The Music Behind the Magic

Maybe a slightly overly-dramatic title, but whatever.

One of the questions I've been asked a lot (and I see other authors asked this as well) is what music I like to listen to while I'm writing.

Confession: I can't listen to music while I write.

I used to be able to, although it had to just be instrumental music because lyrics were too distracting, but I've gotten to the point now where I spend so much time envisioning things while listening to instrumental stuff that it becomes equally distracting. That's not necessarily a bad thing since it's essentially brainstorming, but I've gotten to where I have to set aside special time for it when I'm not writing. My issue is that a lot of what I listen to are movie soundtracks, so I'm associating the music with a scene other than whatever I'm working on. That, or I've spent so much time listening to my "inspirmental" (inspirational + instrumental 😊) music before writing that I've already formed other stories/pictures to go with it, and they don't match what i'm doing.

My brain is a busy place...

I imagine if I tried to listen to something that wasn't associated with any other thing I knew about, I could do it. Like you know in the home decor section at the store how they have those little music sampler machines next to all the candles and Scentsy™ fragrance packs and stuff? That sort of music. Lots of quiet piano and guitar. Except that pretty much defeats the purpose of the whole "inspirational" part.

So most of the music I draw writing inspiration from has to be listened to at some point when I'm not actually writing. I do, however, love to listen to music while editing and doing artwork. I've said on many occasions that Lindsey Stirling's music promotes efficiency. Trailer music like Two Steps From Hell and movie scores by Hans Zimmer excite me and motivate me and make me feel like I'm doing something meaningful. Back before I came up with the genius idea of just watching Netflix while I worked out, I'd always listen to TSFH and envision space battles and chase sequences and come up with imaginary movie trailers for my characters and books. Once I've made it to the editing stage, I can allow myself to focus a little more on all of that imagery and not worry about it distracting me from the actual story.

And then, like any author, I have of course picked out some songs over the years that *gasp* actually have lyrics that apply to certain characters or groups or pairings. Those also have to be listened to at times when I'm not writing. It's mostly because lyrics = distracting, but also because when I'm listening to these things (and this goes for the instrumental stuff, too) I like to sit and focus and plan/visualize, and it's too hard to multitask. 

Without further ado, here are some of the tunes that have been at the core of the Ziva Payvan series, some of which I've had in mind since long before I even considered publication.

Misc. Inspiration and Character Music

Transcendence by audiomachine

This piece was the inspiration behind my publishing imprint. It was literally a matter of scrolling through iTunes looking for ideas for a name and stumbling across it by accident. I've also always pictured this playing during the night/hill scene in Ronan with the aeromids. I actually had that scene in mind way back before I even published Dakiti and didn't think there was any way I'd ever be able to incorporate it into one of the actual books. Super glad I did. 

Man Of Steel (Hans' Original Sketchbook) by Hans Zimmer

A half-hour-long mashup of the entire Man of Steel soundtrack? Yes please.

This is one of my go-to #amediting pieces because a) I love this entire soundtrack and b) at nearly half an hour long, I can just let it play and then zone out and not worry about finding anything else to listen to for a while. What Are You Going To Do When You Are Not Saving The World? is another editing/inspiration favorite.

I'm Sending You Away by M83

...and basically anything else from the Oblivion soundtrack. I'd only give the movie a 6 or 7 out of 10, but I keep coming back to the musical score without question. The underlying theme may be repetitive, but it's gorgeous and emotional and fit really well with the end of Ronan and some of the elements I'm working on in Fracture and Embers. In that sense, it's kind of aptly titled, too ;)

Victory by Two Steps From Hell

Of course anything TSFH puts out is guaranteed to be good, but this was one I specifically spent a lot of time listening to while working out and envisioning battles and things. I wouldn't say it's really battle music, but it at least pumped me up and motivated me to work on writing. Honestly, it's too upbeat/triumphant/cheery for my stories, which are actually insanely depressing when I really stop and think about it. My poor characters...

And we can't forget Heart of Courage

Aurora by Fringe Element

I can't remember how exactly I discovered Fringe Element, but I know this was the first of their songs I ever heard. They do have a few albums/tracks available for purchase through iTunes, but unfortunately this one isn't one of them, so I'm stuck listening on SoundCloud (and honestly, just letting things play one after the other on SC is a really good way to discover new music). As soon as I heard this though, I immediately thought of it as Ronan's theme music. It's sad and emotional, but there's still a nice buildup. Even so, that buildup still has kind of a bittersweet undertone that I thought was really appropriate for the story. Butterfly Effect is another good one from this same Crimson album -- it conveys some of the same ideas and has awesome strings.

