Music: Does it Help or Hinder Your Writing?

by Sierra Ret, jaBlog! Blogger


Music and Writing jaBlog!Does listening to music help or hinder the writing process? This question is as widely contested among individuals as it is among professional authors and neuroscientists. To say that the brain is a vastly complex place is an understatement, so it makes sense that the debate over what gets its creative juices flowing best would be a complicated one.

Some writers swear by their favourite writing playlists, while others insist on absolute silence while working. Both can cite numerous scientific studies to back up their opposing arguments. So who’s really in the right?

Here are three questions that tackle the issue of enjoying music while writing.

#1. What does the science say?

Before you even enter the writing debate, some stats on happiness and productivity are worth taking a look at this study by the Social Market Foundation. According to a recent study done in the UK, happier people are about 12% more productive. Likewise, numerous studies have shown that music has a positive effect on people and encourages feelings of happiness.

If you put those two facts together, you could end up with this equation: Music = happiness = more writing. But before we jump to conclusions, let’s look at the other side of the story.

Studies have also shown that music can be a hindrance while studying or working on other highly intensive tasks. The extra mental work of registering song lyrics can have a larger negative impact than you might realize. “Music with lyrics is very likely to have a problematic effect when you’re writing or reading. Probably less of an effect on math, if you’re not using the language parts of your brain,” says Stanford University professor Clifford Nass (link to full article).

Since writers are very much using the language parts of their brains, it’s obvious that there are certain kinds of music that should be avoided. Which brings the next question:

#2. What Kind of Music Should You Listen to?

As previously stated, music without lyrics is best. But within that requirement is an enormous amount of variety. Many writers find it helpful to choose music that fits their story’s setting: a dramatic, high intensity piece for a fantasy battle, or a more restrained classical Baroque performance for a historical drama.

One interesting option that writers may overlook are video game soundtracks. These recordings are designed to help players focus while completing difficult tasks and, most importantly, not become annoying after long periods. The Skyrim soundtrack is good example of this genre.

A final key factor to think of when choosing writing music is its familiarity. New music is surprising. You don’t know what will happen next, so your brain will be more inclined to pay it closer attention. A perfect example of this happened to me while writing this article. I tried listening to a new soundtrack and found it far more distracting than the one I’ve listened to dozens of times before.

#3. When Should You Listen to Music?

Some places are by nature difficult to write in: coffee shops, public transit, or even your own home. My biggest challenge is trying to write on long road trips in a car full of chattering family members with the radio blaring. In these situations, music, even a song with lyrics, is the only thing that can get me to focus.

It can also be difficult to get yourself back into the mood of the scene you’re trying to write after a long break. In these situations, appropriate music can get you back into that mental state you’re searching for, as well as signal to your brain that it’s time to work.

But if you’re right in the thick of a burst of inspiration where the words are flowing easily and your playlist happens to end, don’t stop. Taking the time to put a new song on is only going to distract you at that point. Stay in the moment, and keep the words coming.

In Summary

People are as widely varied as the music they write, and what works well for some writers may drive others mad. Regardless of the brain science behind the official recommendations, many authors still rely on lyric-rich music for inspiration, myself included. Experiment with different music genres and see what awakens the muse in you.


Sierra Ret

About Sierra Ret

Sierra Ret is an enthusiastic homeschool student with an insatiable love for reading and story telling. She divides her time between writing stories for competitions and producing nonfiction for jaBlog! and other freelance assignments. Sierra is the winner of the 2015 Polly Prize for Creative Writing.

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