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Setting the Mood—What to Listen to While You Write and Create

Setting the Mood—What to Listen to While You Write and Create

Turn on music like this to influence your mood.

Jonathan Smith
Jonathan Smith

Many writers like to listen to music, ambient sounds, or noise while converting thoughts into words.

In a sea of Apple Music, Spotify, and Pandora, it’s difficult to find exactly what sounds might work for you.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer, so you’ll have to find out on your own. But, don’t fret. Use the music guide below to help start your exploration.

On This Page

Start Here Before Pressing Play

Some rules before we get started.

  1. Make a home base for listening. I use Apple Music, Spotify, and Tidal for my listening libraries to discover new music, apart from what I own on CD, vinyl, and iTunes. Only use audio sources (watching music on YouTube does not work).
  2. Choose instrumentals, mostly. Listening to words or lyrics of a song can be a major distraction. For me, if the words are in a language I do not know (like Portuguese), it does bother me.
  3. Genres and moods are two different categories. Sometimes they overlap, sometimes they do not. Categorize what you like into moods and you’ll most likely return to the playlist when you feel (or want to feel) that particular way.


Derived from Jody Michael’s blog post, “Feelings, Emotions and Moods: How to Say What You are Experiencing

Below are 7 moods and nested within are albums, tracks, and artists that I enjoy which I believe reflect each mood. Some selections work in multiple categories.

Tip: If there is a piece/song you like, check out the album and artist. You might find more to add to your personalized list.


Calm is centered between chaos like the eye of a hurricane. (Click to tweet.)

Andrew York

Solo acoustic/classical guitar can have a calming effect on the mind.

Andrew York makes the classical guitar sound like its made for our century. If you want instant gratification, definitely listen to Squares Suspended.

Andrew York /
Andrew York /

Check out Andrew York and his album, Yamour.

Learn more about Andrew York in this 2021 Acoustic Guitar/Classical Guitar article, Catching Up with Eclectic Guitarist and Composer Andrew York by Joseph Skibell.

George Winston

Similarly, acoustic piano does wonders for relaxation if the artist performs in a sensitive and understated way.

George Winston /
George Winston /

George Winston brings us into his relaxing world on his album, December.

Learn more about George Winston from his website.


Eudaemonism: a theory that the highest ethical goal is happiness and personal well-being. From the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Tuck Andress

Almost no music makes me as happy as listening to Tuck Andress. Melody, harmony, accompaniment, and percussion—he’s got it all under 10 fingers. His solo guitar playing and duo with his wife Patti are a go-to in our house.

Tuck & Patti /
Tuck & Patti /

Looking for uplifting music? Go no further.

Play Reckless Precision by Tuck Andress.

I absolutely love Tuck & Patti’s Facebook and Instagram. Check out their Facebook for livestreams and Tuck’s Tips for Guitar.

Alex de Grassi

If you don’t know about Windham Hill, stop what you’re doing and learn about the history through John Dark’s fan site, discography, and community, Windhaming. (But, come back here when you’re done.)

Alex de Grassi /
Alex de Grassi /

Alex de Grassi, fingerstyle guitarist, is one of the original Windham Hill artists showing incredible artistry and skill. A few of my favorites are found in the live compilation recordings from the early ‘80s. There, you’ll find Alex grouped with other greats of a similar feeling like Michael Hedges, William Ackerman, and George Winston.

All of his music is exciting and evokes happiness. If you need a starting place, check out the album, A Windham Hill Retrospective.

A quote from Alex’s bio:

Alex de Grassi has been a unique voice in the world of acoustic guitar for the past 42 years; his innovative approach to composing and arranging for solo steel-string guitar has influenced a generation of younger players. -Alex De Grassi Short Bio


Nostalgic or Nostalgia: A sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past. -@jmacoaching

Alexis Ffrench

My wife Angela Galestro found Alexis Ffrench when she needed it most.

Alexis Ffrench /
Alexis Ffrench /

His solo piano music helps you feel the past. Before now, and before yesterday. Family, friends, and all that you’ve encountered.

Reflect on this: Dreamland by Alexis Ffrench.

Learn more about Alexis on his website.

Don Ross

Any fingerstyle guitarist knows Don Ross by his astounding technique, expression, and rhythm drive. He makes the guitar sound like an orchestra of perpetual emotion.

Don Ross /
Don Ross /

This album has been in my head for about as long as I’ve played guitar. Listening to it always takes me back, and maybe it’ll take you back, too. (At least listen to Berkley Springs, you’ll be glad you did.)

Hear Don Ross on his self-titled album, Passion Session.

Learn more about Don here.


Astor Piazzolla

No one captures ALL the moods better than Astor Piazzolla. My flute and guitar ensemble, GS Duo, has studied and performed many pieces of his since 2010 and we have felt the depth of his compositions.

Astor Piazzolla with his bandoneon, 1971 / Wikipedia
Astor Piazzolla with his bandoneon, 1971 / Wikipedia

Oblivion, the 4 Seasons, and Libertango are a few of his famous works you may have heard of.

