I open my laptop, ready to get to work on the next item on my to-do list. But before I launch into anything, I immediately turn on some music.
Not just any music, though; lately, I’ve been getting my best work done when I’m playing a smooth, “New York” jazz compilation that I found on YouTube. You know, the kind of background music you hear in a coffee shop or a restaurant, with no words — just a bit of saxophone, jazzy piano tunes, and slow drums.
If you asked me what I was listening to a month ago, though, I would’ve told you it was one of my favorite indie rock albums, the ones I’ve listened to so many times that I’m not even listening for the words anymore.
And a few months before that? I would’ve said that I don’t listen to music at all while I work; I just listen to the ambient noise of the coffee shop I’m working in: the din of lively, caffeine-fueled conversations all around me.
Every few months, I switch up my listening habits, but I almost always come back to listening to a certain type of music.
It would be an understatement to say I love music. The car radio is one of my favorite inventions because I get to listen to free music whenever I’m in a car. (If you get a chance to listen to KEXP’s radio on their website, they’ve got a pretty incredible station.)
Music was a major part of my Master’s thesis project for my Literature degree, which still makes me chuckle a little (I was able to sneak some 1970s punk rock into my final project!). And it’s really a part of all my writing, and my creative process, if I think about it.
It seems to fuel other people’s work, too … Maybe it’s just the nosy neighbor in me, but I often look at people with their earbuds in at a coffee shop, typing away, and wonder, “What are they listening to?”
But of course, social norms dictate that it’s rude (or just “weird”) to inquire about what they’re doing. As a creative freelancer, though, I always want to know the secret behind how other people find inspiration and creativity, and I’m probably not alone in this.
There are so many ways that music infuses inspiration into creative work, whether it’s writing marketing copy, brainstorming new ideas, editing articles, or doing any of the dozens of tasks that freelancers do.
And there have been several studies that have shown how listening to music — especially music you enjoy — can actually help to increase your productivity. (Maybe that’s why I’m always returning to the same coffee shops … They play my favorite music, so I don’t even have to bring headphones.)
If you’re finding yourself in a creative rut — or you’re looking to shake things up a bit in your creative process or workflow — it’s worth it to give music a try.
When you’re trying to get as many ideas on the table as possible, it’s hard when you’re feeling uninspired. Or not creative. Or just plain burnt out from everything going on outside of your work life.
Picking the right playlist, though, can make all the difference.
When I’m brainstorming, I like to pick music with lyrics, but it has to be something I’ve heard before and have some type of attachment to. There’s something about channeling your emotional side when you’re writing (no matter if it’s a serious piece or a fun, creative editorial) that helps capture authentic language and expressions.
This is especially important when I’m trying to come up with pitches. When you’re selling your writing or your idea to someone else, you want it to come off as genuine and interesting as possible.
I personally gravitate to my favorite albums from some of my favorite bands or artists, like Fleet Foxes, David Bowie, and Neutral Milk Hotel, because I’ve listened to them about 20 times each.
But I don’t just pick those albums because they’re familiar; I enjoy songs that are lyrically interesting, too, and sometimes a line from a song can spark an idea for me.
Some writers like Emily Witt listen to melodic folk music because singers who are telling stories help them get unstuck while brainstorming or starting to write.
An activity I like to do is pick a line from a song and start freewriting about it, or listen closely to a song and respond to it through freewriting. It’s almost like journaling about my own thoughts; often, these ideas won’t make it to the final draft, but it helps me get the gunk out and push through the feelings of writer’s block.
If you’re brainstorming for a fictional piece, especially in the fantasy genre, it’s helpful to feel like you’re “in” that fictional world — on Ambient-Mixer, you’ll find people who’ve created mixes of sounds for different fictional environments (I’m partial to the Hufflepuff Common Room mix!).
So you’ve got your ideas down on paper, and you’ve been groovin’ to music … Now it’s time to write that first draft.
For most writers, the best music for writing an actual draft is whatever sets the mood for your piece or matches the topic you’re doing. And this is where the fun begins.
For example, Carl Zimmer, a writer for The New York Times, picks music that matches the complexity of the topic he’s tackling. So for a piece that’s explaining a complex science topic, he’ll select some Bach or Thomas Tallis, or other classical music with complex notes.
If you want to avoid lyrics but want to find music that’ll capture a specific time and place, try film scores — it’s essentially music that’s been curated with a central theme in mind. The score for Interstellar, for example, gives off a very futuristic, epic feeling; if you’re writing about technology, maybe that’s just the vibe you want.
