How music can help you write better

Sally Fox

Lumen & Fox | Brand copy for big-hearted businesses | Messaging, tone of voice, web copywriting

It’s Tuesday morning. You’re ready to bash out that 1000 word blog post for your client. What can you hear?

A – Sweet silence

B – Wordless tunes

C – Lyrical mastery

D – Ambient sounds

A quick poll of the writer community over on Twitter revealed a preference for silence or lyric-less soundtracks.

A scientific Twitter poll shows 40% of writers prefer to write in silence.

A staunch silence fan, I tell myself I need noiseless bliss to do my best work and I very rarely deviate. But is there anything to be gained from firing up the old headphones?

I hit the internet to find out.

“It’s oh so quiet…shhh, shhh” Bjork – It’s Oh So Quiet

The science backs me up. Our brains work better when focused on one task. According to a study published in 2019, “Music, regardless of the presence of semantic content (no lyrics, familiar lyrics, or unfamiliar lyrics), consistently disrupts creative performance.”

In another study, students performed better in cognitive tasks when working in silence compared to when they listened to their favourite music.

“…And never mind that noise you heard” Metallica – Enter Sandman

But it’s not that simple. One person who’s famously opposed to the theory of silence is celebrated author Stephen King. He wrote some of his bestselling novels headbanging to Metallica and Anthrax. (Okay, the headbanging rumours are unconfirmed, but the soundtrack is fact.)

Considering he’s one of the most successful writers of all time, maybe he’s onto something.

Back to the science. Music activates the left and right sides of the brain, stimulating creativity. It also triggers our bodies to release dopamine, the feel-good hormone.

If you’re lacking inspiration, stressed about a deadline or suffering from a bout of imposter syndrome, calm, relaxing music might guide you through your funk.

Keep in mind though, that cranking the volume too high triggers cortisol, the stress hormone, which might impair your writing success.

To lyric or not to lyric? This 2016 study found that music with lyrics slowed typists down, with the effects becoming more pronounced the higher the volume. I guess it depends how urgent that copy is.

“We don’t look the same as you, and we don’t do the things you do” Pulp – Mis-Shapes

So some say music is a creative catalyst, while others espouse the virtues of silence. What could explain this Brexit-style split? On the one hand, writers who pen their best work blasting out the heavy metal.

And on the other, those who can’t possibly write a single word until that cat three streets down has stopped mewling?

This study by Adrian Furnham and Lisa Strbac from University College London suggests that extroverts cope better with background noise than introverts.

For me, this tallies. I’m a proud introvert who even struggles to have the radio on while driving. Could there be a correlation for the participants in my (highly scientific) Twitter study, I wonder? I’d love to know what you think.

“I tell your girl to link me at the coffee shop” Stormzy – Vossi Bop

Somewhere between deathly silence and Metallica, we find ambient sound. On this, the research is mostly positive. White noise improves retention and memory. And this study showed low-level ambient noise to improve creativity.

A quick YouTube search throws up a number of ambient tracks including library sounds, rain with a hint of distant thunder and coffee shop noise.

If you’re that way inclined, you can even enjoy the sounds of a Hogwarts classroom while you write. Wingardium leviosa indeed.

While COVID keeps us from our favourite coffee shops, coworking spaces and libraries, these soundtracks are a useful alternative.

(With the added bonus of not having to awkwardly ask someone to watch your stuff while you run to the loo and then you spend the whole time worrying they’re either going to rob you or, worse, they think you’re planning to blow the place up. Just me? Okay.)

“You want a Maserati? You better work, bitch” Britney Spears – Work, Bitch

So we know that silence or a measured choice of ambient music or sounds are best for calm concentration. But can we use music tactically to help us write more? Write faster?

The effects of Beats Per Minute (BPM) on our speed when we run, walk or drive are well documented. In theory, we could up our characters per second with a pumping tempo when that urgent deadline comes a-knocking.

On the other hand, if we’re feeling stressed and overworked, prescribing ourselves a slower BPM will bring our heart rate and blood pressure down, helping us take things at a more relaxed pace.

“Where they play the right music, getting in the swing” ABBA – Dancing Queen

We’ve talked about how music can affect our cognitive abilities, but what about our creativity?

Quentin Tarantino tells us, “One of the things I do when I’m writing a movie or when I have an idea for a film is I go through my record collection and just start playing songs, trying to find the personality of the movie, find the spirit of the movie.”

I love this idea. I worked with a brand recently who alongside the usual mood boards sent me a list of artists that embodied the feel of their brand. The list included Sade, Eric Sati, Cafe del Mar, Chic and Rachmaninov. Already paints a picture, doesn’t it?

I found it just as powerful as a mood board for getting me in the right frame of mind to write.

Using music to set the mood before you launch into writing could help you maintain a consistent, authentic and specific voice in the same way it helps Tarantino understand the ‘spirit’ of his movies.

“You can go your own way” Fleetwood Mac – Go your own way

Much like your favourite biscuit, your choice of audio accompaniment is likely to be different to the next writer. And it may vary day to day, hour to hour, depending on how you’re feeling, the task at hand, and a million other variables.

But we can most definitely use music as a tool to help us write faster, calmer or more creatively.

How to use music to write better

  • Inspire: blast out some mood-setting tracks
  • Write: switch to silence or low-volume instrumentals or ambient sounds
  • Celebrate: terrify the neighbours with your favourite post-work banger

Instrumental playlists to write to

What do you listen to when you’re doing your best work? Let me know in the comments or over on Twitter @sallymfoxwrites.

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