Warriors by Imagine Dragons

I've always kinda pictured this being the theme song for the Alpha team in general. For the longest time I've wanted to find a legitimate split track instrumental version of it, but so far the only ones I've found have been homemade and are therefore sub-par. I really like the back track.

Yellow Flicker Beat by Lorde

I'm not 100% sure what it is about this one that I feel like applies to my characters, and I'm also not 100% sure whether it's the characters it applies to or just Ziva. In the case of the latter, I think it's definitely the idea of internal fire that I find appealing and applicable. 

I know this song was used as promo for one of the Hunger Games movies so it's gotta be something along those lines. 

Centuries by Fall Out Boy

Again, not sure if I had Ziva specifically in mind with this song or the whole team. And the whole song isn't entirely applicable either. But this...

Some legends are told

Some turn to dust or to gold

But you will remember me

Remember me for centuries

Extreme Ways by Moby

I'd be lying if I said I never pictured this song playing at the end of Ronan. If you've finished the book and if you're familiar with how this track is used at the end of the Bourne movies, you should kinda get an idea of what I'm talking about.

And while Bourne Legacy is probably my least favorite of the franchise, I like this particular version of this song best.



Dark Side by Kelly Clarkson

This one is pretty self-explanatory. As soon as I heard it the first time, I was like "Mmm yes." And it immediately found its way onto my list.

God's Gonna Cut You Down by Johnny Cash

Random, I know. But this one has been on the list since I was still writing the early drafts of Dakiti, which is crazy considering all the character development that has happened since then. The first time I ever heard it was in the trailer for the True Grit reboot and I saw parallels between Ziva and Rooster Cogburn, so that's probably how it got stuck in my head. They used it in the opening for a Blacklist episode last season and I almost died because it was so. perfect. 

Elastic Heart by Sia

The context of this song isn't necessarily applicable, but the chorus is the important part.

  • Well I've got thick skin and an elastic heart
  • But your blade might be too sharp
  • I'm like a rubber band until you pull too hard
  • Then I may snap and I move fast
  • But you won't see me fall apart
  • 'Cause I've got an elastic heart



(aka my favorite category)

Demons by Imagine Dragons

This seems to be a pretty common one among other authors who ship their own characters, regardless of the "extent" of the pairing. But in most cases, and in the actual song, it seems like it applies more to the guy. In my case, it applies mainly to Ziva. The part of the chorus that says "Don't get too close, it's dark inside" is my absolute favorite, and probably the most applicable. 

Start Again by RED

This one has been on my list for years. The lyrics are great, but I've also always loved RED's mix of orchestra and metal/hard-rock because there's a certain grittiness to it that seems appropriate for the characters and their backgrounds and all of their problems. I've also found a piano cover by Piano Tribute Players that I really like because it's the same music but a softer version .

Time by Hans Zimmer

Disclaimer: if anyone has ever thought I was joking about how much I love Hans Zimmer's movie scores, you were dead wrong.

Despite the insane repetitiveness, this has always been one of my favorite pieces. The underlying theme and title are super appropriate, and I absolutely love the build-up because it kind of represents the character development throughout the series. I always picture kind of a progression montage while listening :) 

StarWaves by M83

I also wasn't joking about how much I love the Oblivion soundtrack. This particular piece contains the same emotion as the rest of the album but there's a little bit different sound to it. It's unique. And, like Time, I absolutely love the build-up. I listen to this stuff and then get stricken by character feels and then I can't get any actual writing done.

Falling Slowly by Lee DeWyze and Crystal Bowersox (American Idol Studio Version)

I've listened to A LOT of covers of this song (of note: Collabro and Paul Cardall) but I think this one will always be my fave just from the standpoint of being a duet. 

"Take this sinking boat and point it home...we've still got time."

'nuff said.

Writers, do you like to listen to music while you write, or are you like me and have to do all your playlisting when you're not actually writing? What are your favorite things to listen to while working, and do you have any songs/lyrics that are specific to your characters?