Inspiration

Classical Music to Set Any Scene

Most authors listen to music while they write. But, as anyone who’s assembled a playlist knows, picking the right pieces can be tricky. There’s a whole world of songs to choose from, but when writing a particular scene, a composition with a particular mood or feeling can help the creative process. Whether you need ambiance, a soundtrack, or simply a cool non-lyrical song to listen to, these classical pieces, all available through the magic of YouTube, will inspire you.

Eerie Foreshadowing

Are those footsteps? Was the closet door open before? Why are all my clothes inside out? Something is going on, and your hero is only just now beginning to understand. Supernatural forces beyond their control are moving chess pieces into place, preparing. For what, you ask? Well… you’ll see. Use these songs to send shivers of anticipation down every spine.

Quartet No. 7 by Dmitri Shostakovich

Full of eerie intensity, this quartet brings with it a sort of uncanny energy from somewhere beyond the music. In the first movement, listen to the development of themes and interplay of the instruments; appreciate the simple-yet-haunting accompaniment, sudden sforzandos, and strategic use of plucking. Next, the second movement introduces a set of interlocking but distinct solos, overlapping with one another to evoke some truly enchanting shudders; appreciate the sense of foreboding and use of silence. Last, leap into the third movement with a sudden set of quick violin notes followed by slower cello tones, which rapidly crescendo out of their juxtaposition into a high-tempo culmination that swells and then retreats, the unpredictability adding an element of fear while reincorporating the themes from the first movement.

Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns

For a more upbeat and spooky, rather than chilling, sound, this tune provides a delightful dance of death, smoothly transitioning from slow monotones to violent tritones* to dramatic chords and back. Listen to the themes and interplay between piano and violin, and thrill at the captivating climaxes. Adding to the piece’s quirky strangeness, the music obliges the soloist to retune their E string to an E-flat, which is an unusual requirement. Danse Macabre is, in fact, a story of its own. Over the course of the tune, darkness falls; skeletons rise from their graves and dance in the night until the rooster crows, and with the break of dawn, they return to the earth to sleep again – ample inspiration for your own wonderfully spooky, macabre scenes.

Mikrokosmos No. 101, Diminished 5th by Béla Bartok

A weird, short composition played by a lone piano, Mikrokosmos* uses that same devilish tritone to lend both dissonance and symmetry. Despite the bizarreness of the discordant notes and strange rhythms, the piece still feels balanced, lending itself to a kind of uncomfortable, ghoulish wrongness that will suit your psychological labyrinths and nightmarish dreamlands quite nicely.

Le Carnaval des Animaux, mvmt. 7 Aquarium by Saint-Saëns

Because Mikrokosmos is so short, here is another brief piece to supplement it. Mystical scales and arpeggios supplement a haunting, simple theme,* dazzling and mystical in its twinkling dance. It is less nightmarish and more akin to fairy realms, mushroom rings, and goblin dances. It is creepy but entrancingly beautiful – surely suggesting that there is whimsy on the horizon.

Majestic Scenery

The lush, rolling valleys. The mountains towering overhead. The beat of the dragon’s powerful wings. The crystal spires rising into the sky. The purple runestone paving the road to destiny. These songs are full of intensity and immense scale. Use them to paint your readers’ imagination with the wonders of your world.

Of Glorious Plumage by Richard Meyer

Appreciate the climactic builds and interlocking scales; bathe in the swell of crescendos and skilled solos. This piece was created, as the title suggests, to call to mind images of birds and feathers and flight, but it will work just as well to set any grand and sweeping scenery.

Peer Gynt mvt. 1 by Edvard Greig

Heralded in by wind-instrument solos that build into glorious arpeggios, grace notes, and trills like delicious icing on the cake, this full-symphony piece exhibits the complete range of its instruments. Peer Gynt is a famous composition and is a story in itself. Movement 1 is the main character’s journey from his home, awed by the beauty and wonder of a world he’d never yet explored. Such wonder can be transcribed into your scenes as well.

