Why Writers Should Get Over Pop Music

iStockphoto / dblight

Pop music is the worst thing that could happen to your writing. It’s for dates and bad wedding receptions. Turn it off at once.

Pop is designed to structure your ideas. Stereo hearts in the dark with pumped up kicks. And it works far too well for a writer’s good. As Noel Coward told us, it’s extraordinary how potent cheap music is.

Contemporary classical music, the genius of today’s living composers, will set you free.

Shake out some of the sand that’s in your hair when you come in off the dunes of life. Mess with your best nitties. Line up your finest gritties. You know what we’re doing, don’t you? Well, of course you do. Get them in the right order and others can read what you were thinking. Even feel what you were feeling. These are words. And this is writing. It’s what we do.

But why not engage an even higher alchemy?

Living composers, gorgeous and serious creatures with racing-quick wits—not old dead white guys in breeches—arrive dusted in the same nuggets of concept and emotion we writers wear. Same world as ours, after all. But they super-heat what sticks to them into a new substance.

High-silica content: composers’ material moves through time. And this is your hours’ glass.

Contemporary classical music wraps your efforts to fuse thought and emotion in a see-through composite. Clear aesthetic possibility. As your words rush through that glassy focused space-space they create with their music, you may or may not share a single concept with your composer. Doesn’t matter. The transparency of her or his medium opens windows in your work, shifting your sands with new breezes of sonic intelligence.

Three samples for writerly tasks

Brainstorming: “TransAmerica” is about rapid mind movement with pushy percussion, full of knockabout switchbacks. Todd Reynolds is one of our most accomplished digital violinists. He tours internationally in performance of his own work and that of composer-colleagues. Here’s more about the guy many of us know on Twitter as “DigiFiddler,” who also founded one of New York’s most acclaimed amped string quartets, Ethel. Click here to listen if you don’t see the slider below; go to the 2nd slider on the page. (Audio from Q2 Music.)

Crafting: “Oceanic Verses” starts very quietly and searches the horizon, tentative and patient. Composer Paola Prestini is a wonder. The calls of her strings remind me of the great Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou’s lonely siren echoes. And Prestini loves writers: “Literature has played a huge role in my writing and it has always been my first collaborator; I love painting music on literary canvases; ideas on the page invite me to play and to think.” Click here to listen if you don’t see the slider below. (Audio from Q2 Music.)

Revising: “Everything Is an Onion” is careful, purposeful, measured, dutiful. Yeah, like peeling it. You undo one edit and look what happens to three other phrases in the same chapter, right? Timo Andres works his keyboard, as you do yours, with personable intensity. It’s what caused critic Alex Ross to call “Shy and Mighty,” Andres’ debut recording, “more mighty than shy.” And as your revisions stretch out into something past a natural lifespan (don’t they always?), it’s comforting to know that this piece is from a lengthier work titled “It Takes a Long Time To Be a Good Composer.” Click here to listen if you don’t see the slider below; go to the 2nd slider on the page. (Audio from Q2 Music.)

Stump the Porter

Make a deal with you. Turn off that Beyoncé before your ears glaze over, and tell me in a comment below what sort of scene or situation or mess you’ve written yourself into. I’ll get back to you with a suggestion of a living composer whose work may just help you hear your way around the next corner in your manuscript.

And tell me what you think: is there a time and place for pop in serious writing? What’s your favorite music for various writing tasks? How do you use music in conjunction with your writing? Or do you use it at all? If not, what’s the matter with you?

Porter Anderson—whose Writing on the Ether appears here at JaneFriedman.com on Thursdays—has issued a matching grant to Q2 Music listeners who donate during the autumn pledge drive through October 26. You do NOT have to pledge a penny. This is not a pitch. Porter’s much more interested in bringing together new music with new writings. If you do feel interested in contributing to the work of this unique NPR affiliate (an online streaming service of WNYC/WQXR in New York), each $1 you donate will be matched with $1 from Porter, up to a total of $5,000, at Q2Music.org. And Porter would love to thank you. Drop him a line on Twitter.

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Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) is a journalist and consultant in publishing. He's The Bookseller's (London) Associate Editor in charge of The FutureBook. He's a featured writer with Thought Catalog (New York), which carries his reports, commentary, and frequent Music for Writers interviews with composers and musicians. And he's a regular contributor of "Provocations in Publishing" with Writer Unboxed. Through his consultancy, Porter Anderson Media, Porter covers, programs, and speaks at publishing conferences and other events in Europe and the US, and works with various players in publishing, such as Library Journal's SELF-e, Frankfurt Book Fair's Business Club, and authors. You can follow his editorial output at Porter Anderson Media, and via this RSS link.
Posted in Creativity + Inspiration.


  1. This is a very fun idea. I’d love some help with a book where I can’t get the story to line up. You know what I mean, it’s growing like a tomato vine with little fruit. I wake up in the middle of the night and realize I have a lot of vine and few flowers.  I think the problem is discernment. Any help there?

    And, I have to say there is also a lot that can be learned from some Pop music. Max Martin, for example, is the author of a lot of pop songs. I’ve learned a lot from watching/studying his music. Why do his songs evoke such powerful emotions? The song usually turns on one or two words. Since I write serial fiction, this is a powerful lesson on how to make a piece pop.

    Further, there are people who craft songs. Some of the best flash fiction authors are song writers. Nora Jones’s ‘Man of the Hour’ has very few words and yet tells an entire story. Randy Newman’s “Think it’s going to rain today’ is a haunting story of only 101 words and yet evokes an entire world. That’s not to mention any of the one offs by Willie Nelson or other well crafted songs. Heck, my serial, Denver Cereal, started from a retelling of ‘Friends in Low Places’. To my mind, there’s a lot to be learned from studying the craft of powerful, word thrifty storytelling from songs – and particularly pop songs. 

    Writing is a craft of taking human experience and emotion and translating it to words. I personally think there’s a lot to be learned from pop songs. 

    • Hey, some great thoughts here! To start with your “vine and few flowers” (great phrase, difficult problem), you might look into some of the fine work of a composer named Peter Broderick – his Music for Falling From Trees, in particular, develops a kind of rich filigree of sound without cutting short original themes. It’s an album-length suite, too, which gives you a tremendous range and sense of space to work with.

