AcWriMo: Music as Muse: Creating Your Research Soundtrack

“Music is like Chalk to the blackboard of life. Without it, everything is a blank slate” – Ray Charles

When I read this quote by the famously blind American Blues artist Ray Charles, I am reminded of how stimulating music can be in generating ideas and articulating our inner thoughts and feelings about life. One of the ways that I have kept myself motivated when writing is by creating my own writing music playlist. When I was younger and preparing for school exams, I relished in carefully selecting inspiring music tracks. I recorded them onto blank discs and then played them on autoloop for hours (much to the annoyance of my parents). For students who are studying today, this has become even easier to do. Apps such as Spotify or iTunes now allow us to create our own personalised playlists in minutes, with a just few taps of a finger.

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination & life to everything” – Plato

As a researcher with a film practice background, I am fascinated by how certain kinds of music affect people in particular ways. In cinema around the world, we can see how different instruments are used to trigger certain emotional reactions in the audience. We might associate violin strings with moments fear, discomfort or tragedy. We may use flutes to characterise innocence and accompany tearful scenes. Perhaps electric guitars are considered the best way evoke a sense of challenge or rebellion? In a world that is increasingly raising its concerns for mental health and wellbeing, you may have come across your share of soothing synthesisers, gentle pan pipes or hypnotic sitars that accompany moments of quiet meditation and mindfulness. Or perhaps those of you who are familiar with the perils of parenting have heard how playing classical music to your baby will (allegedly) make them more intelligent. But will it also help a researcher to write a more intelligent thesis?

“If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music” – Jimmy Hendrix

As a University student of the noughties, I wrote some of my best dissertations while listening to Spanish chillout (Jose Padilla’s copious Café Del Mar volumes) and jazz (Nem Vem Que Nao Tem and Four – Instrumental). As someone who is UK-born, I sometimes find English song lyrics quite distracting when I write. So, I tend to listen more to instrumental-heavy tracks or international songs with lyrics in a language that I don’t personally speak.

“Music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand” – Stevie Wonder

Since musical tastes are entirely personal, different genres and sounds will energise different people. Some academic colleagues tell me that they find music very distracting. They prefer **absolute silence** when writing… Libraries are of course wonderful zen spaces for this (I recommend the Rare Books room in the British library, where not even a single shush will be heard). However, given the sheer variety of music available to us on streaming nowadays, I still encourage others to experiment with different genres a bit before dismissing music as counterproductive.

“This is depression, it comes when you’re blocking. This is expression, it comes when you’re rocking” – Grace Jones

When I am slowing down in my writing due to a lack of confidence or a negative mindset, I find an upbeat tempo (Is this Love Remix or A Forest) or something with a dramatic crescendo will re-energise me. This kind of music helps to block out that awful critical voice of my inner writing Gremlin. If I am suffering from writer’s block, I might listen to a song that invites me to relax (Three Little Birds) or be carefree (Loverboy) and just go for it. If I am having difficulty focusing, I might listen to a hypnotic classical film score that helps me get into the right mood by pulling me into the ‘focus zone’ (Cries and WhispersorDrive Away). If I am doing something mundane like fixing my layout or punctuation, I might put on something more punchy (Can’t Stop) or whimsical (Lifeboat Party or Chinta Ta Chita Chita). I have noticed that certain rhythms help me keep up a steady pace when I write (Ici Bas). If I want to be innovative and think deeply about a complex concept, I might listen to something ambient and experimental (Bubbles and Dead Bodies). Alternatively, I might simply succumb to the ‘white noise’ of chattering voices and clinking cutlery in a recorded café scene. When I really need to engage in theoretical debate and develop my critical voice, I might put on something more powerful. Perhaps some German industrial metal or French rap? This is also what my pre-teen calls “Mummy’s grumpy music”. If the music works, I’ll be thrashing away at my keyboard like a nineteenth century concert pianist.

“Music is healing…(M)usic holds things together.”― Prince

Finally, where I have felt trapped in my room during lockdown with very few people to connect with, I have visited the ambient soundscapes library and tried to select something vaguely entitled ‘Sounds of the Rainforest’. The expansive sound of hundreds of buzzing insects, songbirds and shaking leaves has helped with claustrophobia and been truly transformative. These kinds of audio spaces transport you to locations that beat any campus office.

“Music is the only thing that will give and give and give and not take” – Amy Winehouse

Do we as researchers give much thought to what music and sounds work best for us when we write? If you have not given this much consideration, why not try experimenting with different genres this week to see if they help with your writing productivity? If you already have a writing playlist, why not share it with others on Twitter or at a future writing retreat? @SurreyDocCol

“Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without” – Confucius

Perhaps through each of us sharing and discussing our individual soundtracks to our research, we will discover the ultimate playlist to help all Doctoral College researchers complete their theses and publications – a musical antidote to writer’s block!

If not… well, at least we had fun trying.

“A song has to take on character, shape, body and influence people to an extent that they use it for their own devices. It must affect them not just as a song, but as a lifestyle” – David Bowie

Anonymous Researcher