“I hear music…Mighty fine music…”

14 Apr

By Sarah J. Maas


I think the question I get asked most when I tell people that I’m a writer (or when I tell them what QUEEN OF GLASS is about) is: “Where do you get your ideas?”

Most of the time, it’s music.

QUEEN OF GLASS, as some of you might remember, was inspired by roughly 60 seconds of music from the score to Disney’s CINDERELLA. While listening to the track that plays while Cinderella flees the ball, I thought music was way too dark and intense to accompany the scene. The music fit much better when I imagined a thief—no, an assassin!—fleeing the palace. But who was she? Who had sent her to kill the prince? Who might the prince’s enemies be? A powerful, corrupt empire, perhaps? And thus Celaena Sardothien, the heroine of QUEEN OF GLASS, was born.

My other novels have arisen from similar origins. Sometimes, it’s a combination of being in the right place at the right time. Meaning, reading exactly the kind of book that inspires me to write in the first place, then randomly listening to a piece of music that triggers my creative juices, and then BAM: idea. Sometimes the ideas are stronger than others. While listening to this track, the idea for A COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES (my YA “Beauty and the Beast” retelling, in which “Beauty” is a huntress, and the “Beast” is a faerie lord with a mask permanently attached to his face) hit me like a brick to the face. I saw the opening scene to the novel with perfect clarity, heard Feyre’s voice as if it were my own…And then the whole novel spread before me.

Usually, music plays two roles after I get the initial idea: figuring out the opening and figuring out the ending. Without fail, those are the two things I need (personally) to sort out the rest of the novel. And sometimes, in order for me to figure it out, it means I need to sit in front of my computer and click through song after song. Sometimes it’ll strike me when I least expect it: driving in the car, zoning out on a plane, going for a walk—but with all of them, music is usually playing, shooting image after image into my mind, narrating the twists and turns of a scene, guiding my characters’ actions and voices.

When my creativity juices dry up, I’ll turn on my iTunes and just let it play through one of my playlists until the ideas start flowing again. I also have soundtracks that I turn to when I need inspiration—not for specific ideas, but just to feel something stirring under the surface of my conscience…simply to know that ideas are there, just waiting for the right bit of music to bring them out.

So, what have I been listening to lately? It’s been all over the place, to be honest (the new KARATE KID soundtrack, the TANGLED soundtrack, the PREDATORS soundtrack…).

Yesterday, I listened to this piece from the DRAG ME TO HELL soundtrack practically on repeat.


The original source of the music doesn’t indicate the kind of story I’m working on (so don’t expect any horror/demonic haunting novels out of me anytime soon), but it definitely speaks to the FEELING I’m trying to evoke. Dark, beautiful, terrifying—listening to the piece made me wonder where those feelings might fit into QUEEN OF GLASS, or ACOTAR…It also made me wonder what kind of NEW story might fit that music (again, not horror)—in what world would that music belong? What kind of character would that music embody? What sort of personal history would that character need to have in order for the music to fit their personality?

Someone really pretentious once said something along the lines of:  “My definition of an intellectual is someone who can listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger.” And you know what? While it might be a pretentious as all hell, it’s also partially correct if you apply it to imagination (instead of intellect). I think there’s real creative magic in hearing the same piece of music over and over and finding something different it every time—in finding all of the different images and stories between the notes.

That’s just me, though. What works for me doesn’t necessarily work for everyone (I know people who are inspired by art, or movies, or nature, or the people around them). But maybe the next time you’re feeling a bit stuck with your writing, turn on iTunes, close your eyes, and listen. You never know what ideas might sing to you.


What about you guys? Does music play a huge role in influencing your creativity and/or stories? What particular pieces inspire you?


Sarah J. Maas is the author of several novels, including QUEEN OF GLASS, a YA fantasy retelling of Cinderella that will be published by Bloomsbury in fall 2012. Sarah resides with her husband in Los Angeles. You can visit her blog here.



31 Responses to ““I hear music…Mighty fine music…””

  1. Najela Cobb April 14, 2011 at 1:00 AM #

    Music plays a major roll in giving me the mood and the feel for a story. A lot of stories that I write seem to be mash ups of other stories that either didn’t work or would have worked, but had one thing missing. I’ve been trying to find some music for my dystopian. I think Pandora (before it starts playing things in a cycle) is a good way to find new music and new inspiration.

