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Music for Productive Creativity

Can music help you get in a creative flow?

Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at
Source: Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at

Arguably, one of music’s most salient characteristics is the impact it has on our emotions. What if this impact can be used in an intentional way to boost creative flow?

I had an interesting conversation last week with an airplane seat mate, a writer heading on holiday. During the course of the conversation, he shared with me his strategy for shifting into an appropriate mental space prior to working on a writing project. He listens to music.

But it’s more detailed and interesting than that: He creates playlists for different writing projects. Writing is a creative process, and different types of writing projects require different types of creative energies, shall we say. For example, some writing projects are more technical and demand a level of focus, whereas others are more thoughtful and introspective, perhaps requiring a more relaxed mood state.

So my seat mate would consider the writing topic and type of project, then develop a playlist designed to shift his cognitive and emotional state into what is needed for that particular assignment. One common denominator in all his playlists—which I’ve written about previously when discussing music for productivity—is that the music he uses either has no words, or uses words in a foreign language he does not understand (Dutch techno music was a particular favorite of his). Other than that, the genres and artists vary depending on the mood he intends to create.

It’s actually quite a brilliant plan that draws various mechanisms underlying the influence of music on brain and behavior function:

  • Music for mood: Music has the ability to influence our mood states. In fact, this is one of the most common functions of everyday music listening—to regulate our emotional state. We listen to energizing music when we need to feel “pumped up” as we clean the house, or listen to calming music when trying to relax after a long day at work. My writer seat mate used this naturally occurring phenomenon to shift himself into a project-specific mood state.
  • Music for sustained focus: Music is a temporal stimulus, meaning it occurs over time. Furthermore, our brains are attracted to music—not only do we find it aesthetically pleasing, but it’s a highly patterned and organized stimulus, and the human brain likes processing information that’s patterned and organized. Given these qualities, music is conducive to helping the brain focus over a long period of time. Thus, by listening to a playlist during his writing task, my writer seat mate was creating an environment in which his attention could remain focused on the task.
  • Practiced associative connections: The final key is practice. My writer seat mate did not create a single playlist to use once for a one-off project; he listened to a particular playlist whenever he worked on that project. Thus, he begins to form associations with that playlist. Whenever he starts hearing it, he will shift into the mood state more quickly. Furthermore, he undergoes this process for each writing assignment. It’s a part of his regular writing practice. If you engage in this process on a regular basis, over time it will become a practiced response. You’ll begin to associate music listening with shifting into a certain creative space, and it will take less effort.

This begs the question, then, of how you can use music to help get in a creative flow. This creative flow does not have to be specific to writing—it can be for any sort of creative project: cooking, art, design, brainstorming, etc.

Once you have identified your project, the first step is to create a project-specific playlist. This involves thought into the project itself, as well as thought into yourself. Consider what type of mood you need to create in that will help you get in the appropriate mood state. Consider, too, your musical preferences. Use these guidelines to create a playlist of music you like that will shift you into the mood you need to focus on your creative project. As with my writer friend, the playlist should include music you like, and should not include words (or at least words you understand), as your brain will want to process lyrics, which can be distracting.

The final step is to make project-based music listening a regular practice. Allow yourself to learn and associate this type of music listening practice with productive creativity.

Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for daily updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website,, for additional information, resources, and strategies.

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