Hear the undeniable sense of energy found in the tango style by none other than the father himself, Astor Piazzolla, in this historical compilation, 4 Seasons of Buenos Aires. It is a record which captures the rawness of the style and Piazzolla’s character.

Learn more about Piazzolla here from Wikipedia.

Greg Howe, Victor Wooten, and Dennis Chambers

Extraction is by far one of my favorite instrumental rock albums of all time. Every time I hear the title track, I am injected with a dose of energy. (4:36 of track 1, Extraction, is by far one of the best moments in all instrumental rock history—wait for it…)

Greg Howe /
Greg Howe /

Virtuosos, Greg Howe, Victor Wooten, and Dennis Chambers, join together in a high-octane group-composed collaboration.

Victor Wooten /
Victor Wooten /
Dennis Chambers /
Dennis Chambers /

It’s the only recommendation today that features overdriven guitar, bass, and drums. But, keep an open-mind and give it a try.

I couldn’t find this album on Apple Music, but it’s on Spotify. Check it out here.


Sadness is but a wall between two gardens. -Kahlil Gibran. (Tweet this.)

Ludwig van Beethoven

If one of his could be called Ode to Sadness, this piece would be it.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820 /
Ludwig van Beethoven, Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820 /

Dark, sad, and depressing, Beethoven captures it all in movement 2 of Symphony No. 7, Allegretto. This was not too long after he started to go deaf.

Although there are many recordings of the work, Stokowski conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra unearths a soul-catching interpretation.

Hear the classical master composer reveal the soundtrack to your story. You can start with Allegretto, or hear it all in context with the full work.

Learn more about Beethoven’s deafness with an article written by the California Symphony.

Felix Mendelssohn

A composer is like an author of the dramatic genre—vulnerable, in charge, and alone. (Tweet this.)
Portrait of Mendelssohn by the German painter Eduard Magnus, 1846 /
Portrait of Mendelssohn by the German painter Eduard Magnus, 1846 /

Venetian Boat Song II from Songs Without Words by Felix Mendelssohn is a perfect example. Hear Jane Coop perform this work with the great expression and beauty, characteristics of her artistry.

Listen to more virtuosic classical pieces by composers Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, and Brahms on the same album performed by Jane Coop, The Romantic Piano.

Learn about Jane Coop on her website.


What is done in love is done well. -Vincent Van Gogh. (Tweet this.)

Luiz Bonfá

South American Guitar is like a love language in itself.

  1. Words of Affirmation
  2. Acts of Service
  3. Receiving Gifts
  4. Quality Time
  5. Physical Touch
  6. South American Guitar

Recently discovered brought to the Smithsonian archives, Luiz Bonfá is an important figure to recognize from South American guitar history.

Bonfá in 1962 /
Bonfá in 1962 /
A musician of virtuosity, subtlety, and passion, guitarist Luiz Bonfá (1922-2001) ranks among the key architects of the bossa nova sound and the greatest masters of Brazilian popular of the 20th century. —Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

If you need to hear right now what love sounds like on nylon-string guitar, check out track 10, Perdido de Amor (Lost in Love).

Hear the entire album in all of it’s beauty: Solo in Rio 1959 by Luis Bonfá.

There are recordings emerging from the archives day by day. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is the place to find them.

Martin Taylor

Jazz + fingerstyle guitar = Martin Taylor. He is a true master of contrapuntal jazz on a single guitar.

Martin Taylor /
Martin Taylor /

Combine his love for music and guitar with the authorship of your next piece of writing. Before you know it, you’ll imagine yourself in a Parisian café.

Check out Love Songs by Martin Taylor.

Learn from his bio, blog, and guitar courses on Martin’s website.


Ólafur Arnalds

When I heard this earlier in 2020, it couldn’t have come into my life at a better time. It has been a while since I could lay down, close my eyes, and get lost in an entire album.

Ólafur Arnalds /
Ólafur Arnalds /

Track 11, ekki hugsa, is one of my favorites. The English translation to the Icelandic pair of words is, “don’t think.” Fitting, isn’t it?

After listening to re:member by Ólafur Arnalds, it will pull you back to listen time and time again. A great reminder to catch up on your latest thoughts and feelings.

Listen here.

See more dimensions of Ólafur Arnalds here.

Bill Frisell

At 444,579 monthly listeners on Spotify, Bill Frisell undoubtably has a dedicated audience as a solo electric guitarist.

Bill Frisell /
Bill Frisell /

Bill’s fingers on the strings is like a painter with a brush. No two notes are played the same way where in the end, an entire musical picture comes to life.

The album MUSIC IS by Bill Frisell will send you on a contemplative journey.

Where does he take you?

Check out his album, particularly track 1, Pretty Stars.

See everything from his bio to his tour schedule on his website.

Pressing Pause, For Now

Like mentioned earlier, what works for you is highly personal and the suggestions above are to get you started, or to add to your current collection.

Sometimes I write with music on that inspires me and sometimes its in complete silence. Change it up and see how you respond.

If you want to bypass all the Apple Music links and try out all of these suggestions on shuffle, check out this 12-hour Spotify playlist.

But, if you like any of it, please support the artist by buying their music.

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