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The Best Soundtracks For Writing

Listening to music helps the process of writing, but sometimes it’s better not to have anything featuring lyrics. Words being hollered in my ears interferes with my creative juices. I do not want to hear Lady Gaga warbling her kitsch electropop when I’m getting to a crucial scene. Likewise I do not need Tom Waits’s whisky-soaked grumbling when I’m striving to write something epic. Thus the humble soundtrack is often required. Since you’ve all probably exhausted your Lord of the Rings boxset, and the notes of Gladiator can be recalled from memory. I’m assuming you have the staples, such as Pirates of the Caribbean. Here are some other interesting soundtracks to provide that necessary background ambience without having to resort to pan-pipes (you know the shit I mean).

The Fountain: terribly dull film, but a tender, thoughtful and precise soundtrack. Useful for scenes of complex dinners-for-two, mental breakdowns, or moody walking-the-streets stuff.

Centurion: never seen the film, never likely to. This occasionally sails so close to Gladiator territory that I’m surprised there hasn’t been a lawsuit – but the soundtrack is definitely epic. Good for scenes of sword-clashing nonsense or general brooding military tough stuff.

Johnny Depp always seems to choose his films well, doesn’t he? I loved From Hell, and the soundtrack is suitably dark to fulfil all the fantasy writer’s macabre ambience. Recommended for scenes of torture or for when someone is bleeding to death.

Halo 3: ODST. What? Not a film? Yeah, I know, but game soundtracks are getting as good as film scores. I’ve never played the game either, and I actually think that helps me enjoy it merely for musical qualities. Here are some great minimalist electronic riffs, mixed with patches of epic science fictional orchestral soundscapes. Good for behind-the-scenes nitty-gritty, or marching along the corridors of a spaceship.

28 Weeks Later. A cracking film, and a fine soundtrack – it’s got moments of tension and introspection, with all the accoutrements needed for a post-apocalytpic type ambience. Suitable for scenes of brain-eating.

Rome, the HBO series. I’ve never seen this. It’s not for any reason other than I’ve been writing nearly every evening of the year. Here are all your historical flavours in one album – not so much the violence, but the kind of gentle two-chaps/ladies going from A to B filler malarkey that you often need to write.

The Dark Knight. In the future, all soundtracks, if not all sounds, will be made by Hans Zimmer. I could have picked any number of his works: Inception, The Last Samurai, Pirates of the Caribbean, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Sherlock Holmes. But this is one of my favourites – for sheer intensity, for the way it really infects your mind. Recommended for anything with tension or city-traversing chase scenes.

So there you go. Now there is no excuse to complete your SF or Fantasy novel. Have I missed anything crucial?

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

22 replies on “The Best Soundtracks For Writing”

Sometimes I listen to something by Air or Zero 7, although it’s not always without words, it does have a dreamlike quality which can help. Any of the 4 soundtracks from BSG by Bear McCreary, highly recommend those. Zoe Keating is fantastic and it can really help. Also, anything by Brian Tyler is amazing, be it the new Rambo soundtrack, to Children of Dune (which they used for the new Indiana Jones film trailers) to Bubba Ho-Tep. All brilliant.

Clint Mansell definitely looks like one of the writing-soundtrackers of choice: I’ve heard of a few sci-fi writers using “Moon” at the moment.

You seem to have a mix there of OSTs to films you’ve seen and films you haven’t. I’m curious – do you find the ones you’ve seen come with “baggage”, in that you occasionally have to fight off bits of the film from creeping in (you know, like a character suddenly being overcome by the desire to start running their hands through the wheat, or to jump off the top of a building whilst wearing a mask…) or, once you’ve started to write to them, do they become the soundtrack to *your* scenes?

Have you missed anything crucial? Oh dear, where do I begin? 😉

I tend to buy a new soundtrack a week (This week is Kick-Ass score) and have been buying them for years. Some I manage to wear out after a week or two of repeat playing, but some I find myself going back to time and time again (i.e. a lot of the Zimmer soundtracks). So here’s some of my suggestions of soundtracks (minus the obvious Zimmers, the Lord of the Rings & the Harry Potters) that made it passed the week of continuous play and still get regular use when I am writing.

For the subtle introspective parts I recommend both ‘I am Legend’ & ‘Lady in the water’ by James Newton Howard. I often use those where I would also use The Fountain.

I maintain that any budding Epic Fantasist cannot do without ‘Invincible’ by Two Steps From Hell. Only recently released this year, this up there with anything Zimmer has done. In fact it was on repeat for at least twice the time Inception was (and we all know how great that soundtrack is). For action, though a little old, I’d include Total Recall & Robocop. See also 300.