      I do hear you on the talent of many pop artists. I’m impressed with your example of Max Martin — cool point about serial fiction. I think where the question of song craft (you defend it well) comes up for me, though, is that unless you are specifically working a scene or section of material that perfectly maches a song, it’s not as useful as what (to my ears) is the more expansive possibility of most contempo-classical work. And the danger for me, in working with a precisely targeted (emotionally) song, such as Newman’s “Rain” is that you start (well, I do) start writing for those “scarecrows dressed in the latest styles.”

      Know what I mean? I’m back to my first point, really — and taking nothing from your good survey of songwriting — that such pieces are meant to “craft,” as it were, a specific mood and response from you, meaning you’re not quite your own writer as you work on your own “tomato vines.”

      Make sense? Or am I simply raving? lol

      I have to tell you, there’s a breast-cancer fund-raising event going on just across the channel from me where I live. Super cause, of course, and pink everywhere … and they’re playing “YMCA” at piercing volume.  The ironies just never stop, do they? :)

      • I’ve had the very experience you describe. It’s embarrassing to say, but I had ‘Elevator Love Song’ on my Pandora while I was writing. I named a character ‘the rich girl’ then had to defend the use ‘rich girl’ vs an actual name for years. So yes, you’re right – lesson learned (I hope!).

        Thanks for the suggestion of Peter Broderick. I’ll check it out and report back! :)

        Yes, YMCA is an excellent example of your point. And I do love ‘scarecrows dressed in latest styles’. It may have to be the title of a serial or a book I love it so much. 😉

        Added: Sorry, I guess I wasn’t done. One challenge to your “such pieces are meant to “craft,” as it were, a specific mood and response from you.” Many, many composers write to evoke specific emotion – some for their own good, and other for the effect of others. Mozart, for example, wrote to ease his tremendous anxiety and thus his music relieves anxiety. Depressed composers often write upbeat music. Just like JK Rowlings put her grief for losing her mother in the Harry Potter books, composers put their emotions into their work as well. Thus simply choosing music without words doesn’t mean your emotions are not being manipulated by the person creating/writing the music itself. Just a thought.

        • Hey, Claudia, just getting back to your last post, you’re right, of course, that lyrics aren’t the only thing that can create a guiding context for a composition emotionally (or intellectually). I think what I’m saying, however, is that popular music, say a standard piece, three minutes long with a single, repeating hook — maybe “I love you just the way you are” — hardly has the potential range of aesthetic interpretation that something like a 20-minute piece from Rautavaara will have. For all the anxiety that may have informed some of Mozart’s work, the very same piece of his may be called both sad and happy by two different people. The range in that is the same scope that allowed Stanley Kubrick to do something with the overture to Rossini’s Thieving Magpie in A Clockwork Orange that in no way reflected what normally is done with it.  That’s range. Personally, I rarely find minor keys “sad,” while many people will say they are. I also can hear the irony in various ostensibly “upbeat” works, as I’m sure you can, a whole dimension of possible interp that the next guy may not get at all. Meaning that — in general, and with exceptions, of course — much of classical music, and particularly contemporary classical, for me offers a far, far broader range of potential meaning and texture and creative interaction than does the typical (again, with exceptions) pop ditty that latches onto one sentiment and gnaws it to pieces for four minutes as a dog does a bone. Something well known, say Barber’s Adagio for Strings — strikes most people as negative in one way or another, full of sadness. But sadness about what? Sky’s the limit. There’s nothing there to tell you that you must feel sad and about what. In contrast, “Born in the USA” doesn’t offer a trace of wiggle room about how we’re supposed to feel when we hear it, not a scrap of space to find your own soul in the room when that thing is fist-pumping you to pieces. It’s not really the question of lyrics vs. instrumental. It’s the question of available context and response. And I really appreciate the range of interpretation that classical music allows me, especially contemporary classical, over the Black&Decker drill-it-home here’s-how-you’re-supposed-to-feel-now directives of pop. :)

          ** This comment was written listening to Osvaldo Golijov’s The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind on @Q2Music:twitter 

          • *nodding* I agree that many forms of classical music allow the user to bring their own experience, dance around with it, and set it down. 

            What I think we’re both agreeing that an author needs to take responsibility for the environment s/he is writing within. Many of your commenters have said they listen to this or that while they write this or that. Our stories depend on us to take this level of responsibility. 

            I also love the support of new music in all it’s forms. A lot of new music gets created/sucked up by the movie industry where it’s used to create emotion in the viewer (LOTR, or even Vangelis in Blade Runner.) Music speaks to our souls and the progression of a culture. We all need to support it’s development and the ‘channelers’ who are able to create it.

            Thanks for the opportunity to hash through a clearly fascinating topic! :)

            PS. That’s some music-fu. Peter Broderick is lovely – thank you! :)

          • Glad you like Peter’s work. His 5th movement in Trees is my favorite, the “Awaken” movement. And yeah, the responsibility is the key. We all hold it and need to handle it well. Great chatting with you, Claudia, thanks for so much grand input!

            **This comment written while listening to @MissyMazzoli:twitter ‘s Song From the Uproar, so cool, on @Q2Music:twitter — all about the 19th century explorer Isabelle Eberhardt http://ow.ly/76dsS , amazing true story of a woman-explorer, my favorite of Missy’s works.

  2. I don’t suppose there’s a music to help someone who’s started 13 stories and/or books, but hasn’t really finished even one?

    I listen to music a lot, but not usually while I’m writing. I am a dancer every bit as much as I am a writer. Or at least I used to be. If I listen to music, the dancer in me wants to come out and start choreographing, or worse yet, just dancing around aimlessly. Then nothing gets written, and since there’s not much space in my writing spaces, things also get knocked down. And sometimes I hurt myself. 

    As far as pop music, I love it. I would never write with it on…but it’s great for driving, checking facebook, or folding laundry.

    • Perfect uses of your pop music, Veronica, lol, I’ll concede that it’s laundry-folding stuff, hands down. :)

      For your writing interests, I’m going to send you to my favorite source, the mighty Q2 Music contemporary-classical stream provided by NPR affiliate WQXR in New York. On this page of their site http://www.wqxr.org/#/articles/q2-live-concerts/2011/aug/23/live-temple-dendur/  you’ll find a remarkable concert, which was streamed live to the world on September 11 from the ancient Egyptian Templer of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

      I want you to scroll down to the last audio “slider” on the page, under the title
      The Disintegration Loops by William Basinski (arr. Maxim Moston). This is a remarkable piece that was developed not about the 9/11 attacks at all, but about the actual disintegration of recording tape that the composer, Bill Basinski, was trying to digitize to preserve the music on it. The attacks occurred as he finished this work. What’s wonderful about it — and maybe helpful for you — is that it is, indeed, loops, as his title implies, and in Maxim Moston’s new arrangement, there’s a superb persistence in the work.

