so the words don't get locked in my brain. In fact, I create soundtracks for each of my books, chapter by chapter.


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