The Role of Music in Writing

One of the more frequent questions I get asked, after having written 40 books and hundreds of other forms of written communication, is— How do you do it? They ask me about schedules, how much I sleep, how many research assistants I have (n.b. I have never had any really), and so on. My answer is severalfold, but here I want to concentrate on two things that at least in my case help. Since I have previously spoken to the issue of developing a good writing style, by stressing the necessity of reading good English literature, I will not retred that territory here (see my Is There a Doctor in the House?).

No two writers are alike, but in my case you are dealing with a left-handed largely right-brained person who has done music all his life. Music, as the musicologists will tell you, reaches parts of the self, particularly the affective side of the self, that mere words do not reach. And in terms of stimulus, music stimulates parts of the brain which are closely related to the regions which control imagination and writing, especially creative writing, but in fact all sorts of writing. Therefore, in my case, having on familiar music (not new music which can distract your concentration) at a low level, especially soothing familiar music (whatever that looks like for you) is a good stimulus to creative reading and writing.

You may be saying— “But wait, I am easily distracted, even by the familiar.” What I have discovered is that having familiar music on forces one to concentrate more intensely if one is reading or writing. And this is a good thing. And frankly, if you are easily distracted by almost any external stimuli, then you need to work on your powers of concentration one way or another. One way would be to buy some good Bose noise canceling headphones and wear them while writing.

One example of how this works must suffice. This morning I worked on a blog post for March 13th (which appeared of course yesterday). I am reading along in a book and then writing comments in the blog post. That which greased the wheels of concentration and writing this morning was Roy Hargrove’s wonderfully soothing ‘Moment to Moment’ where his flugelhorn is accompanied by a symphony, and they are playing standards. Yes, sometimes I pause to savor the flavor of the music, but on the whole the music just acts like ‘butter’ to the brain, eliminating other kinds of external distractions and forcing good concentration.

True admission. Sometimes when I am writing at night, I also have some sports on the TV, which I will glance at from time to time while writing. I usually leave the sound off on the games. I have discovered as well that this whole way of researching and writing leads to the ability to multi-task.

I freely admit that this whole approach may not work for non-musically inclined left-brained folk. I also have noticed that the older I get the more I do need some silence when I am reading something exceedingly complex. Many of you may need a lot of silence. But if the original question was—- How do you write so much? I have now given you a part of the answer.

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  • Deb Endean

    This post is “music to my ears.” Couldn’t agree more, and my Independent Study last semester was a great example of your habits–always with musical background!

  • Gerry Wilson

    I like to think about the music I listen to while I write as a kind of “soundtrack” for whatever I’m working on. A friend suggested a certain soundtrack (literally) for the novel I was finishing, and he was right. It turned out to be perfect. Choosing music to listen to helps me create the tone of the work. Thanks for this insightful blog! You confirmed my thoughts about the relationship between music and the written word which does, after all, abound in rhythm and sound.

  • Brent Brooks

    Excellent taste by the way! Love Roy Hargrove. Bill Frisell, Bill Evans, and Keith Jarrett do wonders for my concentration. I actually find I am much more focused for sermon preparation, etc, when I have good music in the background.

  • Ann Sincox

    I also like having sports in the background or the Weather Channel (when they didn’t have “Storm Stories” and such but just played music and showed the weather). As a business writer, I work in a fairly noisy office and if it’s deathly quiet, I can’t focus. Having something else going on in the background drives me to a higher and more focused level of concentration.