Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Got Music? Why Music Supports Creativity

Over the past few years, I've noticed many authors expressing their gratitude to musicians in their acknowledgements page. I love seeing this because music inspires me and is so much a part of my creative process, I don't often write without it. But this trend got me wondering, what is it about music that makes it such a valuable writing tool? Does music really spark our imaginations? How does music compare to stories structurally? And, should all writers use playlists?

I did a little research and here's what I found out:


1) Music Unleashes Creativity

Did you know our brains have a mind-wandering mode? It's our brain's default setting since it's the easiest state for our brain to be in. In Daniel J. Levitin's book, THE ORGANIZED MIND, he writes, "The 'right' music - meaning, the right music for you at a particular point in time, because it's subjective and idiosyncratic - pushes you into this mind-wandering state. You relax and you let your thoughts flow from one to another, and that's how you get into creativity."

When you daydream, the frontal lobe which is in charge of discipline and focus, takes a break, allowing your mind to wander and ideas to surface. While you don't want your mind to wander all the time when you're writing, having low music that you can tune out to focus and tune in to daydream can be very helpful. If music is too distracting for you, try ambient music that doesn't have a persistent beat.

2) Music Manipulates Your Emotions, Just Like Stories Do

Both stories and songs are an emotional experience. It seems natural that many writers use music to match their emotions with the scene they are writing, or help them to experience what their character is feeling. For example, if your character is feeling nostalgic, try listening to Adele's hit, HELLO. It's a perfect blend of sadness and powerful uplift that gives you a strong sense of longing for old happiness.

Another reason to embrace emotional music is the role emotion plays in our ability to make decisions. The old theory that emotion equals irrationality is no longer accepted. Neuroscience has proven that emotion is crucial to reasoning. It helps us sort and prioritize information so that we know what things are relevant, important, or memorable. Writers need to keep track of all of those things in order to tell a coherent story. If you are feeling that your WIP has become a chaotic mess, try playing some music as you untangle your plot.

3) Structure

Is it important that songs and stories have similar structures? Maybe not that much. But consider this: By listening to a song, we experience a complete miniature "story." The opening sets the tone of the song, giving us a sense of musical setting and expectations of what's coming. The tension rises as the vocals grow more intense and new instruments are added. Perhaps there's a pitfall or two as the song continues to build up to the soaring climax. Then, just as in a story, the song quickly wraps up. Check out how similar a song's diagram is to Freytag's pyramid:

Listening to music reinforces your sense of pacing. It also keeps your sense of rhythm sharp - which is important in sentence and paragraph construction.


- Create a playlist of music your character(s) would listen to.
- Create a master playlist of songs that have the same feeling as your story.
- If you are writing a fight scene, a love scene, or any scene that is emotionally charged, consider grabbing a few songs that have the right intensity and let them loop until you've finished writing that scene.
- Does your villain have theme music? (Villains get all the best music, don't they?)
- Try a playlist just for brainstorming.
- Consider writing music from movie soundtracks.


Aerials, by Lights and Motion
Your Hand in Mine, by Explosions in the Sky
Sense 8 Main Theme, by Deux Directions (Original Netflix Series)
Time, by Hans Zimmer (Inception soundtrack)
Final Test, by Junkie XL (Divergent soundtrack)
A Journey to Hogwarts/Fireworks, The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra & James Fitzpatrick (Harry Potter soundtrack.) (Okay, I listen to a lot of Harry Potter music)
Spikey Cars, by Tom Holkenborg (Mad Max: Fury Road soundtrack)
Mad World (piano cover) performed by Marius Furche
Concerto No. 5 in E Flat Major, Beethoven
Mumford and Sons
Florence and the Machine
Treading Water, by Alex Clare
Hallelujah, performed by Jeff Buckley
I Miss You, by Adele
Breathe Me, by Sia
First, by Cold War Kids
Looking Too Closely, by Fink


  1. Jo! I love using music to inspire me when I write (and work out). Sometimes I'll hear a song that fits perfectly with a plot point or ending to my the novel I'm writing, so I'll find it in Rhapsody and have it handy to play when I write the scene. In my new middle grade novel, my character, who is afraid of the ocean (a navy brat...this is an issue), dives into the waves in the last scene. I'd found a Christian song that talked about fear and the "waves crashing over my head." It was perfect! If I could tag a soundtrack to the end of a novel, I'd do it with this one.

    Rhapsody, by the way, lets you create play lists and download them onto your phone. I love it.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. I'm so glad you liked it! It's amazing when a song fits our stories perfectly like that! How cool! Thanks for the tip on Rhapsody!

  2. Love this, Jo! I'm surrounded by music. It is life and breath. <3

  3. Great thoughts Jo! I generally keep the radio going in the background for whatever I'm doing. It keeps my spirits high. I've also used playlists set on random when I write so I don't get sucked into a rut. It's strange but when I hear the same music over and over it creates a pattern in my brain that can increase anticipation or anxiety based on my emotional response to the songs. So going "random" keeps me from stagnating!

    1. Wow- that makes perfect sense! Sometimes, I've tuned out my playlist when I'm writing, but then become suddenly aware what's up next - which can jar me a bit. That happens a lot on one playlist that has both classical and rock (which is horrible on the random setting o.O) But I love Pandora for the same reason - it keeps the music fresh and helps me find new music to draft to.


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