Writing and music go together like peanut butter and jam, or hot coffee and rainy days. No wonder writers from all over the world have opinions on what is the best kind of music for writing. But is it really a good idea to listen to them?
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What does science say about listening to music while writing?
Author Dr. John Almarode claims that performing two tasks simultaneously makes our brain burn calories faster, resulting in the release of cortisol throughout our bloodstream. Cortisol is a stress hormone that triggers a variety of symptoms that I’m sure most of us are aware of by now. Listening to music while writing falls under this category, so it should be considered as a bad thing, right?
Not exactly. According to this research, previous studies have found conflicting evidence that supports both sides of the argument. Some studies and anecdotal claims taken from the Internet suggest that listening to music promotes focus, fosters a more receptive and creative mood, and lessens the inherent stress that writing tends to bring.
Despite the contradicting data, the only certainty here is that listening to music has a wide range of effects on cognitive performance, which are largely dependent on the subject’s personality type, what tasks they are doing, what kind of music they are listening to, and at what volume. The measurable effects of music on cognitive activities like writing are still hotly debated, but in the end it all comes down to subjective preference.
Everyone has their individual requirements and there are no one-size-fits-all-playlists. But here are a few suggestions on how to choose the perfect type of music for your writing sessions.
Tips on choosing the music you write to
1. Match it with your personality
Music tastes vary from person to person and are likely reflections of their personality. Think of what kind of music gets you pumped in the morning. Or what you listen to when you’re on a long drive. These are the kind of songs that can most likely elicit an emotional response from you. You can use them under specific circumstances to improve productivity, including writing. You will never run out of options with the endless lists of songs and genres to pick from — all you need to do is to explore and find what you like.
2. Match it with what you’re writing
There’s no need to limit yourself to a single playlist or music type when writing. Feel free to play those energetic tracks when writing thrilling fight sequences, or feel the slow caress of ambient noises when penning a peaceful scene. Some people prefer a specific type of music when writing fiction and then listen to a different set of songs when writing nonfiction. Research indicates that listening to upbeat classical music helps with creative writing, while repetitive music helps with tasks with high demands for focus, like writing essays or research papers.
3. Have different playlists for different stages of your writing process
Maybe you need some upbeat music to put you in the mood for writing, but once you get into it you need softer, more sedate sounds. Or you want to mix it up and listen to Taylor Swift during your prep and get to headbanging to the loudest metalcore track you can find during the actual writing. Who’s gonna stop you, the music police? Ain’t no such thing, darlin’. The best thing about choosing music to write to — just like the best thing about writing — is that you get to decide what works best for you. Some writers even listen to pre-selected music to get their creative motors running, go completely silent during writing, then wind down to their favorite tracks after the deed.
4. Vocals, instrumentals, or noise?
Another choice to consider is whether you want to listen to music with vocals, pure instrumentals, or ambient noises. Writing dialogue while listening to music with vocals can either hinder or help with the process, depending on your preference and writing style. Pure instrumental music is good for setting the mood, while ambient noise helps with creating a blank canvas in your mind to assist in writing. A lot of studies and articles claim that listening to vocal-less tracks is the most effective use of music during writing, but again, everything is subjective and it all boils down to you finding your own rhythm, so to speak.
5. Figure out why you’re listening in the first place
Most people have a specific reason for listening to music while writing. It will be easier to pick out the type of songs you need to help you write once you know why you need to listen to them in the first place. Here are some examples:
- To help with concentration
- To find inspiration
- To drown out other noises
- To create a mood
- To set the pace
- To juxtapose against what’s being written
Stephen King famously listens to rock music like Metallica and The Rolling Stones when writing because it blocks out all other noise. Susanna Clarke, author of #1 New York Times bestseller Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, prefers songs that feature clashes of techno music and classical instruments to match the atmosphere of her books.
6. Mind the volume
A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that high volumes (over 85dB) tend to hurt cogitation, while low to moderate volumes (50 dB – 70 dB) foster increased performance in creative tasks. For reference, 70 dB is about as loud as being inside a typical restaurant or an office environment. Aside from creative benefits, modulating the volume can also help with avoiding damage to your ears. It might sound trivial, but remember that we writers tend to fall into our work and ignore everything else, so the music blasting through your headphones might not register as too loud until it’s too late.
Of course, no article about music and writing is complete without a list of suggestions that I and other people have found helpful, broken down into separate sections depending on their mood and intensity, along with brief descriptions of what to expect when diving into the playlists on display.
Playlist suggestions for writing
Ambient Noise Playlists
Ambient noise focuses on environmental sounds that call to mind nature in all its majesty. Songs under this genre may or may not have accompanying instrumentals. This type of music promotes calmness, emptiness, and expression, and is often used for promoting relaxation and sleep.
Ambient Music – A surprisingly graceful mix of ambient rain and thunder sounds complimented by passages from a piano. The enchanting melodies bring about feelings of peace and security, which is great for pre- and post-writing sessions.