Or, if you’re feeling more whimsical or thoughtful, try scores from films that have this same overarching tone, maybe something by Wes Anderson or the soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Other writers, like Michael Cunningham, have a practice of listening to music for 15 minutes before writing to “awaken the air.” If the music that inspires you has lyrics, but you don’t want to listen to it while writing, play some music before you start writing to give yourself the energy to dive into your draft.
During the act of writing itself, though, it can actually help to have extra words floating in the air. When I’m writing product copy, I switch between improvisational jazz (with all its chaotic melodies) and music with lyrics. These both seem to spark fun language and turns of phrase for me to use when writing about products.
When you’re writing fiction and you really want to get into the head of your character, you can also try making a playlist of music that your character would listen to.
If you’re trying to write from the perspective of a teenager who listens to indie rock in the mid-2000s, having a playlist filled with Rilo Kiley, Death Cab for Cutie, Bright Eyes, and Arcade Fire (their older stuff, of course) will help you capture the tumultuous feelings that your character’s going through.
Editing and proofreading require pretty focused concentration, so it’s best — as most people probably know — to seek out music that doesn’t have words. When you’re crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s as a proofreader, the worst thing is to have distractions. Hearing lyrics can cause extra noise to buzz around in your head, potentially compromising your work.
For those projects, I find myself gravitating more toward classical music or even lo-fi hip-hop beats. The sound of a piano playing or a mellow, slow beat can be relaxing when I’m hyper-focused on the words.
More than anything, though, music in the background helps me stay awake when my eyes start feeling a little tired, which definitely happens no matter how caffeinated I am. I switch up the music if I find myself getting even a bit sleepy, and suddenly the energy’s back! I’m focused and ready to proofread.
For some proofreaders, like Amanda Stein from our CYC team, it’s possible to listen to music with lyrics, as long as they aren’t lyrics they’ve heard before and the music is played on a low volume. At that point, it’s more about the energy of the music. If you’ve been looking to “listen” to some new music, now’s the time to try out that Lana Del Rey album your coworker’s been begging you to check out.
But for other editors, energetic film scores are perfect for checking things off your to-do list for the day. Just pop on the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack, and you’ll find yourself feeling the same swashbuckling energy as dueling pirates.
Being on the design and marketing side of content — as a content producer or a social media manager — also requires creativity and energy.
For some, it’s all about the classical music. Keeping a calm work environment is key to making sure that each and every detail on the design and production side of content is just right.
For others, this is precisely the time to put on high-energy music like Katy Perry, Ke$ha, or Beyoncé. When you’re trying to capture a fun, upbeat tone for those social media posts, it’s helpful to have some energetic music to match.
But if you find it difficult to focus on these different types of tasks — the creative ones that are outside of writing — try putting on music you enjoy, lyrics or no lyrics. Similar to how taking a walk can reset your brain, listening to music can aid with jumpstarting your energy. Heck, you may even feel inspired to get up and dance a little — who says 3 p.m. isn’t a great time to play some upbeat music and refresh your mind with some funky dance moves? (Just be mindful of others if you’re doing this in public; flailing arms and crowds don’t really go together too well.)
While there have been many studies on the effects of music on the brain, one has shown that by listening to music you like, you can evoke positive emotions that’ll fuel your attitude. It can ultimately help you get through any tasks that feel monotonous or uninspiring, like those housekeeping items that every freelancer (*cough*me*cough*) tends to put off until the end of the day or right before a deadline. You know, those little things like doing your taxes, balancing the books, sending invoices, and all the other necessary non-creative things. Those are the moments when you gotta turn up the music and feel the positivity!
The best way to keep the creativity flowing is to make a playlist ahead of time, and when you’re ready to get to work, all you have to do is press play. If you’re searching for some great places to find music, here are a few that I enjoy for different reasons:
The key is to make sure the music and sounds speak to you and your writing process. If listening to jazz doesn’t work for you, don’t force yourself to listen to it.
But if you’re finding it hard to push through your workday, change up the music; you never know when a certain song or type of music can spark a brand new idea for you. Or, if you’re finding yourself at the whim of the coffee shop playlist, go with the flow — if they’re playing something upbeat and catchy, maybe that’s a good time to switch up your tasks and get some of those housekeeping items checked off.
And lastly, if you’re working in public, remember to wear some headphones or earbuds. As much as you may love doing work to Pearl Jam or heavy metal, the rest of the coffee shop may not.
Julia Hess graduated from California State University, Fullerton with a Master of Arts degree in English. She has worked as a college writing tutor and instructor, a contractor at a major tech company, and a freelance editor and writer. An avid podcast listener, Julia provides editorial feedback, consultation, and detailed show notes for CYC’s podcast, Writers Rough Drafts.