Today’s post is by my good and very talented friend Misha Adair. He’s sorely missed in the blogging world (responsible in an earlier life for Adair on Books), but I talked him into coming out to play on the question of listening to music while you write. Thanks, Mish!


I can’t write while listening to music. I just can’t. And I’ve just tried. I stared glumly at the computer screen for the three minutes and nine seconds it took for Bob Dylan to get through The Man in Me. Then I gazed stonily at the computer screen for the six minutes and fifty-two seconds it takes Wynton Marsalis to redefine the first movement of Hayden’s trumpet concerto in E flat.  Not a word was typed.

Now the only sound in my flat is the steady sharp crunch of the cat having her second breakfast.  She crunches in triplets, by the way.  And the words, if not flowing in a torrent, are coming at least in a steady trickle.

The challenge that my gracious host has set me in this piece, I suppose, is that I’m going to have to try to unpick two great loves of my life: music and the written word.  And try to explain the fact that they seem not to get along in a creative sense.  I’ll start with the music.

I absolutely adore music.  It’s been a tremendously important part of my life for as long as I can remember.  Exactly as long as I can remember, in fact.  My very earliest memory is of my father swinging me through the air.  There was music playing.  When I was about twelve I heard a song that immediately – almost painfully – took me right back to that memory.  Water of Love, by Dire Straits.  That’s what was playing, and I have to brace myself for a brief moment of rapid remembered motion every time I play it.

The sense of smell is cornily and repeatedly cited as the most powerful trigger for memories.  I’ve never understood that.  It’s music for me every single time.  There are songs I dare not play because I know that they’ll have me sobbing brokenly in the opening bar.  At the moment, my girlfriend is teaching English in South Korea.  She’s been there for six months now, and I miss her terribly.  We used to listen to Nick Drake’s Fly a lot.  Even thinking about that song has me in gentle tears now.

When I was about five, my parents got me a piano teacher.  The proper kind – Eastern European.  If you’re ever looking for a piano teacher, accept no substitutes.  Maryla would make me play scales with erasers balanced on the back of my hands until I cried.  Her most powerful gesture of affectionate praise was to grab a handful of my hair, yank it, and make a curious ‘Teeeeeeeeeeee!’ sound.  When you’d been defoliated in this way, you knew that the week’s practice had paid off.  I’m not for a second saying that it’s necessary to learn the grammar of music to appreciate it profoundly, but I do think it makes a difference to the way you listen.  Trying to write a sonnet, analogously, gives you a new appreciation of how hard it is to write something like Shakespeare’s incomparable number seventy three.

When I was in high school, I had an astonishing music teacher called Hugh McKelvey.  I’ll never forgive him for the confidence trick he pulled off to saddle me with playing the tuba, but I’ll never be able to thank him enough for the time and trouble he took with me, and for turning a gentle blind eye to the fact that I faked having music lessons to get out of PE.

By that time, I had a new piano teacher too – the darling Mrs MacKay.  Not Eastern European, but so delightfully nervous on the day of her students’ piano exams that you could smell a faint whiff of brandy around her, and never mind that that was at nine o’clock in the morning.
The first paying job I ever had was in the orchestra for a production of Hello Dolly!  I’ve played in a symphony orchestra (conducted by Hugh McKelvey, who got me the gig – another thing to thank him for) and in my early twenties I played bass in a hip-hop outfit that I still think had the greatest band name of all time: ‘The Catholic School-Girl Appreciation Society’.  Music is a huge part of my life.  I’ve given up the dream of being a hip-hop bass sensation, I knew when I was about twelve that I was never going to be a concert pianist and the first time I ever lifted a tuba I knew I wasn’t going to be lugging one of those bastards around for the rest of my life.  Music was never going to be my profession, but it was never going to be something I took for granted.

My iTunes library will play for forty two days, starting with AC/DC and ending with a Russian hard-rock group whose name I can’t decipher since I don’t read Cyrillic, and I’ve got a small but stunning collection of vinyl.  Ever heard the Dave Brubeck Quartet playing their 25th Anniversary Tour?  It feels like sacrilege even to consider converting that stuff to MP3, and the same goes for the incomparable LP of Mikis Theodorakis’ Mauthausen songs.

Music, broadly and not entirely accurately speaking, is something I can do.  So when I listen, I think about how I’d do it.  And that, I think, is why I can’t write while I’m listening to music.

Now, limping towards the writing part of this…

I grew up in a house that was blessed to be free of television.  The first time I had regular access to a television, I was seventeen.  And my father is a literature teacher.  Not just any literature teacher.  He’s quite simply the greatest (non-Eastern European) teacher I’ve ever met.  The classic description of a competent teacher is of someone who can muster some enthusiasm for a subject and explain any given point in three quite distinct ways.  My father can do that in his sleep.  But then he can do something more: he can transmit his love for something (a poem, a play, a novel) in such a way that the love is contagious.  You cannot not love John Donne after you’ve heard my dad riff on him for a few minutes.  And you can’t do anything other than listen spell-bound while he reads.

I grew up in a home that had no TV, but about three thousand books.  I didn’t miss out on anything important.

And my mother, who won’t mind me saying that her husband is the better and more sensitive reader, wasn’t ordinary either.  She was born in Melbourne, but she’s as Russian as you get without a long black leather coat and a propensity to be gloomy and hurt people.  And she used to read Chekov short-stories to my sister and me on trips home from school.  And she was translating them as she went.

When I was fourteen, I read a radio play called Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas.  It changed the way I approached literature.  I realised for the first time that the English language was music – and that script on a page was notation.

Language and music are, for me, alarmingly similar.  At their best they are both so utterly bound up in creating aural beauty that they make it impossible for me to listen to one and practice the other.
If I listen to music, it changes the way I write, if I can write at all.

Get me listening to Beethoven’s Seventh (one of the great human achievements in all of history) and I’ll write you something that sounds like a cross between a Human Rights screed and a manifesto in favour of the immediate invasion of the nearest militarily inferior country.  Set me up with the Sixth, and I’ll write a diary entry that would be the pride of any six year-old girl.

Play me some Bach, and I’ll just stop.  How can anyone, anywhere create while listening to that man’s creativity?  It’s just not possible.  You don’t even want to breathe while listening to Bach, in case you’re doing it the wrong way.

I’m reasonably eclectic in terms of my musical taste – so please don’t think that I listen to what the uninformed automatically call ‘classical’ music exclusively.  In a moment, I’ll listen to Bryan Adams, Sting and Rod Stewart singing All For One, and it will be one of better five minutes of my day.

But I won’t be able to write a single word while I listen.

When I listen to great music, I very often get ideas.  Sometimes I even think I get great ideas.  But I can never write them down until there is silence, punctuated only by a cat eating in triplets.