I usually listen to some kind of background music while I’m writing. Since I play music myself I have to be somewhat particular about what I listen to or I’ll just stop working and zone in. Anything novel is out. Music is only helpful in my writing when it’s something I’ve listened to closely at least a few times. I recently tried to work on something while listening to Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports. It’s pretty innocuous, but I kept getting distracted by every little change. This is the biggest problem I’ve had with Eno (who I have the most respect for as a recording artist and producer). His work is invisible enough that I often have a hard time listening to it when I’m not doing something, but too engrossing for me to listen to for the first time while I’m working on something.
Classical music is completely out of the question. I’m got a few nice LPs of the Spanish guitarist Christopher Parkening playing Segovia arrangements of Bach. I know the arrangements very well -I’ve even played some of them- but the stark complexity of the melody makes it so arresting that I’m incapable of doing anything that requires creative thinking (it’s great for cleaning the house or doing dishes though). And much like the melody in a classical piece, lyrics are so at the forefront of most music it’s impossible to avoid being either distracted or polluted by them. Almost anything with a decipherable vocal part is disqualified as “writing music”. Even lyrics I know well enough to recite backward force the part of my brain that should be writing away from its task.
The best thing I’ve found for maintaining a good writing flow is post-rock. Explosions in the Sky, Calm Blue Sea, Mogwai, God is an Astronaut, and some of the less esoteric recordings of Godspeed You: Black Emperor are in heavy rotation. Melodic metal like ISIS (the members of which are probably regretting the name they chose in 1997 right now) and You Will Know Us by Our Trail of Dead can also work, although there are days when that kind of music doesn’t click. I’ve had some decent luck with movie soundtracks too. Anything Hans Zimmer does is in the running, and Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross have made some pretty impressive work together as well. I usually listen with noise-reducing headphones on, as I’m more easily distracted by unusual sounds than anything else. I’m always looking for new auditory input for writing, so feel free to let me know what your favorite writing soundtrack is.