    Great post. I love reading about others processes of inspiration.

    • Sarah J. Maas April 14, 2011 at 12:08 PM #

      Thank you! Ooh, I love Pandora for finding music!

      As for dystopian music…Have you ever listened to the PREDATORS soundtrack (the movie that just came out a year ago or whatever)? I know it sounds random, but I was toying with this post-apoc WIP for a few months (before revisions for QOG took over my life), and the soundtrack was surprisingly perfect for imagining everything. Also, the I AM LEGEND soundtrack is pretty awesome (though it’s more beautiful and sad than epic). If you wind up finding perfect dystopian music, let me know! I’m curious how you imagine a dystopia to sound like. 🙂

  2. Sammi K Walker April 14, 2011 at 2:48 AM #

    I can’t listen to music while writing. Which makes me sad. But it distracts me a lot.

    But before writing, it helps to listen to amazing music. There are some songs that just… They’re so amazing. So alive and vivid, that I can just feel them.

    Two examples are
    -The main final fantasy 7 theme (it’s slow to begin, so maybe skip to 1:30)

    (it’s especially good at 2:55 and 3:40)

    -Howls moving castle main theme (I think it’s called merry-go-round of life)

    It is impossible for me to listen to those and not sigh dreamily. (Can you just imagine the ballroom scenes that can come from these?)

    • Sarah J. Maas April 14, 2011 at 12:10 PM #

      I freaking LOVE the HMC soundtrack! That’s one of my soundtracks that I’ll put on when my creativity feels all shriveled and dried out, and just let the music run through my brain. It always makes me want to write!!!!

      And holy shit–that FF7 music is stunningly gorgeous. *sighs* I’m totally gonna download that. Thanks for sharing!!!

    • Kat Zhang April 14, 2011 at 12:59 PM #

      I can’t either! Sigh…I’m always jealous of those who can.

  3. Meagan Spooner April 14, 2011 at 5:18 AM #

    TANGLED SOUNDTRACK WIN. I can’t remember the last day I didn’t wake up and play “When Will My Life Begin” to start the morning. If nothing else it guilts me into being productive straight off, instead of messing around for a couple hours on the internet.

    You already know my speech about A Kaleidoscope of Mathematics… and the soundtracks to Mononoke Hime, Pan’s Labyrinth, and the 2003 Peter Pan have never once failed to send chills down my spine that culminate in deliciously dreadful ideas.

    • Sarah J. Maas April 14, 2011 at 12:14 PM #

      YES!!!! I freaking love that song!!! Haha, when you visit me in May, we’re totally having a Tangled Sing-A-Long night!!! And then the tracks for “Realization and Escape” and “The Tear Heals” just…break me with their awesomeness.

      And yessssss–all those soundtracks are phenomenal!!! I wonder what it is about movie soundtracks that trigger way more creative responses than any other kind of music (for me, at least)…

  4. Cheyenne April 14, 2011 at 5:43 AM #

    I completely agree with where you’re coming from – music has been such a huge part of my life from when I first saw the movie Annie when I was 5. I got whisked into musicals and that became my world throughout my teens, and then all kinds of music took hold of my imagination. Thanks for sharing the Drag Me To Hell music – don’t think I would’ve checked it out otherwise. It’s already bringing images to my mind.

    My favourite by far is Craig Armstrong. I’ve got three of his CDs but “Film Works 1995-2005” is without a doubt my most played. “Glasgow Love Theme” has always been my favourite but all the pieces are so emotive. Another fantastic one is the soundtrack to Dreamfall: The Longest Journey (awesome PC game): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4WQL4bWaFbs&feature=related

    Unfortunately when I’m at this stage (hopefully final revisions before sending my query letter), it’s hard listening to so much amazing music because I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve got tons of new ideas I want to work on (requiring lots of tunes!) but I need to listen to subdued jazz or seriously chilled out ambient at the moment to not distract me too much 😉

    • Sarah J. Maas April 14, 2011 at 12:17 PM #

      OMG I LOOOOVE the Annie musical (well, the movie version)! I watched that so often as a kid–I still remember all the lyrics, lol.

