What is one activity that every aspiring writer (imho) needs to learn, if you haven’t learned it already?
No, it’s not writing.
(That’s a given).
The answer is:
Especially if you are a career writer who spends a LOT of time thinking and writing.
You see, writers throughout history have long relied on music to help them do their thing:
- King David the psalm writer was an accomplished harpist. (Psalms are a type of poetry)
- Benjamin Franklin (of Poor Richard’s Almanack fame) was an amateur musician who was said to be able to play the violin, cello, harp, and guitar.
- American novelist Jack Kerouac said that jazz inspired him to structure his poetry in a particular way
…And other writers from William Faulkner to Haruki Murakami to king of horror Stephen King himself have spoken before about the powerful influence music has had on their writing.
Heck, even Albert Einstein played the violin.
(Granted, Einstein’s not exactly the first name you think of when you think “writer,” but he did write…three world-changing papers, for starters. More importantly, Einstein was a thinker. And the best writers are also top thinkers).
What Writers Do For the World
Like I said. Writers have to think. HARD.
(If you want to be good at what you do, that is).
We have to wrestle with deep questions, wicked problems, gnarly issues that don’t lend themselves easily to translation into the written word.
Then, somehow, we have to take what we’ve discovered and write it in a way that makes it easier for readers to understand.
That is our contribution to the world.
But it ain’t easy.
What Music Does for Writers
Writing is a powerful activity, but it isn’t ALL-powerful.
There are some emotions that are beyond words. Some experiences that can’t be captured or expressed with mere letters.
And yet, we still ache to get those ineffable emotions, ideas, and experiences out, to connect with one another, to be heard and understood.
That’s where music comes in.
Sometimes, when I’m frustrated with my writing, I’ll pop off and play a bit of piano. Other times, when I’m reading a particularly engaging book, a line will jump out at me and turn into a song in my head.
When I don’t know how to write something, playing (or listening to) music gives me a chance to give my overworked brain a rest and come up with fresher, more creative, more useful ideas.
Even now, I’m struggling to describe exactly how music helps me to be a better writer. Because music isn’t really verbal.
When I’m thinking in music, I’m not thinking in words. But somehow, when I finish playing and sit back down to write, the words work better.
It’s one of those things that you have to experience personally to really understand.
Writing, Music, and Your Brain
Every act connected with language, spoken or written, relies heavily on the left side of the brain. Which means that if you think and write a lot, it’s easy to get unbalanced.
Music is conventionally ascribed to the right brain, so even if that was all there was to it, you could make the case that writers need music because you need to “exercise” both sides of your brain to balance it out.
But actually, it’s even more interesting than that.
Scientists have found that people with severe dementia respond to music, when they won’t even respond to the words and voices of loved ones.
That’s because music isn’t really located in any one part of the brain. Instead, it’s diffused across the ENTIRE brain, making disparate brain regions talk to each other.
It makes you wonder:
What kind of writer would you be if you deliberately activated your entire brain, and not just one hemisphere?
Does it Have to be Music?
You’re probably wondering, why music?
What about other arts, like painting, or pottery, or pigeon-racing?
(Uh, not sure if that last one is an art form, exactly, but the pigeon racers probably think it is)
Well, perhaps other arts help, too. But I personally recommend music, because it’s so communicative, transitory, powerful, spiritual…
I mean, as Thomas Carlyle once said:
“Music is…the speech of angels”
But…What if I’m Not Musical?
Everyone is musical, just like everyone is wired to like stories.
Even if you don’t play an instrument or sing, you can enjoy music. It’s one of the universal constants that every culture has.
But, if you did NOT know how to sing or play an instrument, I highly recommend that you pick it up, even as just a side hobby.
The better you get at expressing yourself through music, the better you get at expressing yourself as a whole.
Besides, music has a ton of other benefits: from improving your mood and lessening anxiety to sharpening your memory, easing pain, providing comfort, strengthening your physical coordination, and more.
Einstein once said that, had he not become a physicist, he would’ve become a musician.
He used music to help him in his work, too:
His second wife talked about how Einstein would play the piano and jot down notes at the same time, disappearing for two weeks before re-emerging with his Theory of General Relativity.
Am I saying that if you spend time learning music, you’ll become a genius physicist and revolutionize the Field of Science, turning the Known World on its head?
Well, let’s just say that I’m not denying that possibility.
But even if things don’t get quite that crazy, I still suggest you take some time to really listen to good music the next time you get frustrated with your writing.
Then maybe take a class or two on singing, music appreciation, kazoo, or whatever musical instrument you’ve always wanted to play, and keep it going, at least in the background of your life.
When you tire of writing, play with your music, and then come back and try again.
See what it does to your thinking, and to your communication skills.
You just might be surprised.
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