How Music Creators Can Use Neuroscience to Their Advantage

By Daniel J. Levitin  •  January 15, 2016

Neuroscientists have learned a great deal about how the brain works in the last fifteen years. Much of what we've learned that is most useful comes from studies of epic failures, things that people got wrong. Understanding the limits of our brains, and the disconnect between how they want to work versus how we want them to, can help us put systems in place, or develop habits that will maximize our chances of success.

For musicians, composers, and arrangers, this means trying to find a balance between controlling things and allowing time for spontaneity, serendipity, and the creativity that emerges from that. Research in four key areas can help us to increase our productivity and at the same time help us to feel less stressed out.

Multi-tasking. Multi-tasking — attempting to do several things at once — is a myth because the brain simply doesn't work that way. Rather than seamlessly juggling lots of different things simultaneously, our brains rapidly flit from one thing to the next, never really allowing us to focus on any one thing. This reduces the quality of our work, and at the same time, increases production of the stress hormone, cortisol, that can cloud our thinking. Workplace and laboratory studies show that people who unitask (doing one thing at a time) are more productive and more creative. Turn off the cell phone and the email while you're working, and allow yourself to settle into one thing. Mixing engineers, producers and songwriters don't despair. Although we pay attention to lots of different things when we're working, they are integrated, related to one another. Listening to a drum sound and the bass and the vocal at the same time, thinking about how the verse is going to lead up to the chorus and what the rhythm should be are different facets of the same attentional set, and so they don't constitute multi-tasking.

Procrastination. People procrastinate for several reasons: Procrastination is a trait with both a genetic and a neural basis. Certain alleles contribute to neurodevelopmental changes that make some of us more prone to it than others. But there are things we can do to combat each of these.

(1) Fear of failure — worrying that the work won't be good enough. Reading the biographies of famous people helps immensely here, when we realize how many failures truly successful people have had. Lennon & McCartney said they wrote one hundred songs before they got one they felt was good enough to record. And of course the Beatles were rejected by every major record label before signing to Parlophone.

(2) Difficulty and distractibility — there are often things to do that are easier or more fun to do, and so we distract ourselves with them (Facebook anyone?). Mark Twain's advice was to identify the most difficult task in your day and do it first thing in the morning. Exercising, firing someone, writing out that 3rd violin part? Neuroscience shows that the neurochemicals we require for gumption and dealing with unpleasant things are in greatest supply in the morning when we first wake up.

(3) Problems starting a project, often because we don't how to start. Break up projects into smaller, bite-sized pieces. Contractors don’t show up and say "Today I'm going to build a house." Make sure your To Do list actually contains do-able items. "Find a bass player" is not actionable. "Ask Larry and Michael who they recommend" is.

(4) Problems finishing a project, usually due to perfectionism. This is a tough one. Donald Fagen spent months perfecting the drum tracks to just one song on Kamakiriad. As many fans said, "I'd rather have three more Fagen records that are 95% perfect than have to wait so long for the next one." But maybe we love Fagen's music because of that level of obsessiveness. Having an outside ear — a producer or friend — can often help find the right balance.

Prepare the environment. Make sure that the tools of your trade are neatly arranged and accessible at all times. We musicians are not known for being paragons of organization — many of us have piles of unread mail, hundreds of unread emails, and messes all around our homes and studios. But the tools of our craft need to be ready. Guitar strings, reeds, pen and paper, a laptop computer, a way to record your musical ideas on a portable recorder or cell phone. Creativity pops up unexpectedly and you need to be ready for it.

Performance- and creativity-enhancing drugs. Drugs can sometimes help but there are problems, apart from the obvious ones of dependency and side effects. Any altered state of consciousness can help to make new connections in the brain, but one of the biggest problems is that drugs can shut down the novelty and quality detectors in our brains. Normally we have an idea and we try it out in our heads or in the world to see if we like it. Drugs can impair our judgment of whether an idea is novel, and whether it is in fact any good. Ritalin, Provigil, Adderall and other stimulants can help us to focus on tasks that are repetitive and somewhat boring — like editing — but many people report that they interfere with creativity, creating a focus so narrow that new ideas are shut out. Alcohol, Valium and other depressants can reduce inhibitions, but also reduce the keen-edged intellect that often drives true creativity.

The fact that some of the greatest music ever created was accomplished under the influence of drugs doesn't prove that drugs work — we don't know how great those works would have been if there'd been no drugs involved. And, to be fair, neither do we know if those works would ever have been created without drugs. For some people, they're the only way to work, opening up new mental pathways that seem hidden. For others, it precipitates a slide into being less discerning. Moderation is probably the best strategy, coupled with monitoring your output closely and getting some trusted friends and colleagues to give objective feedback.

The most important lesson we've learned from neuroscience is that all brains are different, and that different work styles work best for people. There is no one-size-fits-all technique for mental enhancement that will work for everyone. Finding the one that works for you while exploring others is part of the journey, and mixing things up is one of the best ways we know to enhance creativity.

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Daniel J. Levitin, Ph.D. is the author of the #1 bestselling books This Is Your Brain on Music, The World in Six Songs, and The Organized Mind.