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 not too long ago 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 the CRATs require).

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 news flash 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.

6 Responses to Stop the music?


    Thank you, dear friend, I feel so supported. Never yet have I been able to do anything more than count to ten with sound going on. Always thought that I had some me tal deficiency or the other. Always knew you were a wise man. Thanks, Erika, the one with the one-track mind.

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Don says:

    I dunno know, I think there are too many variables to be conclusive. In the OR surgeons play various music to suite their tastes, so does this mean they don’t perform surgery as well if there is silence. A scary thought to me. Of course I wonder how many Euros or whatever was spent on this study. Meanwhile I think I would disregard the group of 100, put on some back music, and try to develop a study that would generate a sizable grant. Or maybe in silence, depending on my mood.

  3. I dearly LOVE music. I also love well-written books and stories. But when I write (which is seldom) I prefer silence so I can listen to my own thoughts. Music, although enjoyable, would be a distraction. Therefore I prefer one or the other not both at the same time.

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