      It’s too slow for you to do much choreography to, you’ll die in an arabesque on this stuff, don’t try it. And that’s part of the point. Get into your chair, get ready to finish one of your books, and let Basinkski just keep returning you and returning you and returning you to the task at hand in one of the most intriguing, oddly catchy serious pieces I’ve heard all season.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • Thank you so much for your suggestions, and for your kind words.

        I started with “Hymn” from “Sinking of the Titanic”.  It truly reached into obscure corners of my mind, my heart and my experience.  Part benediction, part reassuring pat on the back from an old friend, part – something that’s harder to describe.  Something akin to “It’s ok to grieve that now.”

        A small part of me wants to rush into “Jesus’ Blood”, but I think I’d rather just sit here quietly, and let “Hymn” settle in a bit.

        Thank you, sir.  You’re truly a musical matchmaker.

        • James, I’m delighted to hear that Gavin’s work is reaching you so easily, although not surprised. If there’s any magic at all, it belongs to him and these other composers whose work I’ve come to love so much in close proximity to my own. With luck, you’ll find more and more of Gavins’ and others’ work speaking to you. But if you go no farther than him, you’ll have walked into a cathedral’s worth of fabulous sound and thought and feeling. He’s an intensely intelligent composer whose every note is where it is for a reason. A grand model for writers. All the best, then, and thanks for letting me know the suggestion held some use for you, that makes me feel great! :)  Keep me posted on how things go, I’m always near at @Porter_Anderson:twitter on Twitter and I”m here as @JaneFriedman:twitter ‘s lucky guest each Thursday with my “Writing on the Ether” column about publishing and writing. Do drop in! :)

  3. Thank you for sharing. I couldn’t agree more. The realm of classical music, from baroque to contemporary offers a rich assortment of inspiration. I use it for inspiration and in many instances to guide pacing. 

    • Hear, hear, Rich! That range you’re talking about is the ticket. As I was saying to Claudia earlier, there’s actually little question of talent in the pop world (i.e. Max Martin, whom she mentions, Newman, et al, today’s Adele, etc.). The real question for writers — and easy for none of us — is to stay open to what we need. For my own creativity, the contemporary-classical span works best, while I can “hear what they hear” in both older classical work and current pop trends. Bravo for recognizing that range is the issue. Gives you access to everything you need. Stay open to it all! Thanks for commenting –

  4. I never write with music that has lyrics, it silences my words and I’m stuck with the song running through my head for days. Some classical/non-vocal music works, but mostly I prefer silence.

    • And it’s the silence that would drive ME mad, lol. We’re all so different in how we write.  Yep on lyrics, though. I do find a great deal of contemporary choral work — Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre and Nico Muhly and even Lisa Bielawa — can be fantastic for my writerly efforts, but the lyrics of choral are in most cases used far more as orchestral elements than lead vocals in pop are, of course. But then, there’s my guy Corey Dargel, fully contempo-classical and all lyrics. Terrific composer…never try to write to him. :)  Thanks for reading and commenting, Cyndi –

  5. Love this post. I use music in so many ways. Classical, as you say, to open the windows and whirl up the emotions that as yet have no words. But I invent too readily and often too fast to keep control. Sometimes I need a simple piece of strutting pop to capture a moment, put a net over it and let me examine it.

    Anyway, I have story problem that needs the classical kind of exploration. What do you prescribe to interrogate the possibilities of a returning ghost? 

    • Well, YOU took this topic on earlier with me, Roz, in this post that gave us your great phrase, an “undercover soundtrack” for the way writers can think of their collaborative relationship with music. http://ow.ly/75GIh  Great job there (and thank you for giving me a chance to talk about one of our best composers of the moment, Caleb Burhans (@Pluckbro:disqus ). 

      I DO get what you mean when you say that you sometimes need “a simple piece of strutting pop” to snag what you’re doing. Something like Pēteris Vasks’ amazing “Botschaft” (means Embassy, or, less formally, Messages) can pretty much take me right on out the door of my imagination with his screaming strings and duo-pianists hurling handfuls of chords at each other — easily one of the most combative, disturbing, and yet exhilarating works I know. At times when those “windows” get opened too widely, I can get wanting something more simplistic to narrow the view again. :)

      And, wow, the returning ghost situation sounds fantastic. Tell me this — is this a happy return or negative? In other words, are we talking about a sort of sweet revisitation by a beloved spirit? Or something terrifying and dreadful? 

      If the former, you might look to the work of John Luther Adams (not to be confused with John Adams), whose icy-Alaska vistas are gorgeous with celesta and delicate frost-memory beauty, massive expanses of lovely, eerie tundra. Try, for example, JLA’s “In a Treeless Place, Only Snow,” gorgeous. You can hear a live performance of it on this page at @Q2Music:disqus — http://ow.ly/75Hqt (last audio slider on the page — and notice that his “The Farthest Place” is in this same group of audio files, three above that one, also great.  

      Then if you’re having a horrific ghostly time of it? Ha! John Corigliano (who, incidentally, is the composer of “The Red Violin” film score and a gorgeous concerto built on it).  You want John’s amazing “Hallucinations.” Scare your life out. Here’s a page at @Q2Music:twitter with that one, a live performance from (Le) Poisson Rouge, in a fabulous arrangement by Ricardo Romaneiro, it’s the first of the two sliders on this page: http://ow.ly/75Hxa   

      Careful with that last one. Your sanity will be going over the edge of your desk like a Dali watch before it’s over. :)

        • Wow. One multi-talented ghost from the sound of it. Well, you’re in luck because the concert just finished tonight in New York with the American Composers Orchestra had six new works on it (two world premieres, four NY premieres) and was a knockout for just that cluster of terms you’re using there. I think that with the single exception of the Ruby Fulton piece (hers was based in cowboy lore, almost a contemporary Ferde Grofe treatment), the other five each will have something to offer you and the whole show should be on-demand on the @Q2Music:twitter  site tomorrow, Sunday, at some point, on this page http://ow.ly/75QnF — good listening to come. :)

  6. Do soundtracks count? I love the music from The Piano, The Book of Eli, and How to Train Your Dragon. Very uplifting and soul reaching for me. Any suggestions?

