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By Dr Kay Guccione, a Senior Lecturer in Academic Development at Glasgow Caledonian University. Kay has been a teacher and educational development professional since 2010, working in Researcher and Academic Development at the University of Sheffield for nine years. Her specialism is in Dialogic Learning, as applied to Mentoring, Personal Tutoring and PhD Supervision. She was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship in 2018 in recognition of her national profile in these areas, and she edits a blog on Research Supervision, and edits the Journal of Imaginary Research

Selfie by Kay Guccione wearing her ‘obnoxious headphones’

Researchers in music psychology (of which I am not one, to be transparent) have produced a huge body of evidence, documenting how music affects human behaviour and emotion within a wide range of performance contexts, varying music genera and tempo, task type, volume and the presence or absence of vocals. Writing to the right musical soundscape, can make you work faster (Bramwell-Dicks et al, 2016). This post will put you in touch with resources for choosing music to write by.

Many of us use music in our work, to create a private soundscape for ourselves, as much as for the appreciation of the musical product itself. Working in shared physical spaces in the office, in cafes, or in the last year at home, we can pop on the obnoxiously large headphones and create ourselves a relatively private environment for writing. A virtual ‘room of one’s own’.

Listening to music while we work is known to be functional as well as enjoyable (Haake, 2011), and choosing music that has a calming effect, an energising effect, or offers a neutral noise cancelling result can help to set the mood and create the right emotional and motivational basis for the task at hand.

Seven years ago, I was writing my MA Dissertation, discussing the educational impacts of a peer-coaching approach to support struggling doctoral writers, and I found that my usual choices were acting as distractants rather than aiding my writing productivity. While perfectly conducive to amping me up for the tasks of formatting references and making figures, my Northern Soul playlist was drawing my attention away from the difficult and intellectually demanding task of discussing my data. Annoying. But, knowing that writing to the right musical soundscape, can make you work faster (Bramwell-Dicks et al, 2016), I wanted to find out what music I should choose. I’ll admit I was half thinking about how quicky I might write the darned thing based on archive footage of pool typists clacketing along merrily to faster and faster tempos. And, you’ll recognise, I was clearly procrastinating over actually finishing it.

Happily, I did finish my Masters and handily, the timing was right to turn my personal curiosity about music for focused writing, into a development opportunity for our research postgraduates and academic staff, under the auspices of ‘WriteFest’, a celebration of Global Academic Writing month through a festival of writing which I designed and lead for 5 years at the University of Sheffield. In addition to our workshops, mentoring sessions and writing retreats, I approached a real expert to guide us on choosing ‘Music for Writing’. The brilliant Dr Victoria Williamson provided the music psychology expertise that I needed to create a resource for picking out music to write to. Responding to my initial naïve request with a ‘well I think you’ll find it’s a little bit more complicated than that..’ she agreed to help, and we created this video presenting six rules for selecting music that enhances focus, based on theory presented in her book.

Based on these six rules, if the task is intellectually challenging, I personally listen to:

  • This ambient playlist on Apple Music. I do not enjoy this type of music at all, but it functions perfectly in helping me to focus on challenging work. Except for the track with the ding that sounds like my oven timer. I have to skip that one.
  • I also get something out of coffee shop noise via Coffitivity.
  • On Noisli, I like the crackling campfire combined with the rain, super cosy.
  • Or even just a 3h fireplace on YouTube, great for wintery days.

Before I finish this post, I wanted to mention Typatone. Rather than offering music for your writing, this free website generates music from your writing, chiming along as you type, and giving you an instant replay of your composition, when you pause to think. You can change the tone sounds to suit your preference; I found the tinkling bells and electronic waves actually very conducive to my writing of this blog piece. The menacing cello sounds, yeah, not so much. But at the end I was able to download the music my writing had created. I’ve bookmarked it, so that I can write along to it this afternoon and let’s see if the musical memory of an enjoyable productive morning will infuse my afternoon efforts.

I would be really interested to hear back from you, and to find out what soundscape you are using for complex writing tasks. Drop your ideas or playlists, into the comments.

PS. Music and me

Music has been central to my whole life. My dad has an enviously huge vinyl music collection and I have some treasured early memories of rocking out to Queen with him, both of us jumping on and off the sofa into an air guitar knee slide. We still (attempt to) do this together at every opportunity.

It’s not surprising then that music is a big part of everything I do, every single day. I live, and work, and run, and write, to a soundtrack. I have vivid memories of the main album I listened to as I revised for my GCSEs at age 16, and the soundtrack to preparing for my A-Levels at age 18. My Zoology and Genetics undergrad study time was all about Classic FM because my second-hand alarm clock radio was stuck on that channel. My PhD lab days, as I recall, involved a research group divided, in a 4-year disagreement over the relative value to lab productivity of Radio Station A vs Radio Station B. In my postdoc, I sat down daily to the mechanical and repetitive task of measuring the lengths of Striga radicles and blasted through the back catalogue of 60s/70s rock via iTunes, now Apple Music, which had had the good grace to be invented by then.

References

Bramwell-Dicks, A., Petrie, H., & Edwards, A. (2016). Can Listening to Music Make You Type Better? The Effect of Music Style, Vocals and Volume on Typing Performance. International Conference on Auditory Display, Canberra, Australia.

Haake, A., B. (2011) Individual music listening in workplace settings: An exploratory survey of offices in the UK. Musicae Scientiae, 15(1):107-129. doi:10.1177/1029864911398065

Williamson, V (2015). You Are the Music: How Music Reveals What it Means to be Human. London: Icon Books.