Listening to Music Can Hurt Your Writing Productivity

A digital rendering of a woman listening to music on her headphones
A digital rendering of a woman listening to music on her headphones

Created and owned by author with MidJourney

Do you listen to music when you write? It seems that the majority of writers do. But the science behind you blasting Metallica while writing (as Stephen King used to do) is starting to say maybe you shouldn’t.

Recent studies have shown that listening to background noise — especially pop hits — can actually hinder your writing.

“Tasks that involve language processing or decision making need your attentional focus, and when you try to do two such tasks at the same time, you end up switching your attention back and forth.”

What might be more effective instead, is using music only at the beginning of writing a new piece.

Why? Because that can help set the mood. And being in the right mood can drastically change the process of creating.

Setting the Tone

Take the masterful screenwriter and director, Quentin Tarantino, for example.

“One of the things I do when I am starting a movie, 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. Then ‘boom’, eventually I’ll hit one, two or three songs or one song in particular, oh this will be a great opening credit song.” — Quentin Tarantino

One of the first tasks Quentin does before ever sitting down to write a single word in a new script is finding the exact piece of music that fits what he wants the movie to be about.

He gets in the zone.

And we can use that same practice in our own writing. What music most reminds you of the novel you’re working on? Play it before you sit down.

Throw on some Bryan Adams before the next chapter of your romance novel.

Play some Mozart while outlining your next poem.

Tune-up Dance Monkey before you outline the next hit broadway musical.

Whatever style you’re writing, you can probably think of a music genre that fits with it.

The important part here is the music should be used to get yourself into the mood — and then stopped.

Silence While Writing

Do you listen to music when you write? I suspect that most of us do. This small survey says that about 80% of writers like to do it themselves.

But when we look at the pros’ writing processes — we start to see a different story.

Malcolm Gladwell said, “I don’t listen to music myself,” when asked the question. He prefers the ambiance of a coffee shop.

Stephen King only listens to music when re-writing/editing now.

“I don’t listen to music when I compose anymore. I can’t. I’ve lost the ability to multitask that way!”

J.K. Rowling, the famous author behind the Harry Potter series, finds music “too distracting” while writing. When younger, she used to listen to Tchaikovksy when writing the first book.

The above seems to be a common trope for prolific (and famous) writers. And there’s a reason for that.

Multitasking slows down our ability to process creativity. Listening to music while trying to come up with characters, flows, and obscure connections, has our brains jumping to do too many things at once.

“Multitasking reduces the efficiency, accuracy, and quality of what you do.”

— Joanne Cantor Ph.D.

But that doesn’t mean all music is persona non grata. Research shows us different background noise can be suitable for writing.

Writing While Listening

Many authors like to work in cafes. These places sometimes play music, but many of them are full of distant chatter, the smell of roast coffee, and the occasional ring of a cashier’s till.

What do studies say about that?

It’s perfectly fine!

White/ambient background noise has been shown to increase productivity. That’s good news for those that hate the thought of sitting in silence for hours on end — myself included.

This might be why many writers prefer working in their rooms, by an open window, in a cafe, or even in parks.

There’s also a place for “real” music when writing — but only for specific types of work.

Upbeat music with a simple structure is great for repetitive tasks.

As for writing, if you have a boring project to work on, or are just collecting information without having to put complex thought into it, crank those tunes!

Caveats

As often with research, not all feet fit into the same pair of shoes. There have been studies examining the different effects of background music on introverts, as well as children with and without ADHD.

This study tested self-identified introverts and extroverts with both light background music and in silence. They found that both personality types performed equally as well in silence. The difference showed when playing music — the introverts’ performance was hindered.

For those that may be diagnosed as ADHD, the opposite effect was found in a 2016 study. The study — although it needs to be expanded upon — found that 40 children with ADHD had improved memory performance when listening to ambiance sounds at 80db.

If this perhaps extends to writing, then it may be useful as a tool for those with attention deficits.

Improve Your Writing

If the above information sounds interesting to you, there’s no harm in trying it out! If it’s true that most of us listen to music while writing, we may be missing out on not only faster writing, but more profound pieces as well.

This is what some of the pros do:

  1. Pick the type of writing you’re about to work on.
  2. Find a genre (or pick from your favorites) that would match the tone and help put you in the mood for that piece.
  3. Listen to it while you’re coming up with the layout and ideas of your upcoming work for the day.
  4. Then switch the music off, listen to the surroundings, or put on a playlist of “ambient sounds” — YouTube, Spotify, and Apple music have tonnes of these lists.
  5. Write your magic.
  6. Get famous?

Wrap Up

I hope the above is useful to you. I’ve been a lifelong music listener when studying or writing, so the effects of this surprised me a bit. But when I look back on the different topics I studied and wrote about, it starts to make more sense.

I definitely plan on unplugging my earphones at the cafe from now on. How about you?

I’m also a bit curious about the small survey I linked above. Do you listen to music when you write?

 

J.J. Pryor

Head over here for more of my written shenanigans.

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