A common technique writers use to boost their creativity is listening to music. For instance, when I first started writing novels, I created a musical playlist designed to provide inspiration while I wrote. It consisted of instrumental songs without lyrics (mostly movie soundtracks) that stirred the particular emotions I was hoping to capture in my writing.
Turns out I am not alone in this technique. Online polls show a majority of people listen to music while they write or work. The assumption is that music, especially classical, non-lyrical music (think Mozart or Beethoven) boosts creativity.
But is that actually true?
A study published earlier this year decided to put this assumption to the test. Here was the setup: People were separated into two groups—one that listened to a particular type of music while working on a creativity task and one that listened to silence. Three different experiments used this setup to test the impact of different types of music.
- music with unfamiliar (Spanish language) lyrics vs silence
- music with familiar (English) lyrics vs silence
- instrumental music with no lyrics vs silence
Across all three studies, listening to music was found to significantly decrease performance on the creativity test. It didn’t matter if the music had lyrics or not. It didn’t matter if they music was in an understood language or not. What clearly emerged was a pattern suggesting that in all of these conditions, music resulted in worse performance.
Prior to this series of experiments, some studies had shown evidence that music boosts creativity, but those studies measured creativity by using something called the Alternatives Uses Task (asks people to list as many creative ways to use an object, like a brick or a paperclip). In recent years, scientists have moved away from this measure because it fails to capture “convergent thinking,” which refers to the process of making connections between seemingly distinct concepts to come up with a novel and creative solution. In the 2019 studies, the researchers instead used the Compound Remote Associate Task (CRAT), which is a better measure of insight-based and verbally-based creativity. In this measure, people are given three words (dial/dress/flower) and must generate a fourth word that connect the other three (sun). Thus, the CRAT is a better assessment of the creativity process that goes on in the brain of a writer.
In sum, the 2019 studies provide strong evidence that, contrary to popular belief, listening to music actually impairs the creative processing writers rely on to produce their craft. But what if you can’t stand the sound of silence when working? Not to worry, here’s a simple solution. In the third experiment, in addition to the music and silence group, they also included a third group that listened to ambient library noise (distant chatter, typing, rustling of papers) while working on the creativity task. The results showed that this ambient noise group performed equivalent to the silence group (and better than the music group). So if you currently listen to music while you write, consider switching to ambient background noise instead.
I actually came to this conclusion on my own a few years ago. Although I listened to instrumental music while writing my first novel, I’ve since then moved away from that approach. Nowadays I listen to nature sounds instead. If it’s warm outside, I sit on my deck and write while listening to the birds chirp and the wind traipse through the trees. But when cold weather drives me inside, I pull up YouTube and listen to videos of nature sounds— babbling streams, ocean waves, crickets around a campfire, whatever sounds best fit the location and mood I’m trying to capture in my scene. Plus, research shows being exposed to nature in any form is a natural creativity booster (see my article “Get Some Fresh Air” to Boost Your Creativity for more info).
My favorite author Stephen King once claimed he listened to Metallica and Anthrax to get his creative juices flowing while writing. But it seems he too has moved away from this approach. In a 2011 interview in the Atlantic, King stated, “I listen to music when I rewrite now. I don’t listen to music when I compose anymore. I can’t. I’ve lost the ability to multitask that way!” King attributes the change to age, but in truth music is distracting to your brain no matter what your age. As a result, listening to music while writing or working can impair your ability to make those all-important Aha! insights that are necessary for the creativity process. So the next time you are writing, shut off your music, remove those earbuds and go sit in a park, a coffee shop, or a library for a well-needed creativity boost.