Music vs. Silence: Does Listening to Music Get in the Way of Writing?

Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel about caregiving and ALS. Her short story collection, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, was a finalist in the Foreword Reviews' INDIEFAB Awards. Her fiction has won Gold and Silver Medals from Readers' Favorites International Book Awards, the Barry Hannah Prize, the Ron Rash Award, and many others.

Does music help you write, or does it get in the way? Music has the power to stop the chatter in our heads, and it can shift our mood. Because music opens us to feelings, listening to it can help us get into that zone of deep concentration from which inspired work arises. But, music can also do the opposite. It can fill the silence just when we ought to be listening for the whisper of a story.

piano keys, music, colorful

Does listening to music help or hinder concentration? Many writers say they listen to music before they start writing, but once they begin, they write faster and better in silence.
Image from Pixabay via MasterTux

What About Background Music?

High school and college students often listen to music while doing homework. In a 2001 study to see whether that helped or hindered the students’ ability to write essays, researchers S.E. Ransdell and L. Gilroy found that “Background music significantly disrupted writing fluency (words generated per minute controlling for typing speed and including those words deleted before the final draft)…”

A 2016 Ph.D. thesis by Kristian Johnsen Haaberg concluded that students used music “as a tool during study situations to increase well-being and motivation, to isolate themselves in a personal ‘bubble’, and to avoid other temptations and feelings such as hunger or boredom.”

A third study, published by Arielle S. Dolegui in the social science journal Inquiries, wanted to know whether the genre or volume had an effect on the students’ ability to concentrate. Here’s what the study found:

…the findings of this study revealed that it is the intensity of the music rather than the type of music that matters the most when it comes to cognitive performance, [but] it is still noteworthy to point out that scores were significantly higher