When you’re writing on a deadline—either for work or school or when applying for jobs—writer’s block can be a killer. If the stakes are high, interruption of your creative flow can cause you to miss deadlines and opportunities.
There’s long been a debate of what exactly cures writer’s block. In fact, your solution is likely different from mine.
Is it down to the location you choose to write—in an office, your apartment or the coffee shop down the road? Or is it about the time of day you write—early in the morning when you’re fresh, or late at night, when the world around you is asleep and distractions are minimal?
In my routine, reversing writer’s block is all about the music. Music helps me stay in the zone, but it has to be the right music. When I began writing this article, I was listening to a melancholy and somewhat depressing song. I found myself writing slower and had some trouble finding the right thoughts to put to paper.
So I switched to something that had a little more pep, and it worked. You might find that experimenting with different music can help you find the right headspace for writing.
Want a hint about what music might help you get through writer’s block? Researchers have studied how different types of music affect the way we work.
Simone Ritter of Radboud University in the Netherlands and Sam Ferguson of the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, studied the behavior of 155 volunteers in five groups. Four of those groups were given music to listen to while completing a series of tests. The fifth group completed the tests in silence.
The researchers found that people were more creative and had more unique ideas when they were listening to music they found positive and upbeat.
In their experiment, Ferguson and Ritter used four pieces of classical music with variations in tempo and mood to evoke different emotions: Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings, Op. 11” for sad; Gustav Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War” for anxious; Camille Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan” for calm; and the “Allegro” movement of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Spring” for happy.
Vivaldi’s piece appeared to have the most positive impact. The other pieces didn’t seem to do anything to get creative juices flowing.
The happy music promoted creative thought, promoting the release of dopamine in the brain, a chemical that is associated with pleasure and satisfaction, but had no effect on logical, accurate or deep thoughts.
While lots of people use music to help them get into a work flow, “it seems that the type of music present is important, rather than just any music,” Ferguson said in an interview with New Scientist.
Because of its ability to encourage creativity, some experts think music could be integrated into spaces where thinking outside the box is required.
“Music is such an important part of everyday life, and it could be a potential avenue for fostering creativity in education and the workplace,” said Rex Jung, clinical professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, in an interview with Reuters. “Even if people don’t play it themselves, they can appreciate it.”
But hold on. While it has been shown to help and not hinder one’s creative abilities, it is unclear if it can be a solution for everyone. Some people can’t work unless it’s completely silent. For them, even Vivaldi would be a huge distraction.
Ritter and Ferguson acknowledge in their work that more studies need to be done on music’s link to creativity, and if other musical genres have the same impact as classical music.
Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist based in Minnesota and writing for publications in the U.S. and the U.K. He is an active member of the Society of Professional Journalists and serves on its Ethics Committee. When he isn’t writing, he’s either watching Jacques Pepin reruns and British TV shows, listening to public radio or planning his next story. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.