Does music help you write, or does it get in the way? Music has the power to stop the chatter in our heads, and it can shift our mood. Because music opens us to feelings, listening to it can help us get into that zone of deep concentration from which inspired work arises. But, music can also do the opposite. It can fill the silence just when we ought to be listening for the whisper of a story.
What About Background Music?
High school and college students often listen to music while doing homework. In a 2001 study to see whether that helped or hindered the students’ ability to write essays, researchers S.E. Ransdell and L. Gilroy found that “Background music significantly disrupted writing fluency (words generated per minute controlling for typing speed and including those words deleted before the final draft)…”
A 2016 Ph.D. thesis by Kristian Johnsen Haaberg concluded that students used music “as a tool during study situations to increase well-being and motivation, to isolate themselves in a personal ‘bubble’, and to avoid other temptations and feelings such as hunger or boredom.”
A third study, published by Arielle S. Dolegui in the social science journal Inquiries, wanted to know whether the genre or volume had an effect on the students’ ability to concentrate. Here’s what the study found:
…the findings of this study revealed that it is the intensity of the music rather than the type of music that matters the most when it comes to cognitive performance, [but] it is still noteworthy to point out that scores were significantly higher when participants completed the tests in the silence condition [italics mine].
There are those, however, who argue just the opposite. Fred Patenaude, on his blog about boosting brain power, recommends Baroque composers as a way to enhance creativity and shift mood.
The Cultural Change That Encouraged Us To Avoid Silence
My childhood was spent in a vast, generative desert of silence. I played clarinet, and playing in my school orchestra, as well as attending performances of the Youth Symphony, taught me to enjoy classical music.
At home, we had a portable phonograph with a red leatherette case. My Grandma, who lived with us, had fifteen or twenty ’78s: Tommy Dorsey’s Big Band, as well as Western songs by Gene Autry, “the Singing Cowboy,” and greatest opera hits by Enrico Caruso. When we listened to the record player, we put aside whatever else we were doing and just listened. We couldn’t do anything “productive” because we had to anticipate the end of the record, or the needle would skip. After we finished listening and my grandmother returned the record to its sleeve, the house returned to the shush of footsteps on the carpet.
Portable cassette players, boom boxes, Walkmen, MP3 players, iPods, and, eventually, smartphones and iPhones changed all that. Even Steve Jobs couldn’t have predicted the cultural shift. Now, it’s silence, not music, we must seek out.
When Listening to Music Helps
A decade or more ago I had the pleasure of attending a workshop at which author Stuart Dybek talked about the important role music played in his writing life. He credits music with allowing him to find his writerly voice.
“I put on the music to Kodály [Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály] and wrote ‘The Palatski Man‘. I was writing in a way I had never written before,” he said. “In a trance. And I didn’t sound like anyone else. Reluctantly, I found myself giving up Sherwood Anderson and Fitzgerald. What I had to do was find new writers. I hadn’t read Kafka seriously until I wrote that story, and then I read Kafka and Babel. It taught me a new level of intensity. I read Porter. She shows you the level of intensity you should work at. You will never get there, but this is what you aim for.”
“I play music,” Dybek said, “to generate writing, but at some point, you’ve got to turn it off because it makes everything sound good.”
How Music Has Influenced My Writing
Three of my short stories began with a journal I kept while traveling in Turkey. I recorded sights, sounds, and smells of the Turkish countryside, but, I didn’t begin drafting stories until I returned home. By then the immediacy of first impressions had worn off. The sound track from Steam, otherwise known at Hamam: The Turkish Bath, helped me recapture the sense of strangeness and dislocation.
I’m convinced that being able to enter that “feeling state” helped me write the stories in my prize-winning chapbook, The Rug Bazaar. (Read the stories for free by clicking on the book’s title and downloading the pdf.) One of the stories in this chapbook then became the title story of my short story collection, Bonds of Love & Blood.
Why Silence Helps Us Write
If you were a composer attempting to write a new song, would you listen to another song while you attempted to compose a new one? Intuitively, we all know this wouldn’t fly.
“That’s all well and good,” you might argue, “but I write better if I go to a coffee shop. The background chatter is pretty much the same as music, isn’t it?”
I would counter that argument. Have you ever tried to concentrate when there’s a loudmouth at the next table? You can’t. Same thing if you’re trying to meditate. The whole point of meditation is to stop the chatter of the monkey mind and focus on the sound of your own breath.
A Boston teacher, David Cutler, wrote a fine blog post about the necessity for silence while writing. “In conducting my own little experiment, I decided to write this article in complete silence. These days, I write while listening to Dave Matthews, John Mayer and other ‘chill’ music…I finished writing in about half the time it normally takes me for something of this length.”
In a Playboy interview, Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita and Pale Fire, was asked about writing and music. He said his ideal writing arrangement was “an absolutely soundproofed flat in New York, on a top floor—no feet walking above, no soft music anywhere.”
I’m with him. To write from that true, deep place, we must coax ourselves into a state of deep meditation. We must make friends with silence.
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Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection, and THE RUG BAZAAR, a chapbook. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers’ Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.