And the Best Background Music for Writing Is . . .

Which kind of music helps you do your best thinking, writing, or creating?

I took several stabs at that question as I wrote my dissertation. I tried Rachmaninoff but found my heart too carried away with the emotion of the music. Sometimes I brought in Mozart’s chamber music. But most often, I enlisted Bach, supplemented with a dull “brown noise” to block incidental sounds.

But I found that the best background music—at least for the work I was doing—is the music of silence.

At first, I wasn’t sure about this. I had noticed, among writers of Ph.D. dissertations, a trend to name their writing playlists in the preface. Some prefaces featured songs and groups that I found to be highly distracting. I myself nearly caved into peer pressure by naming Johann, Ludwig, and Sergei as my writing buddies.

At last, I decided that—as much as I loved these composers—my favorite had been silence, sweet silence. And I found some people to back me up on this. Consider these quotations, culled from James Sire’s Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling.

It is only in silence that the mind can function without being carried along, albeit subconsciously, by the often profoundly moving sub-theme of whatever music is playing.
-James Sire

 

Best of any song
is bird song
in the quiet, but first
you must have the quiet.
-Wendell Berry

Of course, silence means more than the absence of noise. There is profound quietness of soul that is necessary for sustained, creative concentration. I think this is what the following two writers are getting at.

Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work.
-A. G. Sertillanges

 

To perceive means to listen in silence. Only in silence is hearing possible.
-Josef Pieper

Finally, here’s some advice from Sire:

Solitude means silence. Of course you may wish to play music, but resist the urge. Play it only when you are off-line intellectually. Any noise, any music—Bach, rock or Bacharach—grabs your mind or your subconscious and trails it along after it.

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One comment

  1. I totally agree. Silence is golden in more ways than one. That is why for me “Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund.” (The morning hour has gold in its mouth.) Music captures my full attention, no matter what other activity I am participating in.

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