Amadeus, Brains, Butterflies, and Spaceships …

Someone asked me a little while ago, “What music inspires you when you write?” I thought that was a very good question, and not having personally spent a lot of time considering why I ‘do what I do’, I decided to sit and do a little self-analysis and research. In the process, I discovered some interesting things about myself and others regarding how music shapes our lives and habits, and for reasons probably different than the person asking might think. This short trip of understanding how music effects the creative process will take us off the beaten path and into the wilderness of neural-cognitive science, but stick with me, I promise it will be worth it. You’ll never listen to music the same way again!

Many people use music to help them engage in whatever they have to accomplish that day or to drive their mood in the desired direction. Be it to energize for a work out, take the edge off the daily commute, to calm down after a hectic day, or to reminisce about a lost love. Once we begin listening to music it shapes our reality at that instant via several different mechanisms that lie within our own brain: memories of our past, projection by living vicariously though the singer/composer, empathy for the singer/writer, or just letting the beat and rhythms of the music stir what is primal within us all.

Personally, when I’m listening to music it resonates with my emotional psyche more than any other aspect. Some uniquely moving pieces of classical and modern orchestral works, and the rare vocal piece, can move me to tears or fill me with the confidence and energy to take on the world. And when I say that at times it has the same effect on me as that of a religious experience, I don’t exaggerate much. The cleansing of the soul, the renewal of emotional energy, the sheer appreciation of the beauty and complexity of something so much greater than myself, all manifest themselves for me through the music.  Having spent a large portion of my life as one of the devout and faithful, the similarities in the experiences for me are indistinguishable.

But back to the question at hand; “What music do I listen to?” Well as you can gather by now, my answer will be, “It depends…” Clear enough? In all seriousness, I use music to tap into my emotional core to stimulate the feelings needed for the article, story or scene at the time. It is my belief that by activating the auditory-emotional linkage, which then stimulates the memory regions of the brain, the creative tendencies are able to manifest themselves more freely. Being a visual thinker, once the creative juices start to flow and the image processing parts of my brain get fired up, then the good stuff starts to flow onto the page. And believe it or not, this is largely not Terry’s mumbo-jumbo. Study after study has shown that retention of information increases dramatically with each new sense that you involve during the learning process. [1],[2] So why would not the reverse be true? I know several people that work this way, but most do not spend their time asking why as I have.

The science behind music and the brain, thanks to twentieth and twenty-first century technology and scientific endeavor, has begun to unravel the mysteries of the brain and how it makes us who we are and visa versa. As a Stanford study suggests [3], music, regardless if it is classical or rock, helped people focus while studying, and by extension other tasks as well that require focused attention. Granted this changes with person-to-person depending on their preferences. Personally, any music that doesn’t have lyrics is useful to me in this manner; however, once the lyrics start to be sung, I find it distracting. Why is that? Well, it has a lot to do with the way the brain processes information, music, and how you learn. I am a visual, but primarily an auditory learner. Therefore, when I hear a voice, I start focusing in on what is being said, be it a person in front of me, someone on the phone or a singer in the background. But I digress.

Now, back to focusing of the mind. By listening to music, effectively you are keeping a portion of your mind focused…and distracted. In reality, very few of us are capable of applying 100% of our focused attention to anything for any length of time. Very few have this laser focus and society generally labels these people who are capable of it as having savant-like tendencies. Interesting isn’t it? So for the rest of us, we constantly have to re-focus our conscious mind on the task at hand as it can very quickly become bored and wander off on irrelevant, tangential thoughts. The next thing you know, you’ve read two pages and don’t remember anything that you read. Much like many of you now. Smilie: ;-)

However, music helps distract the brain so that the creative centers can work and not be regulated. Similar to when your mind relaxes prior to sleep and random ideas and connections are made from seemingly nowhere. Additionally, and this is where I get a little metaphysical, your subconscious works on problems all the time in the background of your mind and will subtly push them to your conscious mind once a solution has been worked out. A large part of problem solving actually occurs in the ancient (evolutionarily speaking) unconscious mind. As our primate predecessors evolved, they solved problems before they developed the conscious mind to realize they were solving problems. Some refer to this as the reptilian mind, which was an early stage in our brain’s evolutionary development. Generally, this reptilian mind dealt with the basic functions required for survival: food, sex, assessment of threats (fight or flight). All of these required problem solving and taking action based on concluded solutions.

Each and every day, much of what you have been thinking on consciously or have experienced through everyday activities gets funneled down to the subconscious mind which is not only comprised of the reptilian brain, but also of the paleomammalian brain which added complexity of the reptilian behavior and also added in family structure inclinations and then neomammalian complex, conferring the ability for language, abstraction, planning, and perception. The short version of all of this is that there are core thought processes that are going on behind the scenes of our conscious mind that we are unaware of unless we quiet our conscious mind and let them bubble up through the different levels of abstraction and formulation to something that is understandable to our normal thought process. This is why we typically have these ‘Ah HA!’ moments of creativity out of the blue, solutions in our lives to plot problems we may have, or to great new ideas for stories.

