Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Whistle While You Work (but probably not while you edit)

Music is about as dangerous for me as tequila. The last time I drank tequila I was nineteen years old and in Arizona. Well, that’s not true. The last time I remember drinking tequila was in Arizona. Then I woke up wondering why there were so many Mexicans in my buddy’s living room. There weren’t. There were so many Mexicans around because I was in Nogeles, Mexico. I (reportedly) was convinced that I loved tequila and needed to go to its house and meet its mother or something. My friends –wonderful people, but not exactly paragons of good decision making themselves back in the day– obliged. My love affair with tequila ended that morning.


Music can be almost as dangerous. I have injured myself while working out because music made me feel invincible. If I am going to listen to music while I run, I need to run on a treadmill or I will run into traffic or off a cliff or somewhere else, far worse than Nogales, Mexico. If I need to get pumped up for something, music will do it every time. If I need to calm down and relax, it can do that too. Music has an enormous impact on how I think and act. So much so that I can’t write anything with music playing. If I were going to write with background music, I would need to precisely tailor a song list to match what I was writing, paragraph-by-paragraph, or what I wrote would reflect the emotional content of the music more than my story.

Enough about me.

What’s the Real Scoop on Music When Writing and Editing?

There isn’t one. That’s not the result I expected to find when I went digging through journal articles and studies. And there are an astounding number of studies looking at these questions from every point of view imaginable. So far, aside from some general truisms, they almost all cancel each other out. The most worthwhile thing I could take from several hours of reading abstracts and the entirety of a score of studies is the reason they cancel each other out. That part is fascinating.

One good meta-analysis from Chemnitz University of Technology, Germany, put it like this:

[G]lobal analysis shows a null effect, but a detailed examination of the studies that allow the calculation of effects sizes reveals that this null effect is most probably due to averaging out specific effects.

In other words, one study shows a certain type of music improves performance among a certain group of people doing a specific task, another study shows different music or different people have impaired performance doing the same task, so the net result is an average of zero. BUT, that only means the average is zero, not that either study is wrong. So certain music for certain people helps. One study proves that. Different people’s performance may be impaired by the same music. The takeaway is not that music does not have an impact – it is the opposite. Music is having an impact in both cases. The impact just varies widely based on the other variables.

What are the variables?

Who the fuck knows? I sure don’t. There wouldn’t be a bazillion studies on this if anyone was even close to figuring that out. Some have been identified. One of the most cited studies, The differential distraction of background music on the cognitive test performance of introverts and extraverts, finds significantly different responses to music based on the subjects personality types. Extroverts perform better with certain types of music playing, while introverts performing the same task with the same background music perform worse. The type of task also seems to make a huge difference. There is pretty good evidence that music enhances the performance of even extremely complicated tasks (e.g., neurosurgery) once they are learned and are somewhat routine. However, background music generally interferes with the process of learning a much simpler task (e.g., memorize a random list of letters).

You would never want to learn to perform neurosurgery with music playing, but once you know how to do it, you probably do it better with the right music playing in the background.

If that weren’t enough, the real world adds a whole different pile of variables to the lab studies. I mostly write at home at night, after putting the kids to bed. My house is nearly silent. Tonight, however, a half dozen fourteen-year-olds will be having an ironically named “slumber party” at my house. Dozens of office-noise studies tell me that, while silence or white noise would be optimal, since I’m not going to be getting any of that, music will be less disruptive and distracting than a bunch of disruptive intermittent noise. Tonight, music may increase my productivity. Tomorrow, it probably would not.

What’s the Bottom Line?

Music undoubtedly affects our perceptions and our functioning, but how much and in what way varies so much by individual, there aren’t any real guiding principles. If you’re an introvert, even music that matches the mood you’re trying to capture in your writing is likely to interfere. If you’re an extrovert, that same music can help significantly. In either case, you can set your mood pretty effectively by listening before you start –almost all the studies show the right music can have beneficial effects before starting tasks.

As a rule (which means I’m sure there are plenty of exceptions), cognitively demanding tasks are performed better without music. There is a time to be upbeat and optimistic. Looking for unwanted commas and adverbs that need killing is not that time. How much this will affect you, though, depends (again) on so many variables the true answer ranges from “Don’t do it, you’ll never edit well listening to music you like” to “You can probably edit about as well with or without, so if it makes the task more pleasant, go for it.” One study in particular found that cognitively demanding tasks – while performed less well with any kind of music – were actually performed better when subjects listened to a voice saying the number “three” over and over.

So look for my new CD to drop soon: Mooky & The Mookettes, Three: three, three, three (three three three three).

Ultimately, though, the state of science on this topic puts it into a familiar category of advice on this blog: figure out what works for you and do it. If your writing is carefully structured linguistic constructs like Joyce wrote, music will probably do more harm than good regardless of your personality type. If you’re an extrovert, you’ll almost certainly write better with music you like playing. Or at least feel like you are writing better and be less fatigued by it. If you are an introvert, silence is golden. If you’re as sensitive to music affecting your mood as I am, the perfect song may get you started, but without a good playlist to keep things in that mood, all your characters would seem like bipolar, menopausal, chemically imbalanced, pubescent teenagers trying to find tequila’s house.

It’s not in Nogeles.

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4 thoughts on “Whistle While You Work (but probably not while you edit)

  1. leandrajwallace on said:

    Ha! I can just see you dashing through the city w/your earbuds like you’re some sort of super-hero. Too funny! But I get you, b/c I feel like that too when I’m running, if it’s to something that even remotely has a good beat. Well, I should say when I ‘used’ to run. Me and exercise parted ways after the kidlet was born. Though I run plenty after him!

  2. Nadja on said:

    Loved this on so many different levels…!

    Sweetheart, I lived in Tucson from 1987 to 1995, and I know all about Tequila and finding yourself in Nogales (or Lukeville–close enough!).

    Music is my muse, too. In fact, one of my gripes about life is that it doesn’t have musical accompaniment, and I have to provide it myself. Since I have a noisy household of 6 kids, I have my earbuds in a lot.

    Most of the inspiration for my writing comes between 6 and 7 a.m. on the treadmill with my music going. I did a post on my blog about my writing with a playlist specifically chosen for what I’m writing. These playlists of mine have inspired a lot of scenes that become part of my novel. When I am working on a specific scene, I may play one song over and over, ad nauseum, until I’m done. I have gotten into listening to genres of music I don’t normally listen to just because they seem to fit with what I’m writing…which means that my tastes now vary from Baroque and Bluegrass, to The Prodigy and Nine Inch Nails.

    Thanks for touching on a topic upon which I could almost wax poetic…

  3. This is pretty funny — As you probably guessed, my story started in Tucson. And it happened in 1988. We were in the same town at the same time. Small world.

    Thanks for commenting.

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