I heard a short item on BBC Radio 4 last night about listening to music while working or studying.
You can listen to it here, for a limited time. It was fascinating.
They talked about an app called Focus at Will, that uses different types of music and sounds to engage the part of the brain, the limbic system, that can otherwise become distracted by outside stimuli. It sounds great. I’m all for things that prevent me being distracted, and if I thought it could work I’d sign up. But music? No. I can’t write with music playing. Not at all.
I know some writers who do it all the time, who have different soundtracks for the particular scenes they’re working on – fight scene music, love scene music, setting description… Some have whole mixes that are intrinsic to the book they are writing, and that music will be forever associated with the specific book in the writers’ minds.
Maybe it’s because I’m not much of a multi-tasker, or is it just because I’m a musician, and become analytical when I’m listening to the music? All I know is that if I can hear any music at all, then I stop work. I can't help it. I lose focus.
I’m pretty much the same in cafes and coffee shops. If the music is loud I have no chance of doing anything that involves a separate stream of consciousness. I even find it hard to have a conversation. Only last weekend I was in a cafe where they were playing a Sinatra CD. Some of the tracks were standard Nelson Riddle arrangements that I’ve played with bands myself, and others were new to me, and very nice too. Either way I found conversation very difficult, and kept drifting off, my attention switching between music and conversation, but never both.
I do like to have some background sounds when I work, though. I often use an app called coffitivity, which plays the ambient noises of a coffee shop. I'm running it now. I love it. Give it a try. There are cups rattling, espresso machines hissing and the buzz of conversation. But no words can be heard, and there is no background music.
I’m also a big fan of noise-cancelling headphones. Or I was, until mine started buzzing and popping with a regular, almost musical beat. You know how it is when you make up tunes to go with the windscreen wipers, and they keep slowing down and speeding up? That is almost more of an attention killer than incoming emails or tweets. The headphones went back.
I’m curious what you think. Can you read a book while music is playing? Can you study? Or are you like me and need some background sounds in order to feel comfortable, but nothing that requires attention?
I wonder why we’re all different. I'm sure there's a lot more to it, and more to learn.
Work continues on The Lollipop of Influence, sequel to Deep Space Accountant. I’m now reaching the end of the first editing phase, and working in a strictly zero-music environment. Coffee shop sounds only.