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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