An analogy that might help simplify all of this would be in how you interact with your personal computer or smart phone. Most of us do not begin to understand how the 1’s and 0’s of the data and software are routed, acted upon, sent through the myriad of circuitry to drive and act upon our inputs to the graphical user interface (GUI). What goes on behind the scenes does not remotely resemble what we experience when using the computer. Basically, our conscious mind is simply the GUI of our unconscious mind and psyche. A lot of good stuff is going on behind the screen that we are not generally aware of, but we have to open up a window and let it come to the surface.

Also, in studying the brain researchers have learned that music probably has been a part of us since very shortly after we developed the ability to comprehend emotions. What MRI scans have shown [4] is that music stimulates a very old part of the brain that in turn simulates emotions and physical responses! It does this in conjunction with the use of a natural forming stimulant called dopamine, which is also associated with rewards such as food and sex. This is why we get excited when we listen to music, we feel energized, our heart rate increases, we get chills, goose bumps or we relax and out heart slows. Additionally, research has shown that the brain does not remain in a static fixed state and reinforces its connections based upon its repeated stimulus. That is defined as the plasticity of the brain. Researchers have shown that the brains of musicians are slightly different than non-musicians and react to music very differently.[5] While I did play the French horn for eight years when I was young and have enjoyed singing in various venues during my life, I do not classify myself as a musician. However, it might explain why music does affect me at the emotional level that it does.[6]

Some of the most compelling new understanding of the brain and creativity now sheds more light into those who create new worlds and societies in their mind and can somehow paint these places in the minds of others. Yes, the storytellers and authors of the world. Researchers at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, National Institutes of Health have found through extensive study that in the brains of freestyle rap artists there are unique areas that are associated with creative thought formation and are independent of the actual formulation of words and speaking.[7] A surprising finding was that the creative thoughts originate deep within the left side of the brain and then get handed off to the right and more traditionally creative part of the brain for further formulation and development.

“It is interesting in this context that self-generated, stimulus independent behaviors appear to be initiated by midline frontal regions well before subjects consciously experience the intention to act. 

… This is not inconsistent with the experience of many artists who describe the creative process as seemingly guided by an outside agency. 

…This suggests that the conscious, deliberate, top-down attentional processes mediated by this network may be attenuated during improvisation, consistent with the notion that a state of defocused attention enables the generation of novel, unexpected associations that underlie spontaneous creative activity.”

My goodness! I still haven’t answered the question, have I? Well, I have gone the long way around to make the point that I use music like a tool when I am writing or even just clearing my mind to let the ideas just bubble to the surface. For example, when I am driving to and from work—which is where I do a lot of my thinking for new stories, plot lines, etc.—and a piece of rousing orchestral music is on, I begin to think about major action scenes in stories, space ships skimming along the tops of ravines on alien planets, and endearing heroes making speeches to persuade the remaining few to push through the last mile. You get the idea.

If the story is there, waiting to go onto the keyboard and I need to focus, then I tune into the Pandora channel Tibetan Moon and go to work. If there is the right romantic scene that needs a nice soulful pacing, then that channel also works well. Slow piano pieces always seem to put me a reflective mood and Chopin never disappoints, which is conducive for the self-reflection of my characters ironically enough. Maybe not.

If the characters or the current scene requires some cultural influences, then I try to pick out music that is representative of the culture in focus. For example, my current manuscript contains a portion that takes place in Africa. So naturally enough, I went in search of some music that might tie me in a little closer to the myriad of unique cultures present there. However, the play list was probably not what you might have expected. I found a couple of modern artists that grew up on various parts of the continent and then went on to write orchestral works that verge on new age music. It worked quite nicely and took me to the continent and a spiritual place quite readily. Now, unless you want to listen to Johnny Clegg or Ladysmith Black Mambazo, then finding new and current music of the people can be difficult; again steps in Pandora to save the day. Their selection of African Jazz is very nice, but these are but two examples of what is possible.

Some other genres of music I find so utterly disturbing that I can only listen to it for brief moments, just enough to place my mind in the appropriate place to write. For example, if there is scene where the character is undergoing some extremely horrific event or is in some type of psychotic state, then I find very heavy metal/death metal, or even the soundtrack to ‘Dawn of the Dead’ as an example, will usually do it quite well.

It is no accident that I haven’t called out many specific artists. To me, it is less about who is playing and more about what is being performed, how it makes me feel and the cascade of creativity and reflection that follows. For each of us is different, so too will be what works for you. Not that I am promoting Pandora, despite my multiple references, with a little creativeness in setting up some channels on your own, you can create seemingly never ending streams of music that will let you write for hours without you having to get up once to shuffle the CDs or load a new playlist on your iPod.

There you have it, the complete path from your selection of music, its progression through the primal parts of your brain and back out again in the form of great ideas and new stories to tell. In closing, as I write this one of my favorite pieces of music, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, plays in the background. Oh what hidden garden will I find? Butterflies? Spaceships? What encounter with a hidden stranger might take place under the full moon…?

Terry R. Hill



[1] Brain-Based Teaching Strategies for Improving Students’ Memory, Learning, and Test-Taking Success

[2] Engaging every student: music, movement, and language in the kindergarten classroom

[3] Music Moves Brain To Pay Attention, Stanford Study Finds

[4] This is your Brain on Music

[5] The Musician’s Brain 

[6] Parts Of The Brain Affected By Music

[7] Neural Correlates of Lyrical Improvisation: An fMRI Study of Freestyle Rap

Category(s): Inspired Moments
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