Beatles vs. Stones

Laurence Musgrove considers the role of music in the writing process.

March 30, 2007

This morning I received an e-mail from a new colleague of mine about some workshop topics on writing. I met her last week at the massive Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), in New York City. We’re both new members of the executive board of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning (AEPL), a National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) affiliate organization that is interested in promoting teaching and learning beyond traditional disciplines and methodologies.

She’s the recently elected associate chair trying to brainstorm some ideas for upcoming workshops and conferences. I’m the new treasurer trying to get my Excel columns to add up right.

At our meeting in the escalatored bowels of the Manhattan Hilton, the board agreed that the 2008 workshop would be titled “The Rhetorical Art of Reflection,” but in her e-mail today to me and the other board members, she suggested that the 2009 workshop might be on a topic related to the connections between music and writing.

This e-mail popped up as I was sitting here at my laptop in my university office  listening to Van Morrison's album “Tupelo Honey” and writing copy for a Web site for our recently approved general education program and curriculum.

I wrote back to her wondering if anyone else like me had this kind of continual digital soundtrack running through their media players while tapping along on their keyboards and wristing red laser mouse pods. I thought it would be interesting to find out what other folks listen to when they write, headphoned or not. I also recommended a new income-generating idea for our little AEPL assemblage: a CD collection of greatest hits for writing, recommended by the usual galaxy of comp/rhet stars. Hey, Peter Elbow! What are you listening to? Cheryl Glenn? Raul Sanchez?

My preferences for writing of course are situational, just like they should be for any good rhetorician. As I’m writing this essay, I’m listening to “Ethiopiques, Vol. 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, 1969-1974” by musician-arranger Mulatu Astatqe. My daughter sent it to me last year, and I ripped it immediately into my playlists. Other writing favorites in jazz include “Consummation” by the Thad Jones & Mel Lewis Orchestra, passed on to me by my neighbor Bill, Lionel Hampton’s “Mostly Ballads” and “Mostly Blues,” and some other favorites from the early 70’s: Keith Jarrett’s “The Köln Concert,” and “The Colours of Chlöe” by Eberhard Weber.

Here at my desk with the tangle of wires running from the scanner, printer, PDA cradle, and leftover Gateway 2000 speakers, I start off the day usually with something to get the blood moving, like Los Pregoneros Del Puerto and their traditional music of Veracruz, Paco de Lucia’s “Anthologia Vol. 1,” or that dobro-infused live double play by Alison Krauss and Union Station.

Or if I’m particularly stressed out and need to write and relax, I click on “Union” or “Devotion” by Rasa, R. Carlos Nakai’s “Cycles. Vol. 2,” or Clannad’s “Landmarks.”

But if I’m just chugging along during the day, I go to the old faithfuls: the soundtrack from Ken Burns’ “Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery,” Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Stones in the Road,” Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” some Puccini or Neil Young’s “Comes a Time.”

Given the slice and dice randomized nature of iTunes and Napster, I realize that speaking of music in terms of albums is very old school, but the extended play of the 50 to 60 minute tune after tune fits my writing rhythm pretty well. Once a playlist is over, I know it’s time to take a break, push away from my desk, stand up and lean back to stretch out my stiff back, wander out into the hallway of that other world, or walk downstairs and check my campus mailbox to see what junk I can toss into the recycling bins nearby.

When I was a longhaired college kid, I had Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Marvin Gaye, Cat Stevens, and Joni Mitchell in pretty much constant rotation on my scratchy stereo, one skewered vinyl dropping down on the next until it was time to flip the stack over again. In those days, I was listening for lyrics and rhyme as much as anything, thinking I was a writer in the company of writers who also happen to play music. These days I’m listening for melody and rhythm as much as anything, thinking I’m a writer in the company of musicians who also happen to keep me writing.

I guess I don’t know if a workshop on music and writing is such a good idea after all. Right now I’m thinking it would be just about as useful as any other workshop on the preferences folks have about writing: pencil vs. pen, medium vs. fine tip, black vs. blue, laptop vs. desktop, blank pad vs. college-ruled vs. yellow legal pad, at the desk vs. in bed, PC vs. Mac, Bach vs. Mozart. Seems all too personal, finicky, and idiosyncratic to me. Kind of like writing, if you know what I mean.


Laurence Musgrove is an associate professor of English and foreign languages at Saint Xavier University, in Chicago.


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