How Music Fosters Creativity

With my imagination roaring and cup of jo at my side, I sat at my desk determined to rewrite a scene in Warrior’s Ruin involving axes, gore, and a fair bit of necromancy. Then, as usual, It happened.

It has many names (writers block, impostor syndrome, self-doubt, etc.), but lets just call it resistance and I armed myself with one of my favorite weapons when I felt it take root: music.

Listening to music while writing has always worked for me, but  I never thought about why it worked. So, after I finished my writing session, I did some research on the subject. Turns out there’s scientific research supporting the claim that listening to music can potentially help you be creative.

How? Well…

Music puts you in “mind-wandering” mode.

Coined and studied by neurologists Marcus Raichle, mind-wandering is when the brain conjures up a series of unrelated thoughts that freely flow throughout the consciousness like daydreaming. It’s when we’re able to solve problems, generate ideas, and–ding! ding!–be creative.

But, there’s a catch!

You wont experience “mind-wandering” if you’re stressing. So worrying about that bit of sappy dialogue you just wrote or wrestling with comparisonitis is counterproductive.

In 2011, Finnish researchers found that when our brains process the timbre of a song, our default-mode network (associated with mind-wandering mode) is activated, inspiring creativity.

Rebecca Adams

But, you have to like what you’re listening to.

The objective is to be relaxed, so it’s totally illogical to listen to something that irritates you. Also, and equally obvious, what you consider to be “good music” depends on your mood and other factors. You don’t have to listen to music to get your mind wandering! You could choose whale sounds, rain ambience, seaside noises, and etc..

Just find what works for you and go for it.

Although you’re suppose to be slightly distracted, …

Our brains are horrible multitaskers and we take advantage of this by slightly distracting it when we’re listening to music. There’s no way that it can simultaneously process music, be creative, and conjure up self-destructive thoughts effectively.

Do two or more things simultaneously, and you’ll do none at full capacity.

Brandon Keim

…it can’t be too distracting.

Unfortunately, this means its VERY easy to overstimulate your brain if you play music louder than you can think! The only thing your brain will be able to do is process the music, reducing your creative output. Keep it low enough where you can focus on writing (or what have you) and enjoy your tunes.

…both moderate and high noise levels lead to more abstract processing as compared to a low noise level. The higher construal level then induces greater creativity in the moderate-noise condition; however, the very high level of distraction induced by the high-noise condition, although it prompts to a higher construal level, also creates reduced information processing, thus impairing creativity.

Ravi Mehta, Rui (Juliet) Zhu and Amar Cheema, Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition

In short, listening to music while doing a creative activity (like writing) exploits the brain’s Achilles heel. Keep in mind that this wont work all the time as we humans are adaptable, but music can give us a fighting chance against resistance.

If you’re a nerd like me who likes learning new things, visit the links in this post and read the articles for yourself. While you’re at it, check out the post that inspired me to write this one: Why You Will NEVER Write a Novel by C.S. Knight.

Do you listen to music while you write? What genre do you listen to?

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