I play soundtracks while I write and will use the music to theme some of the scenes. I'm not experienced enough to know if that helps my writing, but it makes me write a bit faster and, I think, improves the pace.
I like to listen to music -- only instrumental, usually the Lord of the Rings and the Braveheart soundtracks -- as I brainstorm ideas for characters, settings, and plot turns.
But once I start writing the actual draft, I generally have to write in silence. Every once in a while I'll tune into the New Age Instrumental Chanel on Pandora. It's pretty banal stuff, but I find it's great for writing.
However, I have heard of writers using iTunes to develop playlists for different things -- a battle-writing playlist, a romance playlist, and even different playlists for the different POV characters within a novel.
Though I haven't tried it, I can certainly see how using a playlist for different POV characters can be helpful to capture the emotional dimensions of those characters.
I should mention---I suppose---that I'll listen to music while writing, or web surfing, or typing this out. (That or have the big TV in my living room going.) I'll, essentially, listen with one part of my brain while concentrating on what I'm doing with the other. My focus will vary...sometimes whole songs or shows go by without my noticing them.
This habit goes back to my early writing days, when I used to put three albums on the spindle of my record player---all it could hold---and let it go. Thank God for iPods, these days.
I have considered using music myself the same as is described here. To get character moods etc... Sometimes I draw inspriration for a story from a song, or music video. Sometimes I have tried fitting scenes from a story into context with a specific song it can be quite interesting to see where that takes you.
Also Robert HaHa I do the same thing but I have to use Youtube.
I don't listen to music while writing because I'll get distracted. I like to perform the actual writing in complete silence. However, while planning or preparing myself, it is necessary for me to be listening to something.
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This is going to sound funny, but while I was listening to a Powerman 5000 song called "When Worlds Collide" I had an idea for turning the inane battle scene I was writing into a novel about a sort of world-to-world conqueror invading a world just as it was about to collide with another, both inhabited, and the complete chaos that follows.
I usually end up listening to the song again every time I work on the story.
So far for me I like to have either Classical or Enya playing in the backgroung. Like some others have mentioned, vocals that I can recognize distract me too much with what I'm working on.
I say, "so far for me," because I've been writing soft material, and that sort of music has helped with the fluidity of my "soft material" thoughts. I have absolutely no problem writing emails and other types of material to different types of music.
I think music has a strange power over the mind. I've noticed a stark difference between my writing with and without the influence of music. If I ever got into hard writing, I can't imagine still writing to classical or Enya. I'd have to have some kind of metal techno (does that exist?) or machine sounds, or maybe military sounds . . . Can you imagine writing twisted mental material to the sounds of machine guns, choppers, and explosions?