    • Craig Armstrong “As If To Nothing” is a great collection of his orchestral pieces.
      Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to “The Mission” (1986)
      John Barry “Dances With Wolves”
      Hans Zimmer “The Wings of A Film” live performances of his compositions for “Gladiator”, “Thelma and Louise” et al.
      Ryuichi Sakamoto, “Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence” and “The Last Emperor”
      Vangelis “Chariots of Fire”, “Blade Runner”

  7. Music helps to set the tone for writing but it is ultimately a matter of taste, mood and preference. Sometimes you may prefer complete silence, classical music or even Nine Inch Nails in your ear (the industrial rock band)  Agree with ClaudiaC about pop music. I wouldn’t dismiss all pop as being simplistic and only fit to soundtrack major life events (Unless wedding bands play Philip Glass at wedding receptions?) 

    • Jessica, Eeleen, and Claudia, my movie muskateers here, excellent comments! 

      Eeleen, so glad you know Armstrong (Quiet American) and Ryuichi Sakamoto (Sheltering Sky), two of my favorites, along with the great, great Hans Zimmer, of course. All your suggestions are quite astute. 

      May I add a couple to consider? 

      @NicoMuhly:disqus  –  his score for The Reader is very fine, and he’s one of my all-time favorite composers. Watch for his new opera (with Craig Lucas), coming to the Met in the 2013 season. It’s called Two Boys, and it’s fantastic, saw its world premiere in London.

      John Powell – his trilogy of soundtracks for the Bourne films. When I interviewed him on this work for CNN, he was really fascinating in telling me how in the most hair-raising sequences of action for Matt Damon, he pulls back, over and over, in volume, orchestration, tempo, percussive elaboration, because some of the high-tension scenes in the film are so long that you simply can’t score them full-tilt all the way through. He’s an amazing colorist for instrumentation, too. The very first theme in the opening film, which becomes Jason Bourne’s motif, originally had a guitar carry that lonely lead. They discovered when they mixed in the sound of rain on the sea (in which Bourne is found floating and almost dead) was too loud for the guitar. So he switched it to a bassoon on that melody line, and it’s a marvelous lesson in what such brilliant composers can do to actually jack up the emotional effect when given the kind of chance that film editing might offer. That bassoon’s moan is unforgettable.

      Abel Korzeniowski – this is the Polish-born composer whose work really got to Americans first in A Single Man for Colin Firth. Abel has several fine albums of work out in addition to that soundtrack, which is full of grand tone-poetry for writers. The only problem is that I wish in so many cases of his work that his individual pieces ran longer and developed more deeply. Part of the problem of soundtracks, of course — Hollywood needs three minutes, not thirty. :)

      Eeleen, I’m going to leave Nine Inch Nails in your ear, not mine, LOL. But just to clarify, I’m not as interested in dismissing all pop as in asking writers to consider listening beyond their comfort level. You clearly know what we’re talking about. And, God help us, we may yet hear Glass’ Days and Nights in Rocinha get past Bolero in popular consciousness if the masses ever hear it — please not at weddings. :)  What I’m really hoping to do is get more folks just like you and Claudia and Jessica busy alerting other writers to these far more ranging possibilities. 

      And this is why I love and recommend @Q2Music:disqus as a nonstop, 24-hour, free source of unutterably beautiful “living music” by living composers. Unless you’re in Manhattan or Brooklyn and spending every night at The Greene Space or Symphony Space or Merkin Concert Hall, etc., it’s actually very hard to come by this work. HEY. Live concert tonight on Q2, too, with Bryce Dessner of The Natioanl (crossover in the extreme) doing the world premiere of his double guitar concerto with his twin brother Aaron. Free, 7p, with a live chat, too. Check it out: http://ow.ly/75I19 

  8. Hah!  Your lead made me laugh.  The obvious retort is that only someone “old” would disparage pop music, the way Beethoven was disparaged in his day.  But when I played the first track you posted, my teenage drummer heard it and pronounced it “cool”.
    This is an interesting throw down and I hope it sparks much debate because I’m glad writers like and listen to different genres of music. If we all felt the same, about music or about anything, the world would be so boring and so would the books.  
    For me, it has more to do with how my writing life uses the muses of the everyday.  And how it departs and becomes something new.  My world is a noisy one, filled with the cacophony of competing voices and with live music that ranges from classical piano and choral to head-banging drums.  It comes from having teen musicians in the house.  Naturally, pop music permeates the minivan as I shuttle them to and fro.  When you can understand the words, I can sing those songs by heart, so they are easy to tune out.  
    I do write with a pop and conversation background at the coffee shop during my daughter’s rehearsals, but it’s an act of efficiency that beats spending more time driving to and fro.  Writers must learn to make do.  Still, I prefer the sound of silence to write. That’s when I can best hear the melody of an article or story rise above the ideas.  And it’s a rare luxury. 

    Perhaps when they’re grown and gone I’ll find the need to fill the silence and begin searching for perfect background music. 

    • You’re right on the money, Jill, it’s the diversity of all our creative heads and what we hear when we work that counts! 

      Love that you could get the “coolness” of the @Digifiddler:disqus piece, too — Todd is anything but stodgy, and so am I , for that matter … I was interviewing everybody from Sting to the Thompson Twins, Belinda Carlisle of the GoGos, and lots of folks as a features journalist for years. 

      In fact, if you can get hold of one of the kids’ best pairs of headphones tonight at 7pET / 4pPT, check out this live concert that @Q2Music:disqus will stream from New York’s Winter Garden. It’s Bryce Dessner of the band The National doing the world premiere of his double guitar concerto with his twin brother Aaron. Five more premieres on the bill, too, and with a live chat to jump into, too, if you like. Check it out: http://ow.ly/75I19 — that’s the online contemporary-classical stream of WQXR, sanity on the ether. :)

  9. I like writing to jazz. A little John Coltrane goes a long way for creative inspiration, in my book. Radiohead has the same effect, although the scenes look slightly different. 
    But I’ve also used Metallica, when I have to write a particularly violent or angry scene. Keeping my pulse going seems to churn it out.

