Updated: Dec 9, 2021
All writers - including me - have suffered from terrible writer’s block at some point in their lives. Even famous writers are vulnerable to the paralyzing effects of writer’s block.
For me, ideas would buzz through my mind whenever I spoke with friends or roamed around the city. But my brain turned off once I started typing. To be creative, I had to be on the move or in a dynamic conversation. But at the computer, my mind was like an empty void of space.
When all hope seemed lost, I found a simple solution to make the process less tormenting. Having always been a curious music enthusiast, I browsed through different songs, artists, and genres. Then, I tested the effects on my productivity, concentration, and creativity.
The final product was a playlist containing an extensive selection of music.
The effects were astonishing, to say the least. Whenever I put on this playlist, my writing started flowing effortlessly — right from my brain onto the page.
My experience can hardly be a coincidence. But does science back up the enhancing impacts of music? And if so, what kind of music enhances which stage of your writing process? Read on to find out.
A Classic Writing Process
Before we deal with the nuts and bolts of music and writing, let’s look at a typical writing process. Of course, this process is different for every writer. But lucid reasons, we’ll simmer it down to three stages:
What should you write about? How do you want to present your ideas? This stage is open and creative work.
Write it down. Drafting requires focus and immersion — also known as deep work.
How can you fine-tune your draft? What does your writing sound like? Editing is mostly repetitive work.
What kind of music should we listen to in each scenario? Let’s look at each element, apply the science, and determine what music works best.
Music For Preparation And Idea Generation
If you’re a writer, you’ve probably had a stare-off with a blank screen before. Now and then, you get in situations where you simply don’t know how to approach your ideas or don’t have any.
Sometimes I experience anxiety when I’m in these situations. This can even go as far as having anxiety about anxiety. It’s a brutal cycle.
The good news: music can help us break this cycle.
You can use music to induce a positive mood. Tunes also heighten and boost your productivity. This phenomenon is also known as the “Mozart effect.”
Music helps us set our minds free and allows us to see the problem less tensely. This, in turn, boosts creativity.
How To Implement
You can take two approaches to use this to your advantage.
First of all, you can listen to music before your creative task to reduce stress, anxiety, and give yourself a mood boost. This music can be any type you like. Your best bet is on your favorite upbeat music that makes you feel happy. If you don’t know where to start, check out this motivational playlist or this mood booster playlist.
Or, you can listen to music during your task to get your creative juices flowing. Research recommends “happy classical music.” To achieve even higher levels of creativity, listen to the music at moderate noise levels. (Try this happy classical playlist or check out the pianist Ludovico Einaudi.)
You can also combine both approaches.
Music For Drafting And Deep Work
Deep work is the state in which we are fully focused on a task. In our case, extracting our thoughts from our brain onto the page. During deep work, we must be relaxed and free from distractions, stress, and anxiety.
Deep work is not much different from idea generation in terms of musical and creative requirements. Because we still need high levels of creativity and outside-the-box thinking, additionally including even higher levels of immersion and concentration. We need to eliminate distractions at all costs. So, is listening to music still the right way to go?
How To Implement
Research suggests relaxing, repetitive, and low-information-load background music for high-information-processing tasks.
It’s also crucial that you listen to music without lyrics. Background music with lyrics has negative effects on concentration and attention.
During drafting, it can really come down to your personality what music works best for you. Some people swear by techno or even classical music to get into a flow state. Others — myself included — listen to natural music.
Or, maybe, you need to direct your complete attention to your writing output. In that case, no music at all might work for you. After all, you can always come back to music during breaks to lift your mood.
Music For Editing And Repetitive Work
I count editing in the category of repetitive work. That doesn’t make it any less challenging though. Editing can be boring, but we still need laser-sharp focus. Music gives us that nudge of excitement that we definitely need.
How To Implement
If you find yourself sinking into a monotonous editing process, listen to upbeat music. What kind of upbeat music is pretty much up to you. But there are a few traits the music shouldn’t have.
A study has found that it’s important not to select music that you love or hate. Instead, try to walk a fine line between pleasure and monotony. That way, your task will seem less dull while you increase your alertness.
If you choose to select non-instrumental music, pick either boring or familiar lyrics. Otherwise, the catchy songwriting might distract you from editing.
Here’s a trick I like to use to balance my focus between typing and tunes: I don’t listen to music non-stop. Instead, I try to notice when my attention fades away. Then, I turn on the music until I find myself getting into the flow again.
I also find that setting a “sleep timer” for music works great. Most of the time, I don’t even notice that the music stopped playing because I’m so immersed in my work.
Today, something in my writing has drastically changed since I first started. Today, I love to write. What hasn’t changed is the agonizing process that transferring thoughts onto the page can be at times.
For that, music has prevailed as a faithful friend and helper. And countless research has backed up my experience. That means it’ll most likely work for you too!
In a nutshell, here’s everything you need to know about the effects of music on your writing:
Listen to your favorite music during breaks or before your writing to give your mind a breather.
Use happy, classical music to boost your creativity and crank out your best ideas.
Use your favorite non-lyrical music to transcend into a state of deep work.
Listen to upbeat music to escape boredom and give yourself a mood boost.
Play around with your music as much as you'd like to. But don’t obsess about fine-tuning your music. Your main goal should still be one, and only one: to write.
Music doesn’t help you solve every problem in writing but can be a loyal companion alongside the process. With the right background music, you’ll slam your keys faster than Beethoven in his Für Elise.