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Writing from Silence, Reading with Music

By alex, a Writing Center Coach

In my experience, I tend to write and read in a variety of places and often listen to music, but I’ve also begun to appreciate silence. In this blog, I will share my reading & writing playlist, places I like to settle down, and some reflections on writing from silence and reading with music. Beginning with silence, I often return to d.a. levy’s THE NORTH AMERICAN BOOK OF THE DEAD where he searches for “the quiet place,” perhaps referencing the Tiebtan Bardo or a state of meditative absorption. Illustrating his journey, levy writes:

no light opens the eye to the quiet place is clouds sun moon mountains water wind
i look for the quiet place without looking it disappears when i know i am there

Lately, I’ve also been looking for a “quiet place” to write and read — not only for my Honors Thesis on levy, but also for reading and writing poetry. However, although I’ve been searching for levy’s “quiet place,” I’ve been on a music kick. While music might seem to contradict silence, I don’t think that levy would consider music as a hindrance to enter the quiet place. In fact, levy was also an avid music listener; and, as his friends relate, he would often listen to jazz artists such as Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis on his record player while editing and printing underground newspapers and books of poetry. Similar to how meditation is often portrayed as an individual sitting in lotus or on their shins, the writing process may conjure up images of a lone student hunched over, staring into a bright screen. However, just as meditation encompasses a vast array of practices that includes chanting and many rituals, I feel that listening to music helps me write and read.

Most recently, I’ve been digging through records I inherited from my grandfather and some highschool favorites like milo’s (now “R.A.P Ferreira”) so the flies don’t come. Particularly, I’ve been listening to the songs souvenir, going no place and song about raygunn (an ode to Driver). Though I don’t always listen to music with lyrics while I read or write, I’ve found that these songs help me question my own writing habits: what I surround myself with, where I work, and how I read & write. In the following excerpts from so the flies don’t come, Ferreira’s lyrics made me reconsider writing and reading as an activity I can do anywhere and anytime. As opposed to a passive process, writing and reading become a space where I can challenge my understanding of the world and myself.

Going no place because I remember yesterday
— (milo, going no place, referencing San Sebastian Strings’ “The Sea”)

He raps like there’s no sense to be made
He raps like the eldest sap of the Everglade
He raps with the grace of an old man shining his grandson’s shoes
He raps like a master painter who’s only choosing to use the blues
He reportedly raps in a dark apartment quarterly
— (milo, song about raygunn, referring his mentor: Busdriver)

I feel inclined to rhyme, I’m so inclined (Matters of process become matters of place)
I feel inclined to rhyme, I’m so inclined (Matters of process become matters of place)
I feel inclined to rhyme, I’m so inclined (Matters of process become matters of place)
I feel inclined to rhyme, I’m so inclined (Matters of process become matters of place)
I feel inclined to rhyme, I’m so inclined (Matters of process become matters of place)
I feel inclined to rhyme, I’m so inclined (Matters of process become matters of place)
I feel inclined to rhyme, I’m so inclined (Matters of process become matters of place)
I feel inclined to rhyme, I’m so inclined (Matters of process become matters of place)
I feel inclined to rhyme, I’m so inclined (Matters of process become matters of place)
— (milo, song about raygunn)

How do you change the way you change the way you feel?
— (Hemlock Ernst, souvenir)

a picture of Rory Allen Philip Ferreira, a very stylish person standing in front of a colorful art piece
Rory Allen Philip Ferreira


Moving between both levy’s “quiet place” & Ferreira’s “worthwhile fortress” (producer Kenny Segal’s title for the instrumentals), I’ve found that I often enjoy mixing both silence and music into my writing or reading sessions. Just the same, I’ve also found that I like writing from inside of my fortress, my apartment, a quiet place outside downtown Carrboro. In this way, I try to control the circumstances of my writing and reading as they relate to my writing projects. Particularly concerning creative writing but not excluding course writing, I recognize the places I write to be as influential on my writing as myself. For me, anything goes — writing waist-deep in the creek of my hometown, scribbling notes at the bus-stop, or even walking along the highway and journaling when I returned home from my morning shift at a gas-station (Kids of All Ages, Do Not Try This at Home).

Anyhow, without further stalling, let’s share some music!

the cover art of Kyoto Koizumi's "Afropia", featuring an image of the artist
kyoko koizumi’s afropia

My Favorite Writing & Reading Albums:

Charli XCX ::: Vroom Vroom
Kyoko Koizumi ::: AFROPIA
Dirty Projectors ::: 5EPs
Kero Kero Bonito ::: Civilisation
Ana Frango Electrico ::: Little Electric Chicken Heart
Vegyn ::: Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds, Don’t Follow Me Because I’m Lost Too!!
Viktor Vaughn (aka MF DOOM) ::: Vaudeville Villain
Terry Riley ::: Reed Streams
Matmos ::: Plastic Anniversary
Iglooghost ::: Neo Wax Bloom
Xiu Xiu ::: Plays the Music of Twin Peaks
Ryuichi Sakamoto ::: Thousand Knives
Yellow Magic Orchestra ::: Solid State Survivor
Talking Heads ::: Talking Heads ‘77
Björk ::: Vulnicura
Cake ::: Comfort Eagle
Herbie Hancock ::: Head Hunters
Parquet Courts ::: Light Up Gold
Gene Wilder, et al. ::: Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory
Mort Garson, et al. ::: Mother Earth’s Plantasia
A Tribe Called Quest ::: The Low End Theory
Fukuhara, et al. ::: The Art of the Japanese Bamboo Flute
Dorothy Ashby ::: Afro-Harping
Space Laces ::: Vaultage 002
The Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell ::: Ludwig van Beethoven
Brian Bennett ::: Voyage
Chuck Person ::: Eccojams Vol. 1
Santana ::: Abraxas
Flying Lotus ::: Cosmogramma
Carl Stone ::: Himalaya
John Coltrane ::: Blue Train

the album cover of George Szell & The Cleveland Orchestra's rendition of the Pastoral Symphony
Cleveland Orchestra


While I love to listen to these albums, where I’d like to write is more important than what music I’d like to have in my ears. Settling down in cafes, I like to go to Oasis Cafe and Open Eye. Writing at home, I like to transition between my desk, the floor, and my bed. Walking around campus, depending on the day and traffic, some of my favorites have become Graham Memorial Hall, the Arboretum, and Davis — specifically the silent, sixth floor!

