Thursday, 4 August 2016

Writing with Ambient Sound

It’s a common question for writers. I’m sure you’ve been asked a few times in the past. Do you write with music or silence? It’s almost up there with “are you a plotter or a pantser?” I’ve always come down on the silence side of things. If I’m writing I need to be free from auditory distractions. Even if it’s just instrumental music it can pull me away. Interestingly though, I can program while listening to music, unless it is really intense algorithmic code. But enough about my day job.

I do find music very inspiration for setting the scene, but I’d prefer to listen to it before I write.

Recently, however, I came across something new and a little bit weird. It may work for some people. Writing with scene-appropriate ambient noise.

I write a lot of sci-fi, so many of my scenes are set on a space ship. When Star Trek: The Next Generation was first produced in the late 80s they made the decision to layer the engines of the Enterprise subtly rumbling in the background. If you pay attention you’ll hear it in every single scene set on the ship. It was probably a hotly debated decision. Would audiences really want that sound constantly in their ears while watching the show? It worked out well for them. It really added to the realism of feeling like you were on the ship with the characters.

Did you know that people have made looping videos of the Enterprise engine ambient noise on youTube? Want to get away from it all escape to the 24th century? Just close your eyes, pop on some headphones and listen to this:

That’s right 24 hours of engine humming! Don’t have it up too loud, though. It’s got to be subtle. Some people even fall asleep listening to this.

Getting back to my writing, I thought it would be cool to put this on in the background to enhance my setting. Make me feel like I was on a spaceship. It was pretty cool actually.

That’s when I found that ambient noise is a big thing on youTube. I was writing a story with a Victorian (1800s England, not the state in Australia) setting. Sure enough, I found a nice little video with ambient sounds of a Victorian street at night. It helped me get into the right head-space.

Writing a scene in a jungle?, writing a modern warfare scene? Have a scene on a tropical beach?, a restaurant?, the wild west?, a sailing ship? a city street or perhaps you’re writing a medieval battle scene. And we can’t forget everybody’s favourite sound of all - rain.

These background sounds certainly help me get into the setting. (It helps that I have an unlimited NBN plan). There is still, of course, the potential for distraction, but overall I think it is helping more than hindering, so I’ll continue to experiment with it. Not to mention, it’s just cool fun.

What about you? Do you think ambient sounds would help you get into the setting for your scenes? Have you used it before? What’s the most unusual setting you’ve managed to find sounds for?

Adam David Collings is an author of speculative fiction. He lives in Tasmania, Australia with his wife and two children. Adam draws inspiration for his stories from his over-active imagination, his life experiences and his faith.

Adam is a great lover of stories, enjoying them in books, movies, scripted TV and computer games. Adam discusses these on his own youTube show – Stories with Adam Collings.

Find him at or sign up to his email list for a free short story.


  1. Great post Adam. I'm a non fiction writer so don't usually think of 'setting' - or not very much. I do love having music in the background often when I write. I did have a listen to the ambient sounds in Star Trek and Victorian London at night. Don't think I like the sound of that but am sure there are those who will find it helpful. The ocean sounds were right up my street though! :) Thanks for opening our ears to the possibility of using ambient sounds to inspire us. Great idea!

  2. Hi Adam, what a great idea. I've listened to You-tube clips of settings or of creatures I'm writing & I loved the CD of Mt Isa's westerly winds (for nostalgic reasons). Haven't thought of using it as a background to writing. Usually I write to silence.

    1. I bet the Mt Isa sounds would have been inspiring for Heart of The Mountain.

  3. Hi Adam. This is so useful. I'm going searching now 😊

  4. What a clever idea. No music for me as I tend to listen and get distracted. However I can write with the TV on because I automatically tune it out.I did like the gloomy London Victorian mood sounds though. But after a few goes I'd be waiting for that pub door to open with all the talk spilling out. Hard to please aren't I?

  5. Haha, Rita, I thought you might like the London Street at Night :)
    Thanks so much for this post, Adam. While I very much dislike auditory distractions when I work, I checked the resources you listed and found a wonderful use for the beach scene: helping a friend who can't turn his brain off fall asleep. The Lord knew who you wrote this post for!