Are the sounds of silence helpful or harmful to writers?

Reading time: Less than 5 minutes

Do you find music helps you to write or are the sounds of silence more golden to your ears? Here’s what science has to say about background music while writing….

When I was a child, my mother strictly limited our television viewing. In the days of those ugly black and white, cathode-tube TVsshe used to remove the tube and hide it in her bedroom, telling us the TV was “broken.” She also didn’t let us listen to music while we were doing our homework. This edict made me even less happy than the one about TV.

Years later, perhaps it was my mother’s influence that caused me to try studying in the “silent” room of my campus library at university. Seating about 60 people, this carefully insulated prison room allowed patrons to make no noise whatsoever. If you dropped a pencil or book, the death glare of other students was enough to cause you to leave. Which I did. 

Eventually, I started hanging out in the recording library. I’d select a record (no CDs or streaming in those prehistoric days), plop on the headphones and study with soothing instrumental music — usually harp or gentle piano — playing in the background.

I knew intuitively that I studied better with what my mother would have called ‘noise’ — although I didn’t really understand why. I also knew intuitively that I could study only with instrumental music. If there were lyrics (such as rock or pop), I’d want to sing along. 

In 1997, a book by Don Campbell, The Mozart Effect, presented the theory that listening to Mozart may temporarily increase your IQ and enhance your creativity. In fact, over the last 25 years, researchers have generally agreed that Baroque music — Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Corelli, and Telemann are its most celebrated composers — is best for creativity. (Here’s a two-hour YouTube video you can play to see if Baroque music helps you. Just fast-forward through the ads at the beginning.)

Research from 2012, also shows that most people achieve peak performance under conditions my mother would have decried —70 decibels. Let me give you a sense of what that sounds like:

Rustle of leaves:                                                       20 dB

A whisper:                                                                 30 dB

Light rain:                                                                 40 dB

Quiet office:                                                              50 dB

Normal conversation:                                            60 dB

Busy coffee shop:                                               70 dB

Heavy traffic:                                                           80 dB

Welder noise:                                                           90 dB

Motorcycle (riding):                                               100 dB

Rock concert:                                                           110 dB

Thunderclap:                                                           120 dB

Stadium crowd noise:                                            130 dB

Jet engine at takeoff:                                              140 dB

While for any sustained noise greater than about 90 dB, you should wear personal protective equipment, most people are fine with anything lower than 70 dB. And I suspect the need for a certain, very specific amount of noise is precisely what drives so many writers to coffee shops. I’ve never believed it’s just about the caffeine! I think it’s the relaxed ambience, the vague feeling of social interaction (without needing to speak to anyone if you don’t want to) and the actual noise

If it’s too inconvenient to decamp to a coffee shop, one trick you might want to try is a fr/ee app called Coffitivity. For absolutely no cost, you can choose between morning murmur, lunchtime lounge and university undertones. I’ve used this app for the last six weeks and have found it noticeably cranked up my own productivity. 

I’ve also always found the noise of my pomodoro timer (tick tock tick tock) to be enormously comforting and inspiring. But right now, I’m overlaying it with either coffitivity or some Baroque music — the YouTube link I mentioned above — and I find that even more helpful. I’m on a Mac so for my pomodoro timer I use Action Enforcer, which cost me $27 (I’m not a reseller so will earn nothing if you decide to buy). If you’re using a PC, it will be easy for you to find plenty of fr/ee online timers.

While most people are familiar with the term “white noise,” which is often marketed as a sleep or concentration aid, fewer have heard of brown noise. But experts consider brown noise to be significantly more soothing. Listen to it here. (This link will work for eight hours if you want to use it while writing.)

A masking tool, brown noise helps block external sounds and can be used for writing, relaxing, studying or sleeping. Brown noise is especially tuned for human hearing by removing a large portion of high frequencies. It’s a “deep” sound, similar to the gentle noise of water flowing in a creek.

The bottom line? My mother (and my university library) were wrong. A certain degree of background noise helps rather than hurts both concentration and creativity. Here are some further guidelines:

  • Calibrate your sound so it’s in the 70-dB range. Anything louder is going to be too distracting to you. 
  • If listening to music, look for a moderate rhythm and something without too many changes in tempo. For example, I always fast forward through the organ section in the Baroque recording I cited above because I find it too loud, distracting and unpredictable. 
  • Avoid lyrics. While your favourite music might be death metal or Broadway show tunes, neither genre will help you write. Having to listen to other people’s words will make it far more difficult for your brain to focus on writing your own. 
  • Pick sounds you already know: Our brains love to recognize patterns. If your brain is already familiar with the sound you are playing, then it will relax and allow you to focus on writing. If the sound is new, however, your brain is going to have to concentrate on the work of processing it for its aural ‘library’ — leaving your writing in the lurch.
  • Pick music you like: If the music you like includes lyrics, listen to it before you start writing. The jolt of energy and happiness you give yourself should help your writing. And, while writing, if instrumental music just doesn’t do it for you, try listening to some sounds from nature. (Fast forward through the ads as soon as you can.)

In summary, the sounds of silence are actually more likely to make it harder for you to write. Listening to music that you truly enjoy or other sounds that relax you will help your words flow as easily as water over rocks.  

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If you want to write your own book (or thesis or dissertation), consider applying to my Get It Done program. I’m holding a no-charge webinar this Friday (Feb. 14/19) at 1 pm Pacific to introduce you to the principles I teach in the program. Register by emailing me. If you already want to apply to the program, go herescroll to the very end of the page and select the bright green “click here to apply now” button.

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My video podcast last week described how to write more effectively with partners. Or, see the transcriptand consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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What kind of background sound do you find best helps your writing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Feb. 29/20 will be put in a draw for a copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here   to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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