The Doctor Who soundtracks are pretty good for when you want a mix, Just skip the theme track from your playlist. I assume most people have these.

Pan’s Labyrinth by Javier Naverette is not bad when you want something eerie. Has quite a sad tone to it as well.

Plunkett & McCleane has a couple of stand-out tracks. Might not be worth the whole album but I’d recommend “Ball”, “Hanging” & “Escape”.

Star Trek albums are not bad, although the only two I regularly write to are ‘The Undiscovered Country’ (has a bit of a dark edge that I really like) & ‘Insurrection’ (Film did nothing for me but soundtrack does)

Stardust by Ilan Ishkeri has some really epic moments that made me love the soundtrack although Two Steps from Hell has sort of replaced this.

Oh and don’t forget the Transformers soundtracks. A bit heroic and moral with a touch of the Epic.

For writing landscapes, I’d recommend the Guild Wars soundtracks by Jeremy Soule. Guild Wars has a medieval feel, Nightfall slightly Egyptian, and Factions slightly oriental.

You do realise that all the recommendations in these comments are going to cost me a fortune?

Some good picks, Mark. My only overlap with your list is the Dark Knight, which is so edgy it’ll make your teeth snap. Here’s ten more you might like.

1 – The Mission by Ennio Morricone
2 – anything else by Ennio Morricone. I have a nice sampling of spagetti western themes.
3 – The 13th Warrior by Jerry Goldsmith
4 – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by Tan DUn
5 – Brotherhood of the Wold by Joseph LoDuca
6 – Kingdom of Heaven by Harry Gregson Willians
7 – Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow by Edward Shearmur
8 – Starship Troopers by Basil Poledouris
9 – The Forbidden Kingdom by David Buckley
10 – Robin and Marion by John Barry

Interesting to see the points of commonality here with my OST playlist. I too have a bunch from movies that I haven’t seen, or were poor but still motivate. In fact, I’ve taken a few reccomendations from other authors from list just like this one. I’m already planning to track down a copy of “Centurion”…

Here’s a few of my top picks:
Inception; King Arthur; Assassin’s Creed II; Babylon A.D.; Outlander; Army of Two; Battlestar Galactica (new series); Equilibrium; The Chronicles of Riddick; Green Zone; Mass Effect; The International

In the section film/TV OST, I often listen to Akira (has some songs too complex for writing, so I handpick a few), Avalon (a film by Mamoru Oshii that I <3 <3 <3), Babylon A_D, Battlestar Galactica, Chronicles of Riddick, Kingdom of Heaven, Titus, X (anime). Games-wise there's Warcraft, and lately also Silent Hill.

But since I've discovered Immediate Music, their snappy trailer music has become my absolute favorite writing music.

These are awesome picks guys. I’d also recommend the Shadow of the Colossus soundtrack on the videogame front, for a range of bleak sadness and stompy-stompy action music, and the Casshern OST, which is hauntingly beautiful.

I’ll second The Fountain, and Clint Mansell’s work on the film Moon. Both are fantastic. I also listen to the following soundtracks:
Gone Baby Gone
Battlestar Galactic
Halo (various ones)
In The Shadow of the Moon

I’ll second The Fountain, and Clint Mansell’s work on the film Moon. Both are fantastic. I also listen to the following soundtracks:
Gone Baby Gone
Battlestar Galactic
Halo (various ones)
In The Shadow of the Moon

I can see this is going to be an expensive evening on iTunes… Thanks for the suggestions everyone (especially the mammoth list from Adrian!)I can guarantee I’ll be investigating them all later.

Stephen – Rambo? Really?!

Moon certainly seems like one I’ll have to buy. It has been on my wish list for a while, but I will make that final leap.

Inception – really an impressive soundtrack, all the more so when you hear the slowed-down version of the Edith Piaf song used.

Assassin’s Creed II – also a top soundtrack.

In fact, it’s worth writing something separate about game soundtracks. A year or so ago, iTunes gave loads of them a plug , and I was stunned at the quality. When you also see that they’re hiring composers like Hans Zimmer (Call of Duty 2) then you can see how seriously many games companies take it.

Yeah, the Rambo soundtrack is brilliant. Honestly, listen to it on Spotify first. Brian Tyler has scored some appalling films I’d never watch, Fast ‘n’ Furious-er part III or whatever, but his music is always good.

Hi Krish – I’ve all three of the Halo soundtracks, and a few other game-based ones.

Stephen – I’m persuaded…

And just to add, I’ve recently discovered the OST to Black Death, another film I’ve not seen, but lovely eerie soundtrack.

For a quiet moment, I’d also recommend Million Dollar Baby and Changeling OST penned and partly performed by the legend himself – Clint Eastwood .. both are beautiful.

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