Creativity and Music

It’s Go-time.

Fling the curtains open. Sit down in your office chair. See the glare of sunlight on your monitor, and pull the curtains closed again. Plop a cushion down while you’re at it. Crack open that beer / soda / mango smoothie you’ve kept cooled to perfection. It’ll go untouched for awhile, but that’s okay. You just need the smell to get going. It’s a Writer thing.

Not opening the book is part of my ‘thing’. Lined paper drains me. *Sips wine out of a deer skull*

It’s all part of the ritual of chasing Creativity, or the Muse, or however you want to personify the hard-sought brain process that gets your writing going. It’s a fine mental tight-rope to walk, mixing focus and flights of fancy, calm and excitement. We all have our ways of trying to sink into it like a hot bath. And if something messes it up, we go skidding and flailing on the wet floor of the bathroom.

While everyone normally has their own ‘thing’ for getting into this mindset (I love microwave curry and writing at 2am myself), one of the most common creative catalysts I hear of is Music. That is, listening to it, rather than pulling out the tuba while your laptop is booting up.

So on this fine Monday, let’s take a look at just what music is doing for you while you are trying to create. Is Music beneficial to your Creativity?

Let the Rhythm Move You

You’re probably more than aware that music can be very stimulating, but it can be difficult to gauge just how much your mind and body is being affected by the song you are listening to. Take the case of Rande Davis Gedaliah, who in 2003 was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, an illness that causes uncontrollable muscle spasms that make it difficult to walk and balance.

Except for when she tunes into Queen’s ‘We Are the Champions’, which helped her muscles find control enough to walk at a slow pace. And if she wanted to walk faster, she would change the song to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the U.S.A’. Music was actually changing her brain and muscle control:

“We see patients develop something like an auditory timing mechanism,” says Concetta Tomaino, cofounder of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function in New York City. “Someone who is frozen can immediately release and begin walking. Or if they have balance problems, they can coordinate their steps to synchronize with the music, improving their gait and stride.”

Whether you realise it or not, the rhythm of music has a huge impact on the way your mind and body. The pace of the music can alter the pace of your thoughts and actions, particularly for songs with a strong rhythm. And since it’s a subconscious action, songs that you are familiar with and fond of , in Rane’s case Queen and Springsteen (good taste), have an even stronger power over you.

Freddie Mercury, with the Power to Heal. It’s all in the spandex.

But for those of you thinking of simply playing a metronome on loop next time they’re about to write, it’s not necessarily just rhythm; finding the right level of background noise (rather unhelpfully noted as simply ‘moderate’ in that article) gives you greater creativity than hiding in a quiet room. Or standing underneath an aeroplane.

Changing the Way your Brain Works

So there is a definite change in your mindset. Note that: a change, not necessarily an improvement.

Actions that require strong use of the subconscious, through muscle memory for example, will benefit from music. In this study from the Journal of the American Medical Association,¬†50 surgeons were tested on their ability to perform surgery while listening to music. The reaction times and performance were statistically improved by listening to music, particularly their favourite songs (I’m hoping ‘Stayin’ Alive’ was their favourite). Anxiety was down, speed and accuracy up.

“If you leaaave me now, you take away the biiiggest part of me… OOOO NO, BABY PLEASE DON’T GO!” “Johnson, I know it’s you, the mask is hiding nothing.”

If you can, picture the kind of mindset you would need for surgery; focused, ‘in-the-zone’, usually with set goals and emphasising action and reflex over planning and brainstorming. This is an area where music as an aid works.

Where it Doesn’t Work

But before you start telling your boss that you’re going to be bringing a boombox into the office, stop; hammer time-ahem, I mean, stop, there are downsides too. Where music is not so helpful is in absorbing and remembering new information. While the researcher who conducted the study noted that listening to music¬†before being asked to remember things can stimulate your brain and improve your retention, listening to music during particularly heavy cognitive tasks can really just be distracting.

And it doesn’t just depend on the task, it can depend on the song too. What can happen is that a piece can almost be too stimulating, and will demand your attention more. While rhythm seems to be great for ordering your subconscious to march like banging a war-drum, strong melodies and vocal parts can cause your brain power to be split.

For example, singing while in a car will lower your reaction time as it takes up too much of your thought process. And because it sounds so awful, though, that might not be scientifically accurate. And of course, it’s common sense to think that writing words will be hard to do when listening to someone else saying words.

But even a strong melody line without vocals, particularly if it’s new and unfamiliar, will cause you a bit of trouble as noted in this report, because it’s very much like listening to someone talking:

“… If you listen to a melody, a melody is made up of all these different little motifs, and those motifs go together to make up larger patterns and those larger patterns form bigger blocks that we build on,” says Chordia. “So it’s very similar to language, where you have these low level acoustic units like phonemes, which form syllables, which form words.”

– Parag Chordia, director of the Music Intelligence Lab at Georgia Tech

And yet it’s so easy to ignore buskers

How do you Think when Creating?

So let’s start getting this back to writing. How can we adapt all this information to finding the best way to use music for the creative process? Well, it depends how your brain needs to be working for the day. Are you sure what’s coming next in your piece? Do you have a plan or do you need to brainstorm? If you know where you’re going, you can be like the Surgeon and crank up some tunes to encourage your subconscious to let it flow. If you need to make some ideas, do some research and apply yourself, it’s probably best to turn Linkin Park off and use the music as background noise.

How much music will help may also come down to how you are visualising the piece that you are working on. Did you ever hear that old tale about how people of a certain age dreamed in black and white before the introduction of colour TVs? Recognising patterns like this in your thought process might be the key to your music choice.

The first known broadcast of ‘The Simpsons’ was not so iconic when you could not tell any of the characters were Yellow.

Personally, I visualise the events of my stories as cinematic, with changes of camera angle and shots to set the scene… and, most importantly, a soundtrack. If you work in a similar way, creating a ‘soundtrack’ to your writing using television, movie and video game soundtracks may be more beneficial to you than using the radio. This music is designed to work in a more supportive role, building very specific emotions without distracting the mind at all. It’s music that the audience would hear to encourage them into the scene.

And there’s a better reason for using Soundtrack music:

Music with Memory

Songs will be more useful if they have a strong memory for you that works for the scene you are writing.

Soundtrack music is ideal in that it is written to wholly encompass a single scene, theme or emotion. And if you know where the theme is from, you will have no trouble visualising its original use.

It could be something as simple as the mystique of ‘girl in cloak walking through snow’ or the hysterical image of ‘lots of child-like fairies trying to sing underwater’. Those might not mean a lot to you, but to me, they have a huge impact. Drawing on the full emotional investment of themes you have a connection with like this will often support your creativity better than music you are not so familiar with. Even if the unfamiliar piece brings on very strong emotions, the memory from seeing a piece used in a dramatic scene will be much more powerful to draw upon.

You can even create these memories while you write. Re-using pieces will help you associate that music with what you are creating.

So having a playlist dedicated to your writing can be a great tool for your creativity. Music jump-starts your brain and can settle you into a very specific mindset, and with a bit of careful preparation and playlist-tweaking you can direct your mindset to avoid distraction and truly immerse yourself into your writing. Thanks for reading!


Photo Credits

1. Notebook: sparkieblues / / CC BY-NC-ND

2. Classical Concert: / GNU Free Documentation License

3. Freddie Mercury: / / CC BY-SA

4. Surgery: Army Medicine / / CC BY

5. Headphones: matthew.hickey / / CC BY

6. Busker: tochis / / CC BY-NC

Front Page Tuba + Boy: churchstreetmarketplace / / CC BY