    • Totally cool that you’ve mentioned jazz, Nancy. Me, too. I love Eldar (who is anything but eldEr, he’s only about 25, maybe younger), and you know who I got back into lately is Jon Hassell. His best piece? Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street. I mean, can you beat that? Gorgeous, intoxicating, long, languid cuts, a remarkable artist and his ensemble is amazing, do check it out. Preview it here, it’s the title of the album, too, and it’s the fourth track. http://ow.ly/75Igw Thanks for commenting!  
      ** This comment was written while listening to Alexina Louie’s Music for Piano on @Q2Music:disqus   (classy, huh? I should add that to all these comments)

  10. I love this topic,Porter! Music transports me back to another time and place. When I want to recapture my 20’s ,I go back to 60’s music, with lyrics,etc. But if I need to focus my writing, lyrics are distracting and tuning into Prestini (as above) would do the trick in helping me to get into a writing zone and staying focused. About 5 years ago,I took up piano lessons after quitting in an adolescent snit~ 45 years prior. I must say, sitting down and playing contemporary or classical music (to the best of my ability)is another way those creative juices begin flowing. Thanks for helping me reconnect to the role music plays in my life.

    • Hey, Kathy! Great to have you “chime” in here, and I like that you’ve brought yet another important element of musical potential to the table here — the time-travel factor. Isn’t it amazing how music can reconnect you to a moment in your own life, or to a time and place we now know really only through such sensory clues (as with the scoring that Jeff Beal did for the (ancient) “Rome” seies. Modernized work, of course, but with effects of archaic — to our ears — resonance, so effective. Similarly, I found Trevor Morris’ work for the Showtime “The Tudors” series very effective, creating a grand merger of today’s “voice” and pre-Elizabethan London. 

      If, when you’re not time traveling, you’d like more work along the lines of what @PaolaPrestini:disqus  does so well, you might find the work of Eleni Karaindrou. For my money, she’s right in there with Mikis Theodorakis (whom I’ve had the honor to meet, what a great fellow) in “high Greek” music, but more given to the wine-dark sea of the Aegean and the anomie that gorgeous part of the world creates if you give it five minutes. Karaindrou is much older than Prestini, but they have such a sisterly connection in their work. Here’s a little of Karaindrou’s work, if you’d like to hear: http://ow.ly/75IBI 

      And thanks again! 

      ** This comment was written while listening to Phil Kline’s The Blue Room on   @Q2Music:disqus  

  11. When the muse strikes me, I am likely to go in all directions. However, straight on ’till morning might work for Peter, but what’s out there today can even destroy pixie dust. I go back a few years, and the moods of blues, yes the classics, and the poet/writers of my generation still stir up my gray cells. The hack of so much today only stirs up a migrane. Thanks for another snark post :)

    • Oh, gosh, how well I hear you, Florence. Here’s something you might actually love. A German filmmaker named Tom Tykwer who’s also a composer. His score for his own film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is one of the most beautiful you’ll ever hear. The film itself is incredible, an adaptation of Patrick Suskind’s difficult novel. But the music — utterly transporting. Lush, rich, must have used double forces when the Berlin Phil recorded it. You can sample some of the sounds of that soundtrack here: http://ow.ly/75IWu  And thanks for commenting!

      ** This comment was written while listening to the amazing Lisa Bielawa ( @ThoBroadcast:disqus ), her Unfinish’d, Sent with Bielawa, herself, doing the soprano solo work with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project on @Q2Music:disqus  

  12. I’m having a hard time trying to get a scene to line up with a character coming to terms with himself for being ruthless. He is trying to fight it but his mental fortitude is breaking with each person he fights. Any music ideas?

    Also I would like some suggestions to music just to write especially for fight scenes

    • What challenging work you’re doing, congratulations! 

      I want you to check out a piece (you’ll love this title) called Pillaging Music, it’s the top sample here: http://ow.ly/75JzB   This is some of the superb work by a composer named @NicoMuhly:disqus — easily among the very best of the best, in an extraordinarily deep bench of working composers. (We may well be coming into something of a golden age in terms of classical contemporary, the field is huge.) Muhly uses extensive marimba in this piece with piano and other highly effective percussion, producing not only the obvious violence of the topic but also the allure underneath. There are moments of near rapture, and definitely conflicting emotions of something both pugnacious and tender, aggressive and timid. You may just find your guy trying to come to terms with himself here.

      If not, let me know — usually it’s easiest to get to me via Twitter at @Porter_Anderson:disqus … I can lead you to larger works if you need that, with heavy orchestral forces blasting out in all directions. I’m starting with the intimate battle of Muhly’s genius because it sounds to me like that might match best what you’re working on.  Cheers, -p.

      ** This comment was written while listening to Paul de Jong’s Inward Bound on @Q2Music:disqus  

  13. Ah, Porter, you quoted my favorite Noel Coward play, so you had my attention right away. :)

    This is a topic you and I will have to continue in person, I think, because it’s complex. It really speaks to the process of creating art. It will come as no surprise that my 17 year old daughter listens to music when drawing or painting. We’ve talked about it, and how her art teachers play music during class.

    There’s a radio station in Chicago whose motto is “the soundtrack of your life”. I find I choose my music dependent on my mood: what is is at that moment, or sometimes what I’d like it to be.

    There is music I cannot listen to when writing: musical theatre, because I want to get up do the choreography, or I’m just distracted by memories of seeing/being in the shows. I found out by accident that I do my best writing to The Beatles (aka the “White Album”), side 1 or 2. Something about it calms and focuses me; not so with other Beatles albums. Same with Simon & Garfunkel and Crosby Stills Nash and (sometimes ) Young.

    Jazz or blues also are good for me. Haven’t experimented with classical (living, not dead composers), but I’m not opposed to it, either.

    I haven’t gotten to the ‘why’ the music focuses, relaxes and inspires me. It’s not like I’m writing about a specific time period and need to be “immersed”. I’ll need to think about this more, Porter.

    • Well, don’t quibble, Sybil :) and thanks for the great
      comment, and for reading, Viki!

      I believe you’re the first and only writer I’ve ever heard say they write to
      side 1 of the White Album. As as usual, Noe, you’re in a class of your own. :)

      The White Album.