Considering where my day takes me, I try to take into account where would be most effective to work on my specific writing project. Reading, I like to be at the library and give myself a time limit for completing a book or essay. However, if the weather is nice, I prefer to sit outside with trees by Weaver Street Market or the Arboretum. When brainstorming, I also tend to be outside and like working with paper. However, when starting a first draft, I like to be inside, but not in my apartment because I may get distracted with cleaning, playing with my puppy, or watching something with my partner; take your pick between The Great British Bake Off, Yu-Gi-Oh!, or Futurama. Instead of staying home, I often go to similar places I like to read, but I make sure there is access to a charger port and enough desk space for my notes and laptop. When I’ve finished a first draft, I then let myself work on it slowly in the quiet of my apartment, taking plenty of necessary breaks to watch the Futurama crew crash into televised billboards.

Anyhow, having found a place to read and write, I then consider if I want music, or silence. As my relationship with music has shifted, I’ve found that I usually decide on music while researching/brainstorming and early-drafting, yet choose silence when finalizing drafts and revising. Similar to Rory’s Writing and Walking, when listening to music, I try “to take my writing [and mind] for a walk.” Often, the music provides me with motivation and space to wander. Looking at Learning Coach’s blog, Tony’s Playlists for Productivity, I feel that music also offers me a more satisfying way to time myself — as opposed to my phone’s clock, or constantly looking at my watch. Like Tony, my playlist lets me keep bobbing my head along with my fingers typing, so all I have to do to stay focused is press play! Still, while listening to music helps me through long periods of writing and reading, as opposed to a means of reaching a state of uninterrupted flow, I like to think of music as a way to regularly shift my approach to my work. As the rhythms and harmonies change from song to song, or album to album, I can, for example, more easily realize how long I’ve been working on a sentence or paragraph and either readjust my goals or move on to another section.

Album art of Brian Bennett's "Voyage"
Brian Bennett’s “Voyage”


As my relationship with writing and reading while listening to music has developed, I’ve also started to notice that certain kinds of writing often follow certain types of music. Listening primarily to instrumental, or harmonic music (Plastic Anniversary, Mother Earth’s Plantasia, Vulnicura, Thousand Knives, Neo Wax Bloom, The Art of the Japanese Bamboo Flute, Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds), I typically read. This kind of music helps to propel me through and digest the material without disrupting my concentration on the text. Listening to more lyrical, or percussive music (Light Up Gold, Comfort Eagle, Talking Heads ‘77, Vaudeville Villain), I often brainstorm. I think this kind of music allows me to toss around my thoughts in a less concentrated, deliberately disruptive way. For example, when brainstorming for my essay on Martin Luther’s constipation (yes, you read that right, and he considered it a battle with Satan), I listened to my grandfather’s record of Tres Hombres, which not only gave me motivation, but made me reconsider whether Jesus had left Earth — not to mention Chicago. Returning to harmonic and instrumental music, I also typically listen to lyricless music when beginning a draft. Particularly in public, I like to listen to music with my Lypertek headphones because it limits noise distractions. However, when at home and drafting, I tend to play my music on a record player or speaker to let it fill up the room. This gives the music a sense of openness that I like to think translates into my writing approach, but I may equally well be imagining this!

On the other hand, as I’ve started finishing up my Honors Thesis, I’ve noticed that silence is my preferred state for revision. Occasionally, I’ll introduce more ambient records such as Frozen Niagara Falls, or (Xiu Xiu) Plays the Music of Twin Peaks in order to provide myself some tonal shifts, but, at this point, I prefer a rather intense, undiverted focus on whatever I’m writing. Still, if I’m only proofreading or doing citations, I may listen to something fun like Kero Kero Bonito’s Graduation:

Today’s my graduation
I’ve done my dissertation
Even got a hat I can throw!

Album art of Kero Kero Bonito's "Bonito Generation"
Kero Kero Bonito’s “Bonito Generation”


Although I haven’t graduated or finished my Honors Thesis just yet, moving to different locations and alternating between silence and my favorite albums has helped me accomplish my reading and writing goals throughout college. What albums from my list could you try while writing or reading? What music helps you write or read? What places do you prefer to work? Since I’ve written this blog, much of the music and places I work have changed, straying into more public places and more dynamic albums such as De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising or PC Music’s Volume 3. When assessing what places you want to work at, it may be easy to stay at one comfortable place, but you may be surprised how other unfamiliar locations impact your writing. Just the same, when deciding between silence and music, I’ve found it easy to separate them or listen incessantly to a handful of my favorite albums. Yet, I gave myself the time to explore a wide variety of musical traditions and put together a playlist. While I haven’t always finished papers on time or enjoyed every course paper, I’ve discovered my interest in biographical writing through my Honors Thesis and started my own poetry press! Now, all I need besides a new record needle is a hat to throw. Can I borrow yours?

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