This past spring, I went to two education conferences where speakers discussed the neuroscience of learning, and they both talked about how our brains are unable to multitask. Doing two things at the same time dramatically impacts our performance.
I asked both presenters specifically if we should listen to music while writing, and both gave me an unequivocal “NO.”
But, as a writing teacher, I get asked almost daily, “Mrs. Isaman, can I listen to my headphones while I write?” I always let them. Students say they like it, and to me, they seem more focused and productive.
According to the conference presenters, however, I’m wrong.
The answer should be a hard and fast NO. The conference speakers argued that music causes the brain to “multi-task” which makes it less effective. When we have music with words playing while we write, our brains shift rapidly between listening and thinking/creating. But our brain works best when it’s paying attention to only ONE thing.
According to Dr. John Almarode, when we try to do several things at once, like write a paper and listen to a song, or text a friend and listen to our mom, our brain burns glucose faster and also releases the stress hormone cortisol because our brain tries to give equal attention to all the stimuli coming in, and we can’t do it.
Writing while listening just creates stress.
I sometimes listen to music while writing, and I have friends who are writers who always listen to music. My students used to as well. It doesn’t feel stressful, but apparently our brains don’t handle it so well from a biological perspective.
Because of the differing opinions here, I spent some time digging into the research to see what I could uncover and try to answer the question, is it a good idea to listen to music while writing?
What type of music should you listen to while you write?
If you like to listen to music while writing, choose music without words or ambient noise, for example, the sound of water.
Almost every study that I looked at found that music with lyrics hindered concentration and productivity. However, one study showed that low-level ambient noise can improve creativity.
An important key is to note that the music needs to be at a lower volume. If the music was too loud, it impacted performance regardless of the type of music. This study also found no difference between the types of music played.
Another study showed that low level baroque (classical) music increases concentration. But this study was done with radiologists reading x-rays, not writers, so I’m not sure how that translates.
When should you listen to music?
If you need to get fired up for a workout or if you’re doing a boring, repetitive task, listening will increase your productivity. For example, if you’re cleaning the house, listening to music will help you get it done. Part of the reason for this is that great music puts us in a better mood which helps us stay focused and productive.
But writing, isn’t repetitive. It’s a creative task. So only listen to music when you write if you have a solid background in music. This study found that students typed more slowly while listening to music, but those with a musical background tended to write longer sentences and have better sentence structure which is super interesting.
When shouldn’t you listen to music?
Don’t listen if you are trying to memorize something or read difficult material. Music with words impairs memory function and the lyrics reduce reading comprehension.
Does listening to music impact your creative writing in a negative way? The answer is not as clear cut as the presenters I saw this spring made it sound.
If you’re researching a story and trying to remember details and facts to use later, or you’re working on a complicated section, turn the music off, turn it down, or listen to soft classical music or ambient noise.
But if that drives you crazy, plug your headphones back in, turn on your favorite playlist, and go for it.
I found all kinds of blog posts and stories of writers listening to music as they write. Some create playlists specifically for the types of scenes they’re writing or the mood they’re trying to create. Music inspires them, whether the music has lyrics or not.
Are these award-winning writers doing something wrong?
Of course not. They’re successful writers.
Is it possible that listening to music with lyrics will slow your writing process down? Sure.
Maybe run your own experiments to see what works for you. Write as you listen to classical music, ambient noise, or your favorite music. See where you’re the most productive and stick with that.
But don’t procrastinate by waiting until you find the perfect playlist or get used to writing in silence. Just write.
And if you need support with actually sitting down to do the creative work you’re called to do, some 1:1 coaching, whether with a single breakthrough session or an extended coaching package might be the solution for you.
Do you listen to music as you write? What kind of music and how do you think it impacts your writing? Share your thoughts in the comments.