      And as for musical theater, I wouldn’t let Rodgers or Hammerstein close to my
      writing. I’m just a boy who can say no. :)

      I would, however, recommend you give @Q2Music a listen when you can. It’s a
      unique creature on the music landscape and I guarantee it will not sound like
      the “soundtrack of your life” station in Chicago — assuming that
      station is commercial, it would go off the air in 20 minutes with this
      programming. :) It’s the sort of thing that only NPR can support. And one of
      the distinctions is that it operates without the usual NPR national
      programming. All that is on the parent station, WQXR, of course. But on Q2,
      there are No Things Considered and not even Terry Gross can get a gasp of Fresh
      Air in edgewise. It’s 24/7 music. When you feel like letting the Fab Four have
      a little rest, drop in and see what you think of Q2. Just now, I was hearing
      Kapsburger’s guitar work played by Luca Tarantino. Might as well have been back
      in Tuscany for a few minutes there, lovely. :)

      And sure, we can talk further about it in ConfabWorld, obviously a grand
      subject that ties right into everybody’s most subjective approaches to their

      The White Album. Side 1. Viki. You’re listening to “Ob-La-Di,
      Ob-La-Da.” No wonder you’re dealing in grief. :)

      Thanks for jumping in, really appreciate it, and for all the great tweets about
      Q2’s pledge drive, totally super of you.

      **This comment written while listening to Laurie Anderson’s (matchless) From the Air on @Q2Music:twitter 

  14. What a great article!  I usually work/write in silence, but I am tempted to give some of the music your recommended a try … as I “mess up my nitties … and … line up my gritties”!  Fun.

    • Hey, wonderful – if I’ve prompted you to think about getting some good music into the mix of your process, I’m happy. In fact, your timing is great. Tonight (Saturday), there was a really successful concert in New York of two world premieres and four New York premiers, all by composers in the SONiC Festival. The on-demand recording of that concert will go up tomorrow, Sunday, on the @Q2Music:twitter site. This should be the link: http://ow.ly/75PR7   So check it out when you can — this is just about as new as “new music” can get and several of the pieces (especially “Grindhouse” by Ryan Gallagher) were outstanding, highly dramatic work. The American Composers Orchestra ( @amercomporch:twitter ) sounded really good, too. So that might be a great place to start. Cheers, and thanks for commenting! 

  15. This is a fascinating conversation.  Several years ago (more than 20), I was a budding young violist at a summer music festival.  I had the pleasure of playing in an orchestra conducted by Samuel Adler.  He challenged us to “ditch the dead Europeans” for a year or two, and in our listening and study to focus on contemporary American composers.

    Not that he was adverse to pop.  He stopped by a dorm party to chat with students a bit.  Hearing The Doors “Break on Through to the Other Side”, he said “this isn’t BAD music”, and proceeded to analyze it.  He then commented upon it as if he were making suggestions on a student’s composition.

    Here’s my situation.  I stopped playing completely in 1991.  I worked mostly blue collar jobs.  Music was, of course, never far from my life.  But I had no desire to play.

    Slowly, and by degrees, I was coaxed back into playing again by an interest in Irish and Scottish fiddling that began in 2001.  A divorce, relocation to california, difficulty finding full time work, remarriage, and 2 kids soon followed.  The fiddle went back in the closet.  The viola had long since been pawned to pay bills.

    In 2008, I became disabled.  Frustration and boredom led me to finish my music degree (I had 2 gen ed credits left).  I started playing in the local chamber orchestra.

    Now, 3 years out, I’ve moved again, started playing in the community symphony.  My wife is disabled, and suffers from chronic pain. I’m a part time caregiver as a result.  I’m a full time parent.  I write late at night when everyone’s asleep.  Or else in the morning.

    I would like to complete an uncensored “for my eyes only” memoir for WNFIN (http://writenonfictioninnovember.com/  – basically NaNoWriMo for those of us interested in nonfiction.)

    Any musical suggestions?


    • Wow. James, what a terrific comment and amazing story. I’m honored you’d share it with us. 

      And you know what? I may have the perfect composer for you. Do you know Gavin Bryars?  British bassist, incredibly prolific “in a small village in the middle of England,” as he put it in a comment at the @Q2Music:twitter site. Been at it about as long as you’ve been into and out of a fiddle (so glad you’re playing again now).  Gavin has the most astonishing range of output of anybody I know, from his terrifying “The Sinking of the Titanic” (just performed at the Guggenheim this spring on the  anniversary of the disaster) to one of his most famous pieces, “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me,” which is not at all a religious exercise, but a compelling study of a looped recording sung by a fellow on the streets. Tom Waits was moved to record a version of this with Bryars, helping to really expand its popularity. 

      Q2 did a whole week of focused coverage and performance of Bryars in April, which means that there’s a marvelous body of material compiled for you here, including Bryars, himself, talking about his pieces to introduce them: http://ow.ly/75Q72 And one of the best ways to get a sense for the vast canon of work the guy has is to hit this Amazon page and just let the preview function sample you through all of it: http://ow.ly/75Qaz 

      My own favorites (notice there are several full pages of pieces listed there) are his Second Book of Madrigals, The North Shore, Super Flumina, The Green Ray, and Farewell to Philosophy. But Gavin basically can do no wrong. His compositional voice is so mature, that you’ll find a lifetime worth of material there to discover. 

      See what you think, and all the best with your writing, sounds like a great project. :) 

      **This comment was written while listening to Donnacha Dennehy’s Reservoir (Isabelle O’Connell, pianist) on @Q2Music:disqus 

  16. Great post! Thanks for hosting this, Jane, and Porter, thanks for your thought-provoking post…

    Music is powerful. And it touches something deep in the core. At the same time it is an extremely individual taste. Preferences may change through the course of life, and someone might be influenced to try a new style of music and actually decide to like it. However, for the most part, telling people to “like-this-not-that” will be about as effective as asking them to change their preference in what constitutes “beautiful” in their search for a potential significant other.

    I was raised on classical music and was trained as a classical pianist. My parents rolled their eyes and plugged their ears at the Beatles (and for a while, I believed them). Then I drifted into the Tijuana Brass as I played trumpet in junior high, and eventually wound up with an eclectic range of taste include classic rock and jazz and 20th century. But I left most of the classical behind, except for some occasions where it seems to fit.