White Noise – A 9-hour playlist made completely with natural white noise like blowing winds or crashing waves. This minimal soundscape is perfect for envisioning peaceful vistas and quiet afternoon walks in your stories, or to fill in the empty spaces left in the mind while drafting an essay or research paper.
*ambient rain and noise* – This short playlist solely features the subdued sounds of wind and rainfall — exactly what it says on the tin. Many people swear by the magical properties of listening to natural sounds when it comes to relaxing, and this can help any writer find their center and create a conducive mindset for creating.
Instrumental Music Playlists
These playlists focus on low sounds and slow rhythms, and eschew vocals altogether. There have been multiple scientific and anecdotal claims that this type of music is the best at promoting creativity and increasing cognitive functions. Here are some playlists to try:
Chill Beats for Worldbuilding and Writing – Created by YouTube channel Tale Foundry, this playlist has helped thousands of writers in their quest to craft the perfect Fantasy world. The YouTube channel itself is focused on discussing the tropes and inspiring fiction writers to further develop their craft, so give it a visit if that’s the thing you’re into.
Music To Write Stuff – This hidden gem has less than 20k listens on Spotify. It fully captures the essence of “relaxing while writing.”. The playlist consists of bland-sounding song names such as “Chill Music For Writing Essays” and “Music For Concentrating While Writing,” but don’t let the titles fool you. The songs have a cheery, ephemeral quality that would fit well with writing in both calm and upbeat moods.
Ambient Noise Mix – The title is a bit of a misnomer because this Spotify playlist is primarily made up of soft-instrumental songs that occasionally veer into heavy, jarring sounds. Perfect for people who want a bit of variety in their chill playlists.
Film scores and soundtracks – Best Of – Including scores from beloved films like Jurassic Park, Interstellar, Harry Potter, and The Lord of The Rings, this playlist is sure to evoke the wonder and magnificence of the movies from which they were taken. You can’t expect anything less, really, when the song selection consists of works by legendary composers Hans Zimmer and John Williams, to name a few.
Lo-fi (low fidelity) is a genre of music that celebrates imperfection. Songs under this category usually feature elements that are avoided in professional music releases such as ill-fitting notes, “grainy” sounds, wavering audio quality, and all other signs of rough or unpolished production. This doesn’t mean that the music is low-quality, though; the uneven, unmastered sounds have been known to create an atmosphere of peace for listeners.
Any Playlist by Lofi Girl – Easily the most recognizable group of playlists in this selection, the music of Lofi Girl (previously Chilled Cow) has been a mainstay in the YouTube music space since 2017. With the signature anime-style thumbnails and iconic girl with headphones that had come to define the aesthetics of the genre, the channel itself has garnered one and a half billion views as of May 2023 and shows no signs of stopping. It’s also notable for running music streams that last for months. This particular video, titled lofi hip hop radio has been streaming since July 2022.
Music for Writing Stories – This playlist offers a diverse selection of soft rock and alternative rock songs that can primarily be used as inspiration for creative endeavors like fiction or poetry. Putting this on low volume is perfect if you’re unsatisfied with instrumental songs but can easily be distracted by vocal tracks.
Lofi Lovely: Lofi Beats for Focus and Relaxation – Curated by CRFT on Spotify, this mix of instrumental and vocal lofi brings the word “chill” front and center. The slow beats, soft rhythms, and high notes can help take away some of the listener’s stress.
Heavy Music Playlists
These playlists are very much in the Stephen King, drown-out-everything category. Most noted for heavy guitar distortions, low basslines, emphatic drum beats, and aggressive vocals, the songs in these playlists are sure to get your blood pumping and help shut you off from the rest of the world. I personally like these types of playlists for writing, and sometimes I’d even speed up my typing speed to keep in pace with the drumline, which can make a small uptick in my productivity. Most people find these kinds of songs distracting even at the best of times, though, so this mostly boils down to preference and acquired taste.
Video Game Battle Themes – These kinds of music are ostensibly used to elicit an energetic, often frenzied response from the listener to match the battle situations they find themselves in video games. The selection on offer here helps a lot if you’re the type of person that needs to match writing thrilling scenes with thrilling music.
a post-rock playlist for studying, reading, and writing – A playlist with mostly instrumental tracks with emphasis on electric guitars and bass. It’s heavier, moodier, and the lack of vocals makes it perfect for picturing scenes of desolation and isolation to help with your writing.
Alternate – This specialized playlist has heavy rock songs with dirty (screaming) and clean vocals mixed in with regular pop and soft rock music. Just like the Ambient Noise Mix playlist earlier, this heavier version celebrates variety and creates an atmosphere of unpredictability for those who prefer to not have their writing time descend into monotony.
Music can be an integral part of your writing process and can help you become a better writer (I know it is for me.) The selection on this list is by no means comprehensive, and you might find it better to look for your own kind of music for writing on YouTube, Spotify, iTunes, or your preferred music streaming service. There is also no shortage of suggestions from other fellow scribes on the Internet, so be sure to check those out as well.
All in all, I suggest you consider these tips, take the time to know your tastes and preferences, and explore the wide selection of songs and sounds out there to find the perfect fit for your writing process, and personality.