Mental Music

March 16, 2012 at 5:39 pm (writing) (, , , , , )

The discussion came up in one of my writers’ groups as to whether it’s better to listen to music while you write or to sit in silence. Opinions differed, and I don’t think that any one answer is correct. Some people want a completely distraction-free environment and that’s how they work best, but that’s not what I find works for me, and I’m not alone. Others insist that they can only listen to instrumental music and that lyrics draw them away from what they are writing. Once again, I don’t share that belief, for my own writing. I enjoy listening to music when I write and find it highly inspirational, preferably songs with lyrics and most often alternative rock.

I’m not suggesting that my method would work for everyone. Some people need to be very single-minded when they do something creative, but even in silence, my brain is cluttered and music seems to help me to drown out some of the clutter and to focus. Considering I’m one of those oddball dual-sided thinkers, I wouldn’t expect my creative process to match that of the typical right-brained scribe.

Science does provide some positive evidence for those in favour of listening to music as they write. There are scholastic studies that support the notion music heightens creative processes through increased pleasurable emotions, although particularly with music that the individual enjoys. While not necessarily having drastic effects, there is an “enjoyment arousal” factor (a term coined by C. F. Chabris) that can improve creative performance (see details of stimulating effects of music in the study paper “Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion” by Anne J. Blood and Robert J. Zatorre, from McGill University). The study specifically shows an increase in higher thought processes and a decrease in the more animalistic brain functions in response to the music. The music also has a calming effect (as per the Harvard Gazette article, Music on the brain:
Researchers explore the biology of music, by William J. Cromie), and relaxation is helpful when trying to be creative.

A second paper from McGill supports that emotional responses correlate to the music played, something else we discussed in the group. If you are writing a love scene versus a battle scene, the two definitely call for different musical playlists to generate the appropriate ambiance.

The studies also support those who say they need to write in silence. If a writer hasn’t found a type of music that can draw that pleasurable reaction, then the response to the dissonance caused by the music is the exact opposite – the music would create a negative result and actually draw their attention away from other things, such as the story they are trying to create. It could very well be that those who need silence in order to write have yet to find a music with which their mental functions are in sync, if one exists for them at all.

Musical food for thought…



  1. theleagueofelder said,

    You’d laugh if you saw what was on my Ipod, Chantal.

  2. chantellyb said,

    Lol – would it make me question your mental state?

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