Use A Writing Playlist To Boost Productivity

Millie Ho Music Writing Illustration
You’ve heard poorly informed parents claim that Mozart makes their fetuses smarter. Then there’s the more scientifically substantiated idea that listening to Baroque music enhances your concentration and emotional wellbeing.

More recently, researchers at Stanford discovered that listening to different movements of music in one sitting helps your brain “sharpen its ability to anticipate events” and “sustain attention.” To paraphrase the research study, as soon as a tune ends, the transition period between the first song and the next song triggers a consistent neurological response that strengthens your attention span and improves your ability to anticipate unknown events.

The implications of this study for writers are significant. Being able to better anticipate events correlates with our ability to formulate better narratives and visualize future developments in plot and character relationships. The sustained attention bit speaks for itself. According to reputable Internet (is that an oxymoron?) sources, the ideal playlist for concentration and writing must contain the following elements:

1. The music has to be repetitive.
2. The music has to be atmospheric.
3. The music must not be catchy or mainstream.

The last stipulation is there to shield you from abandoning your writing to shriek Justin Bieber like a banshee in the shower. Some also advocate for the exclusion of non-instrumental music, but I found that muted and/or incomprehensible vocals (distorted by a synthesizer or in another language) work just as well.

Here’s a writing playlist I created earlier this year to meet a thesis deadline.

[8tracks width=”400″ height=”400″ playops=”” url=”″]

Does music help you write better?

22 thoughts on “Use A Writing Playlist To Boost Productivity

  1. coolron33 says:

    I learned to play the saxophone when I was a kid, but it didn’t help me hit more home runs in baseball. Wait, it did make me work harder, write better, and have better…whoops, better not say that! Sorry Millie.

  2. Christi says:

    I like to have some music playing while I’m writing, as a background sound, usually something a bit mellow. Quiet music with vocals seems to be fine, but you’re right about the harsher vocals — they can pull you out of the writing process.

    • Millie Ho says:

      The same can be said about writing in a cafe and absorbing the background noise. But now that I’ve read the Stanford research study, I wonder if the improved productivity was simply due to Starbuck’s playlist.

  3. kvennarad says:

    Music and silence and writing, for me, depends on mood. Sometimes I pick an internet station that plugs away at 19c classical, or Cajun, or cool jazz; sometimes I put my player on random, and could easily come up with Tibetan singing bowls as Eurotrance; sometimes I growl petulantly if anyone in the house, or a clock, or a passing mosquito, makes so much as a whisper above my natural tinnitus level…

      • steve says:

        I like that idea about Jazz doing what you described here…”impervious to mood.” That’s interesting, almost like a universal language that Jazz, but then again, we used to turn the sound down on the TV and play records. Somehow, most of the scenes on TV made sense to whatever music we played. Or maybe it was just our perception. We were always laughing.

        Those three criteria from that source list are a good description of Philip Glass. I get addicted to his sound sometimes for for months at a time. I never paid attention to how different music effects writing, but I know the department stores play specific music to probably enhance the number of purchases. That usually gets rubber stamped as being manipulative or evil but i kind of dig it….not so much the music, but the skill of psychological persuasion through music. Megaphones on city streets could do wonders for our collective mental health or have the opposite effect I guess. Depends on the music pumped in.

  4. the urban misanthropist says:

    This definitely works. When life is very busy, and time for creative writing limited, I have found this very useful. I create ‘sound tracks’ for my longer pieces of fiction, pieces that capture the mood and emotional impact I am trying to capture in the story. If I only have half an hour to write, I can easily spend the whole time re-reading the text just to get my head in the right place. With a sound track I’m there very quickly and actually manage to produce something. Lyrics can be intrusive, but I allow myself to empleg them naturally into the text. It’s kinda fun, and a way of acknowledging the people who helped.

  5. Jen says:

    Music totally and completely helps me write better, but only because most of what I am writing these days is memoir, and I am so emotionally bound to music that playing the write song can instantly transport me smack dab in the middle of a scene. Not quite what you’re writing about , but because of this, I have becomes obsessed lately with music and writing and look forward to giving your playlist a shot

  6. alienheartbeat says:

    due to some unfortunate combination of faulty genes and poor breeding, am able to concentrate perfectly without music.
    however music is often necessary to rouse the soul, and this is what is necessary usually to really write.
    but apologies that my soul slept through your playlist. likely we have strikingly different souls 😉

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