      And ooh, I’m totally going to check out that music (as soon as I get some coffee in me..I just woke up and my brain is still all like: “…Why are you awake right now?”)!! Thanks for recommending it!!!

      And LOL for the amazing music being distracting…subdued jazz will definitely keep things calm for a while!


    • Susan April 14, 2011 at 12:50 PM #

      Um, Cheyenne, do you love DREAMFALL? Because it’s my ALL TIME FAVORITE VIDEO GAME. That whole series is, actually……

      • Cheyenne April 14, 2011 at 1:05 PM #

        Susan: YES!!! SO love it! I installed Bootcamp on my brand spankin’ new MacBook Pro last June despite how nervous I was that I’d blow it all up JUST so I could play The Longest Journey! My mom actually recommended it to me. She loved the first game but couldn’t play the second (she can’t do fighting in any game, which is hilarious). I fell in love with it. It’s so imaginative, so huge. I’ve gotta start over now since I’m on a new computer, but I’m not complaining! 🙂 I hope they make a third!

        Sarah: Thank you very much! It’s a bit of a head-against-wall process but I started this bad boy so long ago now, just kinda eager to finish it off. But eager with a side of “I know a teensy bit more of what I’m doing now” 🙂 And as for Annie, my sister and I quote the movie allll the time.

        “Are you peddlin’ beauty products? Cuz I don’t *need* no beauty products. So if that’s what you’re doing you can just peddle yourself right on outta here sister.” LOL!

        • Susan April 14, 2011 at 2:12 PM #

          DUDE. I really REALLY hope they make a third. I check periodically, but other than speculative word around the internet, I haven’t heard anything…

          The story is so vast and complex. It is literally like playing a novel! Ohhhh, how I love that series. You’ve totally inspired me to play it all again.

          • Cheyenne April 14, 2011 at 3:12 PM #

            That’s exactly why I love it so much – it’s all these fantasy, sci-fi, adventure aspects of an amazing novel, right on the screen where you can play it 🙂 I saw the rumours floating around.. One can dream. Now I know what I’ll be doing this weekend!

        • Sarah J. Maas April 14, 2011 at 2:43 PM #

          HAHAHA! I love that you can quote Annie lines!!! Leapin’ lizards!!!

  5. Rowenna April 14, 2011 at 8:47 AM #

    I used to be a no-music-when-writing person but my latest project has changed that–I now love Pandora. Still–I’ve always been inspired by music! I’ll find a piece that just fits whatever I’m writing, then return to it when I need a dose of inspiration. Right now? It’s Fleet Foxes “Your Protector,” “The Courier” from the Last of the Mohicans soundtrack, and Jethro Tull’s “Heavy Horses.” Umm, weird combination much? But it completely fits and gives me a jolt of creativity and a reminder of what mood I wanted to create each time I listen to my little mix!

    • Sarah J. Maas April 14, 2011 at 12:18 PM #

      I’m totally checking all those out today! Thank you for the rec!!! And don’t worry about weird combinations–I have playlists that go from Tchaikovsky to Rage Against The Machine. Hehehe. 🙂

  6. Ellen April 14, 2011 at 12:09 PM #

    With the novel I’m querying, I had a really extensive playlist full of music. The band that inspired me the most for that story though was Mumford and Sons. Practically every song on that album reminded me of something the characters were feeling and enduring.

    I’m not sure how to link to a YouTube video, but if anyone’s interested, listen to “Winter Winds” or “Awake My Soul.” Both are really great songs!

    • Sarah J. Maas April 14, 2011 at 12:19 PM #

      I freaking love Mumford and Sons!!!! Their lyrics are so interesting and thoughtful and aghiashgiags SO GOOD!!!!

      Good luck with querying, Ellen!!!!! ❤

  7. Susan April 14, 2011 at 12:52 PM #

    Um, me and you are totally similar, Sarah. Music is my main muse too. And I always love the music you share–yay! More to add to my playlist! Thanks!

    Oh, and this line: “I think there’s real creative magic in hearing the same piece of music over and over and finding something different it every time—in finding all of the different images and stories between the notes.”

    Yes. Just plain YES.

