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Why Music Really is a Creativity Killer

Photography: xtream_i

Most of you agreed with all the items on our list of creativity killers… all but one. Music, many of you said, was inspiring, uplifting and provided a useful background when you were working on Photoshop.

We can’t argue with that.

Listening to music while you work can be useful. Creating images on Photoshop might well be one of those times — provided the creative thinking has already been done. If you already know roughly what you want to do when you sit at the computer then music can make the mechanical work of toning and layering more pleasant.

But if you’re thinking while you’re working — and hoping that something develops as you click — then we still believe that music can whack your creativity.

Here are ten reasons why:

1. The lyrics are off-putting
The biggest reason that music kills creativity is that the words get in the way. Listening to music with lyrics is like trying to concentrate while someone is talking to you. It’s difficult and limiting. Every time a train of thought runs into a dead-end, instead of tracing your path back to the last junction your mind skips on to the words in the music and follows someone else’s track.

Work like that and it will take you a very long time to get where you want to go.

2. The harmony is off-putting too
Ashli wrote in the comments to our list of creativity killers that s(?)he listens to music without words when she’s trying to write. That’s certainly going to be less harmful than having someone bawling on about their broken heart while you’re trying to think but even classical music can kill your own creativity.

Your thoughts might not be following the words but they will be conjuring up images created by the composer’s harmonies and movements. You want your thoughts to be conjuring your own images.

3. Music is limited by genre
Listening to music also involves making choices and placing limitations. Music is sold according to genre and even sub-genre. That might make finding music you like easier on iTunes but it boxes art and forces it to follow rules that have more to do with easy categorization than creating excellence.

You want your influences to be open rather than limited by type.

4. Music is manufactured, not created
And worse than being squeezed into genres, music is also forced to be commercial. That doesn’t just mean that almost anything you’re listening to will have had to follow the rules of its genre, it also means that much of its originality will have been ironed out to make it an easy sell.

Unless you’re listening to a group that no one’s heard of and whose music fits no category, your thoughts are going to be inspired by the effects of commercialization not just art.

5. Music causes procrastination
Creativity is rarely a regular process. It shoots ahead, floats, takes flights of fancy, stalls and soars, and it does all in unpredictable rhythms. Music though stops and starts according to pre-determined time slots.

That means that when your thoughts begin to slow, it’s always tempting to kick back and listen to the music… at least until the end of the song.

Add up all the time you spend listening to the rest of the song, and you might well find that you’ve lost half your morning listening to music instead of creating your own works.

6. Songs end
And even if you’re not listening to the song, you might find yourself listening to the next one when that one ends. The change in tempo from one song to the next can be as intrusive into your thoughts as a poke in the back of the head with a room-mate’s finger.

And that’s assuming you don’t tell yourself that you just love this song, and stop thinking for a while to listen to it.

7. Albums and playlists end too
It’s not just songs that can end and disturb your creative process. Albums can end, playlists can run out of songs and of course, you can run out of patience with the sort of music you’re hearing.

At that point, you have to stop thinking what you’re thinking and start thinking about what you want to listen to next.

8. You can only think as fast as the music
The tempo of the music too will dictate the speed at which you think. If you’re listening to Van Halen, you might find that your thoughts flow fast and furiously… for a few minutes. Then stop. If you’re listening to Vivaldi, they might meander, developing slowly.

Neither of those is a disaster, but wouldn’t it be better if your ideas came to you at the speed that suits them… and you?

9. Music is addictive
One of the biggest problems that can arise when the music ends is that you want more but don’t have anything you want to listen to right now…. so you go shopping. iTunes might make the buying easy but you have to listen to the samples, search out similar tunes, find the best buys.

If you’ve just lost half your morning listening to the ends of songs, you could be about to lose half the afternoon buying more.

10. Music replaces thoughts
The bottom line is that music always replaces thoughts. When you’re doing mechanical tasks — even if those tasks involve implementing creative ideas you’ve already thought of — music can be pleasant and helpful. When you need to think though, the only sounds you should be able to hear are those of your own inner voice.

Still disagree? Tell us here.


  1. vince Says:

    I agree for the most part. I do a lot of listening to music while I work, but sometimes it really can disrupt the flow of thought.

    Music also helps me a lot when I draw or paint. It can really help me get something on my canvas and most the time it reflects what I am listening to.

    I guess it really depends on what you are doing. I'd develop this idea some more, but I don't want to sound like an idiot.

  2. Fred Says:

    I think this is a pretty narrow minded view. Why do you think that every minute detail in music is contributing to your creative process. I am a composer/sound designer and work with big clients, I feel that the average listener is ignoring, or simply doesn't hear the intricate design involved in music production. You have free will of your creative process and music should never hinder that. I think this is just a naive list of cliches.

  3. Mohammad Fauzil Adhim Says:

    A great article. Yes, I fully agree that music is addictive. Once you think you need music in the process of writing, you will dependent until you struggle to stop. Formerly I listened to music to influence my mind when writing, but now not anymore and I feel better.

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