Today, most people listen to music when they write.
Scientific evidence and expert advice tend to recommend against it. But because it’s accepted that that’s what people do nowadays, many instructors don’t bother trying to dissuade.
That’s a mistake.
We often become comfortable with giving in to what we like. Other times, we want so badly to be accepted and liked that we back down from even the slightest constructive criticism.
Listening to any kind of music while studying or writing can waste time and dull creativity. It’s a form of multitasking. Our brains are not hardwired to multitask. We can…and do. But it doesn’t mean it’s healthy or as productive as it would be if we arranged our lives so that we don’t have to.
Some monotonous, busywork-like aspects of writing require so little neurological exertion that listening to music speeds us up. Trevor Mahoney finds that EDM helps him type faster and more efficiently.
Any form of research, memorization, or brainstorming, however, can be slowed by musical distraction.
Writing coach Amy Isaman researched the effects of music on concentration and productivity. Nearly every study she found shows that reading comprehension decreases when we listen to music with lyrics. Research also shows that music more easily distracts introverts.
It doesn’t mean we should stop listening to music altogether while we work — only that we should be pickier in our selection.
One study Isaman found shows that ambient noise can increase productivity. This explains why Starbucks became so successful.
As an extrovert, I function better when I’m around other people. I enjoy working in public — like in a park or a coffee shop — as I find the ambient noise calming and creatively stimulating. Ambient noise becomes distracting, however, once it reaches a certain pitch or when multiple conversations — even quiet ones — start up within earshot.
That’s when loud music comes in handy and works its magic. Ambient-blocking music allows extroverts to still be around people while zoning out.
Even in this situation, however, the type of music and the type of work matter.
In school, I once tried to cure a heartbreak by drowning in Emo and Punk Rock while studying in the library. As a result, my productivity, free time, mood, and grades dropped dramatically.
Sometimes, the genre of music can help if it matches the mood of the writing. While working on a research project that required foreign-language sources, I found what I needed faster by listening to music in that language — even though it broke the lyrical rule.
Mostly, I find light classical music like Chopin, Vivaldi, or Chopin to be the most helpful in maintaining focus while writing. That’s just a personal preference, though, and I often violate it by playing mind-numbing, distracting pop.
Isaman notes that some bloggers create special playlists for writing.
“Are these award-winning writers doing something wrong?” She asks. “Of course not. They’re successful writers.”
But how much more successful would those writers be if they wrote in silence? Just because I finish a task or publish an article while being transgressive and listening to lyric-rich pop doesn’t make the transgression worth it.
Millions of writers got along fine for hundreds of years by listening to no music. Musical accompaniment to writing and work is a modern — almost 21st-century phenomenon. Whether it helps or distracts depends on the individual. But instructors and teachers should not give their students a blanket license to listen to whatever they want while they write or study.
Dr. Timothy Byron of the University of Wollongong in Australia notes that the “Mozart Effect” and the “Blur Effect” were only effective in increasing students’ test scores because they put students in a better mood.
People concentrate and try harder when they’re happier.
Byron recommends listening to music while studying — which requires similar concentration to writing — only if it puts you in a good mood, it’s not too loud, it’s not too wordy, and you’re not too introverted.
Originally posted on Medium