Stop the music?

What I’m about to reveal will surely come as a surprise to some of my long-time writer friends. The news is, to me anyway, simply shocking. According to an item published recently in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, listening to music could “significantly impair” your creativity. The article was written by Naijja Parker.

I can hear the shouts now: “Say it ain’t so!” and “Stone the infidel!” But please, don’t aim at me.

The revelation stems from research conducted in England and Sweden on the impact of background music on creativity. The results were published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology.

The researchers used something called Compound Remote Associate Tasks (CRATs) in their testing of some 100 students. The subjects were required to complete the tasks, designed to evaluate “insight-based creative problem solving,” while also listening to background music. The tasks are fairly simple and involve such things as providing three words–for example: life, time, and mare–and requiring test subjects to find a single word that can be combined with all three to create new words. A valid response to the example would be “night” as in nightlife, nighttime, and nightmare.

One might argue, as I certainly would, that such a test requires a good vocabulary as much as it demands creativity. But then, I just make shit up for a living; what do I know?

Still, it strikes me as quite a leap to equate the ability to dream up plots and characters with the ability to find words with matching roots (or whatever it is that CRATs requires).

The folks doing the study used a variety of music in the background during their tests. This included tunes with and without lyrics, and with lyrics in a foreign language. They played all sorts of music, and they also tested their subjects without any background sounds at all. “We found strong evidence of impaired performance when playing background music in comparison to quiet background conditions.” Do tell.

This newsflash caused me to review some of the conditions under which I’ve written fiction. While I prefer serenity, it’s not always possible. Ask anyone with an active family or a demanding pet. On a number of occasions, I’ve used music to help me sustain certain moods while I worked. In particular, I recall playing a CD that featured a wealth of drum music while I worked on battle scenes in the Druids trilogy which I co-authored with Barbara Galler-Smith. The bombastic percussive strains had me fired up as much as the story did, and I found myself more easily picturing the savage clash of 1st century Celt warriors and Roman Legionnaires. This short bit of drumming may help to demonstrate (be sure your volume is set appropriately):

Do I use this technique often? No. But I confess that’s due as much to laziness as anything else. I can easily see the benefit of mood-setting music, and I’ve located a few short instrumental segments as examples.

Imagine listening to something like this while working on a moment of melancholy or the sadness of a beloved character:

Or perhaps this would be appropriate background music when writing about a determined character in pursuit of… well, almost anything:

Finally, let’s suppose you need to work on something mysterious, ethereal, or majestic. Perhaps it’s the postlude after a major conflict, whether on a battlefield or a struggle of the heart:

Just for the heck of it, close your eyes while listening to one or more of these and try to imagine it as the accompaniment for a character in something you’re working on. Can you see that player more clearly? Does the sound amplify the emotions in the scene?

If so, join me in offering a collective Bronx cheer to the buzzkill researchers in England and Sweden!


About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Memoir, novel writing, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Stop the music?

  1. Gerald Flinchum says:

    Maybe they used (CRAP) when they tested the 100 students.

  2. Robert Daniel Mumford says:

    I know a lot of people write, study, create to music. But I cannot. I get lost in the music and forget about whatever I’m doing. I can see the possibilities of mood music before I start but I bet I’d have to turn it off. Different strokes….

  3. CRATs is CRAPs. But, that’s just me. I agree with you, Josh. Music sets the mood. When I had writer’s block during VA’s story, I put on some Dorsey, Glenn Miller, and Artie Shaw. That music sent me back to the ’40s and helped me to get into VA’s mindset, Great blog!

  4. Doris Reidy says:

    Think about this: when you get into a tricky traffic situation, do you turn off whatever you’re listening to? I do. Gotta concentrate. So maybe there’s something to this crat-y study.

    • joshlangston says:

      Interesting observation. OTOH, when I’m in a tense situation while driving, I’ve already tuned out all the distractions–radio, spouse, grandkids, dog–the works.

  5. polinto says:

    I agree with Doris, but I can see how calming music can provide a creative atmosphere. As I’ve aged, I find that I prefer tame classical music. Otherwise, everything inside me seems to jump about.

  6. Robin Castillo says:

    I do the same, Doris, as well as when I am trying to zero in on a specific unfamiliar address. But seriously, Josh; maybe the reason I don’t write more is that danged 70s music wafting through the house. I love your examples of mood music and it seems intuitively those types of music would be supportive, not dentrimental, to a specific type of writing.

  7. Annel B Martin says:

    I have to use music for relaxation therapy daily and sometimes it puts me to sleep. Music is good for the soul and should help with the writing of all the examples you wrote about in this blog. I’ve tried to write with and without music and found listening to music helpful and I need all the help I can get. I’m sure you will agree with this.

    • joshlangston says:

      I absolutely agree. No one else knows what works best for you; I don’t care who they are. We all must employ the strategies which work for us and quit worrying about the way other folks do it. Hemingway used to tease the folks who asked him for writing advice. He was fond of telling them he wrote his best material while standing up. [chuckle] Lord knows how many people abandoned their chairs in order to “write like Hemingway.”

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