Fanfare for the Common Man by Aaron Copland

This glorious mix of blaring trumpets and pounding percussion bring a sense of grandeur to any scene. The ascending arpeggios, thunderous drumbeats, and clapping cymbals signal the significance of your landscape, its incredible magnitude, and the importance and substance of the picture you’ve painted. Give your images weight and depth with Fanfare for the Common Man.

Otherworldly Atmosphere

Blinking lights on the dashboard of the ship, the shiny smoothness of future tech, the buzzing of the hologram feed, and the hum of gravity generators underfoot. An alien landscape, glowing craters of irradiated rock, spiky phosphorescent ice crags. The chilly expanse of space, the pinpricks of distant stars, the soft nothingness of slipping into cold sleep. Even the stars aren’t the limit to your descriptions.

Neptune by Gustav Holst

Chimes, harp, wind, choir, and orchestra coalesce into this famous musical depiction of the blue gas giant. Deceptively simple parts weave in and out, each adding to the otherworldliness of this music. Scales up and down on the harp, accompanied always by a deep bass undertone, bring alien landscapes to mind. Not eerie enough to seem uncanny, not normal enough to seem earthly, Neptune strikes a beautiful balance between the known and unknown, perfect for encompassing both the wonder and strangeness of the world you’ve constructed.

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune by Claude Debussy

The piece begins with a haunting flute solo and progresses into a sprawling work of unorthodox harmonies and musical tensions. Less eerie than Neptune, Debussy’s piece better serves wondrous descriptions rather than dark or ominous ones, erring on the mystical side between unearthly and creepy. Originally composed with the music of a faun’s panpipes in mind, this piece works well for any alien atmosphere or speeding space shuttle. Listen closely, and you’ll hear the tritones mentioned in the section above, chromatically outlined in the opening flute solo.

Beautiful Horizon by Louis Viallet

This is the only one of these songs to also feature a vocalist (though not a choir). Don’t worry – it’s still non-lyrical. The pounding score builds majestically to a throbbing climax followed by a quiet piano ending. It’s easy to imagine sunlight breaking gloriously across the face of a planet, a nebula rising majestically around a spacecraft, or a burning supernova beyond the airlock.

Action and Mayhem

Biff! Pow! Bam! Flying fists, hissing lasers, clanging metal! Engines gunning, sweat and screams, pounding feet! She’s losing blood, we’re taking on water, they’re catching up! High stakes, high drama, high action! Time for your main character to truly earn the title of hero and set your readers’ hearts a-pounding.

Quartet No. 8 mvt. 2: Allegro Molto by Dmitri Shostakovich

The best word to describe this piece is angry. This piece is set at a breakneck pace, accented by ferocious jabs of sound, made by quick bow circles on the string, and contains truly ominous solos by each instrument. Movement 2 validates fury, calls for vengeance, and screams betrayal. It ends as abruptly as it begins. The sordid backstory of this composition is very telling. Composed after two traumatic events – the composer’s learning the first symptoms of chronic muscle pain that would later be diagnosed as lateral sclerosis, and his reluctantly joining the Communist Party – Quartet No. 8 was written in only three days and dedicated to “the victims of fascism and the war.” After its first performance, Shostakovich buried his head in his hands and wept. Use his anger to fuel your action and give speed to your heroes’ righteous quests.

Devil’s Dance by John Williams

Begun with delicious Bartok-esque plucking,* pounding piano accompaniment, and those devilish tritones, this piece is fast and technical, full of double stops and high positions. It may be a Halloween staple, but it can just as easily call to mind the action of your scene.

A Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky

The speed and ferocity of this piece give it a breakneck forward momentum that never drops. Sudden blasts from the horns and unexpected sforzandos make it impossible to predict what will happen next – perfect for your chase or fight scene. Rapid scales and angry melodies keep the pace and the sense of danger present at all times in the form of pulsing accompaniment. Exciting, grand, epic, never pausing for more than a few seconds, A Night on Bald Mountain will give your scene immense impetus and nail-biting gravity.

