How Music Helps Creativity

Coffee hot and fingers ready, I sat at my desk this morning determined to rewrite a scene in 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 taking root: music.

Listening to music while I’m writing has always worked for me, but  I never thought about why it worked. So I finished my writing session, like a good creative, and did some research on the subject. Turns out that listening to music can help the creative mind.

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 be creative.

There’s a catch!

You can’t experience the wonders of “mind-wandering” if you’re stressing over your sappy dialogue or upcoming electric bill. Stress, in general, is bad news! You must be relaxed and music can help you get there:

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 (Barbie Girl…ugh!).

The ‘right’ music — meaning, the right music for you at a particular point in time, because it’s subjective and idiosyncratic — pushes you into this mind-wandering state. You relax and you let your thoughts flow from one to another, and that’s how you get into creativity.

Daniel J. Levitin

Heck, you don’t even have to listen to music! 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! We can use this to our advantage by slightly distracting it (listening to music) while we’re creating. 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.

Don’t overstimulate your brain by playing music louder than you can think! The only thing your brain will be able to do is process the music and thus reduce your creativity. Keep it low enough where you can focus on writing 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. It can only do so much at one time. Obviously this wont work all the time as we humans are adaptable, 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.
Also, consider buying me a coffee if you enjoyed this post or if you, you know, liked being here and all (*stares*).

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Lets chat! Do you listen to music when you write or are being creative? What type of music do you listen to?

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