    Music, like language, exists in genres and registers that are situation-specific. My wife and I have music on all day, but precisely what music depends on whether we are working out, dancing, having a light lunch, enjoying a romantic candlelit dinner, blitzing the house to get it clean for guests, or…. writing.

    Music and writing. If we are talking about background music while writing, that will depend upon the individual writer, but for me, lyrics are distracting, as this post and discussion points out. I tend to listen to powerful instrumental guitar, mostly electric, with a certain tonal quality that blocks other distractions without hindering my thought process as I write.

    As far as what music “inspires” a writer, that is again a very personal matter. I enjoyed the clips in your post, but I’m not going to run out and download them on iTunes, nor would they inspire my writing in the least. And what might take me to the heights of inspiration might very well bore you, and what relaxes me would probably drive you up the wall.

    But music IN our writing. That’s important for us to consider. Whatever a writer may listen to personally needs to be left behind. Musical taste and the response to music is part of the development of a character, and not all characters will be a mirror image of the writer. Music is also a part of setting: time, place, mood and ethnicity. It shows social level and speaks volumes about the specific situation. And since music is such a powerful force in most readers’ lives, any music that is mentioned in our writing will have an impact, often a stronger impact than our gifted prose. Music takes the reader back to the time when they first heard the song. It creates emotions and calls up memories. I described this phenomenon in a little more detail in my blog post “An Old Man’s iPod,” which, to my delight (and total shock!) was Freshly Pressed. Again, I think that simply proved my point, because the response was directed more at the music and musically-induced emotions than my writing per se.

    So as writers, we each need to ask ourselves: What (music) inspires me? What (music) blocks out other distractions while I write? And what (music) will grab my readers and pull them into my book by the lapels.

    Rock on…

    • These are great thoughts, Bill, and I’m especially taken with your point that “whatever a writer may listen to personally needs to be left behind.” Only in very rare cases can music feature “inside” a work in the way it has been factored into a writer’s work with it on the “outside,” in creating.

      Glad to learn that our carryings-on here have inspired you to do your own post, too, nice work: http://ow.ly/76bry

      **This comment written while listening to @MissyMazzoli:twitter ‘s gorgeous Song From the Uproar on @Q2Music:twitter — amazing work, with the @nycOpera:twitter

      • Thank you, Porter, for the encouraging words. Appreciate the link, too! Music is a potent force. It’s nearly always one of the top two topics blogged about on WP, and seems to elicit more comments and more emotion than most other subjects.

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  18. Great post Porter.  Although I am sure you are probably right, to get into my writing zone, I tend to be most inspired by R&B, jazz and soul…reminds of the good ol’ days when the basketball beat ruled my life.

    • Not a thing wrong with the good old days or your music, Pat, if that’s what puts you in the frame. Just keep in mind that alternatives out there … basketball beats you haven’t heard yet. Good stuff when you’re ready. Cheers :)

      **This comment written while listening to “Believing” by Julia Wolfe on @Q2Music:twitter

  19. I always listen to music while writing (while doing anything, really). I don’t listen to a lot of classical, but your post has prompted me to check out some of your suggestions.

    I don’t want to write off popular music just yet (though my tastes are eclectic and I’m thinking of a wide interpretation of that genre). I think that there’s something to be said for packing that much emotional resonance in such a small or simple form. In fact, I find that I often daydream about writing characters out of the subjects in my favorite songs, building a world around a few details in a verse.

    • Hey, Molly, thanks for commenting! And no, don’t write off popular music. After all, I’ve pitched this post a little high just to be sure folks sat up and really thought about it, not to suggest, for example, that some of our jazz artists who may live closer to pop than classical in the public mind, aren’t fantastic artists. I was just singing the praises of Jon Hassell to another of our commenters.

      And I’ll tell you that if I can get to one of @JesseCooker:twitter ‘s performances, I’ll be there. (Amazing Mediterranean-style guitarist with a very upmarket pop flare, much like @OttmarLiebert:twitter  ), I’ll be there. :) 

      I do like your concept of snatching characterization, maybe even settings, from a piece. I’m sure I do that with the contemporary classical work I follow, too. An astute observation.

      So thanks for that, and all the best with your work! :)

      **This comment written while listening to Padma Newsome’s incomparable jewel, To Hugo, and then @AndyAkiho:twitter ‘s delightful Hadairo (Beige), both on @Q2Music:twitter

  20. This article is spot on. Reading this was not only inspiring and truthful but very accurate of the way pop music tends to lend it’s rancid lyrics to writing styles. I believe that music should come from the soul; it needs to stir emotion. If your writing a fictional work/historical fiction I find Composer’s John Williams and Alexandre Desplat from the Harry Potter soundtracks bring my writing to life. Or if your truly in a seasonal mood Bram Stoker’s musical composition has just the right amount of eerie and fast past melody to shake up your creative juices. For brain storming I tend to favor Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Glen Miller Orchestra, Chris Botti’s instrumental and George Gershwin. Music is beautiful and such a great muse to inspire writing! It’s also so much to listen to……..good music that is!

    • Super range of eras and styles here, @Shannon:disqus , glad you mentioned the Gershwins and @ChrisBotti:twitter (he’s incredible). You’re right, so much to listen to. :) Thanks for reading and commenting.

  21. Music has definitely contributed to many of my more passionate ideas. Excellent post! My favorite was TransAmerica. It evoked so many images that are just waiting to be strung together in a plot!

    • We’re giving @DigiFiddler:twitter a big head here, lol.  Hey, Ekari, sorry not to get back to you sooner (you guys have outdone yourselves on comments!!). So glad  you like “Transamerica,” isn’t it grand? Remember, it’s part of Todd Reynolds’ album “Outerborough,” his first solo outing. (Can you believe that work is solo?) http://ow.ly/77DTN  — a fine achievement.  And I’m sure we’d all like to hear what becomes of that plot you’re thinking of working up from it. Do keep us informed. I’m always (and I mean always) at @Porter_Anderson:twitter on Twitter and here at the generous @JaneFriedman:twitter ‘s concert hall every Thursday. Thanks for commenting!

      **This comment written while listening to Gavin Bryars’ landmark Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me on @Q2Music:twitter

      • Wow, the comment format is ca-raaaazy! Lol, but luckily I eventually found your reply.