    • Sarah J. Maas April 14, 2011 at 2:44 PM #

      ❤ ❤ ❤ I definitely thought of SS&D when listening to the DRAG ME TO HELL soundtrack…all of those vicious, creepy zombies and dark powers…. 😀

  8. Juni Case April 14, 2011 at 1:04 PM #

    I like to pick one song that fits the theme of the chapter I’m writing and then just have it on repeat until I’m done.

    I love the soundtrack for Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uCugrRxuo6w

    And this song from Seirei No Moribito: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0DtGnCRYeY

    Actually, anime in general tends to have pretty good music. Haha~

    • Nou April 15, 2011 at 9:57 PM #

      I agree. I’ve been listening to the Full Metal Alchemist soundtrack non-stop. xP

  9. Brandi April 14, 2011 at 2:45 PM #

    I like playing music when I write, but as far as creativity that usually comes from zoning out – something I do a lot.

  10. Kerrie April 14, 2011 at 3:50 PM #

    Definitely Pan’s Labyrinth OST and Debussy for my current WIP. : 3 It’s a dark YA historical fantasy, so they’re peeeeerfeeeeect. Florence and the Machine and Mariana’s Trench bring a nice contemp feel overtop. : DD

    Though, I’m more of a music-for-the-zone kind of person than it gives me ideas. I get my ideas from images, be them mental or physical. : 3 Which makes sense, since I’m like an 80% visual learner.

  11. gabriellan April 14, 2011 at 7:54 PM #

    Music plays a huge part when I’m writing. For starters, I can’t write without it! The mood of the music usually affects the story. If it’s really upbeat – like the Matrix theme – expect to see a crazed action scene!

  12. Mac_V April 14, 2011 at 9:03 PM #

    I’ve started to annoy people with my obsession with the TANGLED soundtrack. BUT I LOVE IT SO MUCH! I love the story and the music that goes with it is wonderful. I especially love the Kingdom Dance. I think it’s a great track!

    I know we’ve had these talks before about music, but it’s just a point that we can’t stop mentioning! Because I seriously cannot write without a soundtrack going. Sometimes I don’t even have motivation to write and all it takes is turning on one of my playlists and suddenly I have a scene in my mind and I can work! It’s amazing how music can do that.

    I can’t wait to hear more about my lovely other boyfriend. Do you have any music that specifically makes you think of him? I know I have some music that fits specific characters as well as scenes. I’m sure you have some awesome bad-ass music for Celaena for sure! 😉

    Mer ❤

    P.S. Even my boyfriend is dying to read Queen of Glass now. Apparently I forgot to tell him it wasn't coming out until Fall of 2012 and he flailed off the bed and pouted for the rest of the night!

  13. Aurora Blackguard April 15, 2011 at 8:05 AM #

    TANGLED TANGLED TANGLED! Kingdom Dance has got to be the most awesome instrumental I’ve heard! And the Sherlock Holmes soundtrack is TO DIE FOR!!! And the WICKED soundtrack! And The Bravery! And Switchfoot’s Yet! GAHHHH!!! 😀 If there’s no music, even if I’m not really listening, nothing’s getting written 🙂 And just for that splash of classical, I love Beethoven’s Pathetique and Stravinsky’s THE FIREBIRD!! 😀

  14. Amber April 15, 2011 at 7:43 PM #

    YES! There has been many times where I’ll be listening to a song and suddenly it’ll remind me of my characters or an idea for a scene. A couple years ago when I was working on a contemporary novel of mine I was listening to “Rise Above This” by Seether. When it hit the middle where it says: I’ll mend myself before it gets me 4 times – I could see 4 of my characters (who all used to be friends), their faces and their feelings over the one thing that kind of broke them apart to begin with. Ever since then Seether became my musical muse.

    Now that I’ve been working on a YA fantasy/fairy tale type of story, I’ve really gotten into soundtracks. (Which is why I always get giddy when I see you post new ones, lol) I discovered this piece: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ol89mpeZq6E a while back and have been in love with it ever since. The first time I listened to it, a scene that changes my main character’s life forever came up.

    I really don’t see how people can write without music because if I try to, it just doesn’t work out.

  15. N.V. Petite April 15, 2011 at 10:16 PM #

    Sometimes, music inspires me more often than I like and it leaves me with too many projects and things undone. =(

    This song is what I’m currently replaying in winamp. xD

    *Actually, their symphonic albums are pretty nice.


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