Palladio by Karl Jenkins

A steady beat, a simple violin melody that speaks to a kind of boiling, quiet anger that builds tension to a triumphant climax and finale, this relatively short but memorable composition works for both physical and nonphysical combat (such as a battle of wits) or perhaps for the rising action leading to the final confrontation. This could also serve the hero’s emotional peak quite nicely, with a medley of rage, pressure, drama in violin solos and rising crescendos, and throbbing accompaniment that calls to mind a ticking clock.

Romance and Love

Tender interpersonal moments, the development of a relationship, the lovebirds’ first date as they exchanging glances across the room, secret smiles, and shared laughter. Use this music to set the table, lay out the finest silver, and light those lovely aromatic candles, because love is in the air.

Venus by Gustav Holst

Is it cheating to point to the composition literally named after the Roman goddess of love? Eh, it’s probably fine. A laid-back tempo, harmonious plucks, and divinely complementary parts give life and emotion to this music. Enjoy the melodious solos, the impressive dynamics, the teasing of darker, less congruent themes beneath the pearly sheens of the main melodies. A taste of triumph, a taste of tragedy; coordination and disjunction – what could be more like love?

Liebeslieder by Johann Strauss II

Cheery, dance-like, peppered with lively little solos and grand musical swells both fast and slow in different parts, this piece manages to be grand, light, and playful simultaneously. Tiny thrills, sunny moments, a waltz of jaunty attraction, Liebeslieder uses all of the instruments in the ensemble to full effect, chronicling the happy and silly side of affection.

Serenade for Strings Op. 48: II.: Valse by Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Another dance-like number, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade is full of little trills and lovely moments where the violins play alone into high melodies. A slower tempo, less grand and more evoking of a long-term relationship, this piece is upbeat and will set the stage for characters more familiar with the deeper ins and outs of being in love.

Tragedy and Downfall

The death of a loved one, the loss of a battle, the closing of the way forward. Your protagonist’s emotional stakes have come to a head. There’s nobody for them to turn to, nobody who understands their struggle. It’s hopeless, it really is, and there’s no way out of these dumps. They need a good cry, so use this music to encourage the readers to put their reservations aside and weep alongside the hero.

Zigeunerweisen mvt. 1 by Pablo de Sarasate

Long, variable fermatas and soulful, wide vibrato bring life to this famous composition. Zigeunerweisen is the rare fast-tempo yet sad movement, with extraordinary agony and emotion brought to every bow stroke, fast or slow, high or low. Enjoy the incredible variation of the soloist’s pitch, ranging from the lowest G-string tones to E-string notes played with the left hand held high enough to nearly touch the bow. Feel the incredible power of amplified dynamics that bring heroic tragedy to the entire movement. (In the linked recording, the first movement ends at 6:44.)

Peer Gynt mvt. 2 by Edvard Grieg

In this second chapter of Peer Gynt’s story, the titular character has been away too long and gone too far, and in his absence, his mother passes away. This is our hero’s grief, and if you listen carefully, all the five stages are here. This slow movement brims with emotion and intensity, is full of wide vibrato, and is set in a dramatic minor key. Perfect to bring on a good cry.

Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso by Camille Saint-Saëns

A composition with both feet firmly in the Romantic era of music, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso combines wide, intense vibrato with 32nd notes so quick you’ll swear they were grace notes. Glissandos, harmonic scales, and theatrical trills all add to the air of tragedy. Even the more upbeat sections carry that pained undercurrent. This piece can mutually support a character’s trauma and recovery, with its dramatic tone shifts and sudden, resonant chords conveying the difficulty of experiencing both – and, by the end, overcoming them with a final triumphant beat.

Oblivion by Astor Piazzolla

A mournful solo framed by low, throbbing accompaniment weeps with lament; dark and dramatic, full of vibrato and heaviness, this piece speaks of shattered lives, lost loved ones, and terrible times. Relatively brief but packed full of soul-melting heartbreak, Oblivion is aptly named.

