Music to write to
There are two types of people in the world: Those who listen to music while they write, and those for whom silence is golden.
For the lover of silence, the idea that one can create words (or anything) with music pounding is just absurd. It’s a disturbance not a muse.
On the other hand, music enthusiasts swear by their ability to write faultless prose while head-banging to System of The Downs.
Both will back up their personal choice by citing studies, papers, and random Mashable articles that prove their for or against stance. But what is the truth behind these studies? Is music really the key to productivity that some people will claim it to be; or is it messing with our minds?
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind
There is no single answer to these questions, mainly because there is no single question being asked here.
What we find when we dig deeper is that most of the research is task specific. As well as being individual-specific.
So whether you have music at all, and what type of music you prefer, will depend on what kind of task you’re approaching (and how your brain is wired in the first place).
There’s not much we can do to re-wire you, but we can link a recommended musical selection to the ‘immersive-ness’ of the project you’re working on.
The truth behind the tunes
Gregory Ciotti lays out a comprehensive list of which kinds of activity suits which kinds of music – and where to avoid it all together.
Ciotti suggests that for learning activities, where information must be taken in, processed, and analysed, music should be avoided at all costs (parents take note!). Even subtle noises can be a huge distraction and we get easily interrupted by changes in levels or types of noise.
On the other hand, when creativity is your top priority, a certain level of ambient noise could be your new best friend.
While high levels of noise will definitely inhibit your processing powers (making you less creative and probably also more irritable!), moderate levels of noise can distract those processing powers — which has the side-benefit of making you more creative.
And if you get the level of distraction just right, then you can put your brain into peak creativity.
This happens because while your brain is attempting to navigate the (mild) distraction, it becomes better at making abstract connections. And it’s the abstract connections that contribute to your creative powers.
Which is why it can be more productive to work with a level of background ‘white’ noise (like in a coffee shop or an office) than in complete silence.
If we can stimulate just enough brain activity (similar to doing a mundane task), we can switch off any temptation to be distracted, and we can switch on our imagination and higher processing skills. Without even realising it.
No need to ‘get into the zone’; we are already in it.
These ambient noises can be background noises, that are not too high or low, not too loud. And music is the perfect accompaniment. Choose something that fits that pattern: no heavy bass beats and no shrill, upbeat chorus lines.
In fact, words at all are not your friend. Whilst music during repetitive tasks may help to increase productivity and improve your mood, when you are working with words, listening to lyrics is distracting. It turns you off the task in hand — which can be both frustrating and debilitating.
To keep a steady flow of inspiration, the ultimate choice of background music to write to is Baroque. More so than any other classical music because of the repetitive nature of the rhythm.
Or you can go electronic with the SimCity soundtrack — perfect for heightened creativity and concentration.
Both of these are consistent with that requirement for zero lyrics, and no twists or turns to distract you.
And jazz is the worst choice of all because of the jarring notes and the lack of a regular rhythm. Turn the Miles Davis off until the writing’s done for the day.
The ear of the beholder
But does this hold true for everyone?
- What about the students blaring music in their rooms while deconstructing Shakespeare?
- Famous writers who insist that music makes the words go ‘round?
- And your partner who vows that the Rolling Stones are an essential aspect of his or her after-work productivity sessions?
Whatever ‘we’ may think, there is still an element that goes beyond personal taste. We’re all still individuals; and, what we might find ‘ambient’, someone else will find annoying.
We’ve developed and grown our tastes and tolerances according to what we’ve experienced over the years, and what our level of engagement has been with different types of music.
Our choice of music to write to seems to be a function of self-regulation. Something that each writer must develop himself or herself – which explains why no two writers can agree on what type of music to listen to tapping the keys.
Just as you might not agree with your partner one what temperature to set the room at, we’ve all developed a writing / listening preference over the years, and we’ll find it hard to budge.
Rules of music
If navigating the world of music seems complicated, we’ve put it into a simple checklist:
- Pre-work. The right music will boost your mood, so choose something that lifts your spirits. Something familiar and energising.
- High-processing and, especially, learning tasks. Silence is key here. Find a quiet environment and turn off any and all distractions. Including the tunes.
- Repetitive tasks. The link between productivity and music for low-processing, repetitive tasks seems to hinge on mood. (think: music to exercise to). Keep it light, cheerful and, if it’s a manual task, then something you can sing to is perfect.
- Creative, low processing tasks (this includes most of your writing!). You want something with a regular, dare I say monotonous, rhythm. You’re going for maximum ambience; minimum disruption. Just enough of a background noise that you are not actually listening, it’s simply suppressing your brain’s processing power, and releasing its creativity
Whispered in the sounds of silence?
Unfortunately, there’s no definitive evidence you can cite that will finally convince your partner to stop blaring music while you work.
Nor can you persuade your colleagues that your classical music is undoubtedly making them smarter. Chances are, what you find stimulates your creativity, won’t work for someone else.
However, there is a helpful compromise: if people around you are easily distracted by your choice of music, there are countless playlists, apps and gadgets that can help you pick songs with a rhythmic tempo.
We recommend 8.tracks.com for free low-tempo playlists that might work for everyone.
Or if your partner or colleague’s taste in music is bothering you, try to compromise on ‘ambient’ soundtracks that don’t feature lyrics. Switch between the Baroque and SimCity; or simply search for the thousands of rainforest, seaside, or rain background sounds on YouTube, Spotify, or Pandora.
And if you were here looking for the answer to heightening your productivity and creativity – chances are you’ve already found it over the years. You’ve been naturally self-regulating your musical environment while you write. And making a change now may not make for creative — or domestic — bliss.
If all else fails, whisper in the sound of musical silence and stretch your creativity by experiencing the ambient background of a local coffee shop.