        TransAmerica seemed to awaken in my mind scenes of dancing/fighting/fighting-that-looks-like-dancing between two beautiful people, the pacing going fast and slow as the music does. Their story could be one of betrayal – or maybe one of them doesn’t want to fight the other, but has to because of external forces. So they’re torn between their duties and not wanting to hurt each other… hehe, I think thats the playwright in me talking now!

        I’m following you on twitter now, and I will check out your other musical recommendations. Otherwise, welcome to my blog any time: http://ekarimbvundula.blogspot.com

  22. Pingback: Pop music ruins your brain, but so does contemporary classical pap | Laura Roberts

  23. I am musically handicapped: having grown up a musician and the son of musicians, music absorbs my full attention and I still can’t listen with only half an ear. I’m the pest who asks for the ambient restaurant soundtrack to be turned down so I can hear the conversation; I flee retail environments infected with thumping trash-sound; music while driving makes me miss my exit … The only thing I can do while music sounds is ironing. The tracks posted here are well worth the listening–which I will do after work, in full. Thanks for posting them!

    • Hey, Ardal, know exactly what you mean. I’m still amazed that we’re supposed to shop for food in supermarkets playing 60-year-old rock music. :)  I’m listening to the most beautiful guitar work right now on Q2, you might like it, too. The sort of thing to stop and pay attention to completely, a work called Koyunbaba, “Homage to a saint,” by the great Italian guitarist and composer Carlo Domeniconi (now in his early 60s). Gorgeous work. The guitarist is Celia Linde. It’s on this album, in case you’re interested: http://ow.ly/77EkH  Thanks for reading and for commenting — and all the best with that handicap, and for listening to my little playlist here, too. Cheers!

      **This comment written while listening to the Domeniconi on @Q2Music:twitter  

    • Indeed, @EricWhitacre:twitter  is one of my favorite people, I know him and like his music a great deal. He’s in Bilbao next month and Rome in December, you know. Did you know his wife is @HilaPlitmann:disqus  ? — Terrific soprano. She’s featured in this recording of Christopher Theofanidis’ The Here and Now, wonderful work http://ow.ly/77z1u and she did the voices for @HansZimmerMusic:twitter ‘s Da Vinci Code soundtrack. Eric and Hila are super. Have you heard his new CD?  http://ow.ly/77zej

      **This comment written while listening to Son of Chamber Symphony by John Adams on @Q2Music:twitter

  24. Porter, such a terrific article. Your reference to alchemy
    is apt. That sacred mix of creation: laying yourself bare to inspiration—from
    one source or another—and dancing the dervish with your Muse. Pure magic!


    I’m with Cyndi Pauwels, I can’t write to music that has
    lyrics, with the exception that you mentioned, Porter: certain choral
    arrangements, where the voices become instruments, themselves. (Listening to
    music while painting is an entirely different story.)


    I started listening to classical and opera in college,
    because 80’s music held little interest for me. I fell in love with Vivaldi
    & Rossini, and know the Italian libretto to Verdi’s “Va Pensiero” and rave
    over Sherrill Milne’s version of “Largo Al Factotum.” When I discovered
    @Q2music, my music paradigm was shifted. College/university had introduced me
    to a small wave of performance art, where I worked with two musicians: a
    cellist and percussionist–who played ‘found objects.’ But the scope of sounds
    and talent Q2 offers is like a tsunami in comparison.


    It was Gavin Bryars’ “Live @Guggenheim: The Sinking of the
    Titanic,” that made me stand up and take notice. Then, about a month ago, Lisa
    Batiashvili playing Giya Kancheli’s “V&V” and John Cage, in the performance
    “The Space Between,” unraveled a stress? Soothed a nerve? Pricked a passion?
    With “V&V,” my consciousness was arrested and my way of ‘seeing’ was
    changed.  All hail, John Berger!


    And, I have this crazy habit of listening to a single piece,
    repeatedly, until I ‘know’ each note. Assimilate it. I can’t tell you how often
    I’ve listened to the works above, plus “Temple of Dendur,” “Johnny Greenwood,”
    and “Spiegel im Spiegel.”


    But I think, as others have noted, everyone responds
    creatively to different stimuli: be it contemporary-classic, pop, and everything in-between. Some people love ‘nature’ sounds. We are all wired
    differently. For me, much of the music on Q2 becomes a part of me as I write or
    paint. It moves from a background sound into part of the potion. And it is


    Thanks again for such a thought-provoking post, Porter. And
    thank you for introducing me to, both, @Q2music and @WQXRClassical.


    [I wrote this comment listening to “V&V,” Karsh Kale’s
    “Crawl, Walk, Run,” and Missy Mazzoli’s “Adore, into the Dark (sp?).”]

    • Thanks for all the input, Terre, and the great account of your experience of Q2 Music. While I approach Q2 mainly as a writer/listener, when I look at it from the critic’s standpoint, I think what we’re seeing (and what you’re responding to) is a very unusual lucky confluence of an amazing amount of compositional talent. Much of it’s based in New York, but there are hubs, of course, in Reykjavik and Rome, London, and other spots. The really happy aspect of this big Montmartre-in-the-making is that Q2 Music has been perfectly timed by its parent, WQXR, to not only catch this bubble of talent but provide it with a worldwide audience. No one has to live in Manhattan or Brooklyn to participate and benefit from this development, making it easily as good for the audience as it is for the composers. (At least 40 percent of Q2’s audience is not in New York — not many NPR affiliates can claim that sort of long-distance, let alone global, listenership). So we’re seeing, in my opinion, a special configuration of tech and art meet in the right time and place. Hence my move to try to be sure Q2 gets the funding it needs and can mature in its mission. After two years, the service has more than proved its efficacy and simply will need adequate resources and positioning from WQXR to keep moving forward. The growth of its archive of live performances, alone, is a masterful asset, so important for the documentation and preservation of much of this new work. Thanks again, and enjoy –

      **This comment written while listening to @TimoAndres:twitter ‘ “It Takes a Long Time To Become a Good Composer” on @Q2Music:twitter , played by the composer, a private recording.

      • Thanks for the background on Q2; online radio has certainly taken long strides over the past few years. Being a semi-geek attached to my computer at the wrists for the greater part of each day, I’m grateful for the ubiquitous sounds of Q2 that stream through my headphones or BOSE and carry, or drive, me forward. 
        Thanks again for introducing me to such fine musicians, composers and knowledgeable hosts.
        All the best,

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