Meditative Reflection

So much has changed since we first met your hero. Their trials and tribulations, their arc and climax – it’s been quite a ride. Maybe this is just a rest between scenes, or maybe your whole story is winding down. Either way, it’s a time for reflection, to see how many mountains we’ve traversed. These songs will help your readers appreciate just how far we’ve come.

Gymnopédie No. 1 by Erik Satie

Simple melodies and a slow tempo come like a breath of fresh air on a hot day. Serene and soothing, it’s hard not to sink into this harmonious collection of chords and humble scales. The piano’s lone voice contributes to the calm, lacking any accompaniment instruments that could add potentially stressful or distracting complexity. In fact, Satie’s collection of Gymnopédies are considered innovative precursors to modern ambient music.

Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Pärt

Like Gymnopédie, this music’s strolling tempo and long, simple melodies encourage tranquility and reflection. The violin part and piano part complement each other with beautiful simplicity, the former never venturing beyond tranquil long notes, full of vibrato and almost heavy with sleep. This piece comes with a tinge of sadness; perhaps your reflections are of innocence lost, of a commemoration of loved ones relegated to memories, or of the simple fact that things will never again be the way they once were.

Sun Will Set by Zoë Keating

Sweet and laid-back, this contemporary piece showcases the best of beautiful cello music. As instruments are gradually added, this piece almost sounds like a canon, with repeated, deceptively simple-seeming melodies that overlap one another along with ubiquitous themes, giving the music flow and tone. Sun Will Set lends itself to fond memories, reflections of positive change, and happiness.

Celebration and Catharsis

Now that all of that reflection is over, it’s time to revel! Get out the streamers and light the candles, magic up a house band, and call all of your hero’s best friends. Maybe it’s a wedding, a birthday party, or a ceremony. In any case, there’s fun to be had! Get your readers in the party mood with these songs.

Zigeunerweisen mvt. 2 by Pablo de Sarasate

Enthusiastic and quick, played high on the fingerboard, fun glissandos and cheerful chords bring startling life and energy to the whole of Zigeunerweisen, a far cry from its morose first movement. Marvel at the plucking incorporated seamlessly within speedy bowing; appreciate the violinist’s ability to play so fast and upbeat. It’s hard to feel down after such a peppy movement.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D Major mvt. 1 by Joseph Haydn

Orchestra, wind, and piano come together for a cheerful and charming concerto. Much more relaxed than Zigeunerweisen, this piece has a moderate tempo and uses a major key. Although it features some sections that tease darker tones, these are quickly lifted up again by the jaunty piano solo. If your happy ending has a bittersweet taste, this is the song to set it.

Jupiter by Gustav Holst

Upbeat and light, featuring some merry horn action, Jupiter truly is the “Bringer of Jollity.” This work transitions through several different flavors of shindig, from light and dance-like, to fast and spritely, to brilliant and shining, to grand and cathartic. No matter what type of happy revelry you’ve picked, Jupiter will provide a wonderful backdrop.


Listening to music while writing is a wonderful way to get in the mood and stay invested in your work. Tailoring your playlists to fit certain scenes can make them so much better. Music is a powerful tool at your disposal, and this is only a brief sampling of the sheer number of scene-setting songs out there. Hopefully, it has given you an ample sampling and a heavy dose of inspiration.

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Comments

  1. Cip

    Wonderful list! Can I also suggest Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for foreboding and foreshadowing – the primal rawness can be extremely unsettling and create a very fraught and tense atmosphere.

  2. Kalani

    I also recommend the YouTube channel Emily-Roll for fantasy (something along those lines, it’ll come up). She does really good fantasy music.

  3. Tifa

    How synchronous–I was just thinking about Danse Macabre earlier today.

  4. Richard

    With regards to “Action and Mayhem”, every time I hear this, I don’t know whether to defend a village from bandits or smoke a carton of Marlboros (yes, I’m old enough to remember cigarette commercials on TV):
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3o8yQW5sWw4

    For “Meditative Reflection”, this is the most mellow piece of music ever written:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrEMHDgN5dI

    And if you just want ambient sounds to set a mood, this website has pretty much everything you might want:
    https://www.ambient-mixer.com/

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