Listening to audio while you work

When he was just starting out as an animator at Disney, Richard Williams once asked the legendary Milt Kahl (chief animator on the Jungle Book) this question…

The response was…

(Cartoons by Richard Williams’ in “The Animators Survival Kit”)

And so it became Richard Williams’ first lesson in his book The Animators Survival Kit – “UNPLUG! Take off your head phones! Turn off the radio! Switch off the CD!” The result he says was that his animation improved right away. Now, I am not an animator (although I have dabbled) but this is advice worth taking notice of.

Illustrator James Gurney did a similar post back in 2008 called “Music while painting”. In a poll, he asked what people listened to while painting and the response was varied. Not that many people said they preferred to work in silence. I wish I could refer to the actual poll figures, but they have been taken off the post.

Mr Gurney himself likes to listen to Bach, Mozart, and Brahms while working, along with the chirping of a budgie going from the picture above.

Kandinsky famously said “music is the ultimate teacher,” but it is suggested that he had synaesthesia which is the capacity to see sound and hear colour. Sounds trigger colour and colour trigger sounds. He apparently became aware of this during Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, “I saw all my colours in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me”. Music for Kandinsky was inseparable from his art and many of the titles he gives to his work are musical.

Many artists have been moved by music to create a piece of work either directly or in-directly. Plato once said “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” But I wonder how many artists listen to music at every stage of the process?

Now these thoughts are not confined to the visual arts alone but are equally interesting for art in it’s broader definition. I asked a couple of friends to contribute to this post by sending me their thoughts on the subject. Jon is coming to the end of his Creative Writing Masters and Rhodri has just finished his BA in Drama and Theatre Studies.

From Jon the creative writer…

“Firstly, I think that music is wonderfully emotive. I think probably more so than any of the other arts (I realise I’m sticking my neck out there!). I couldn’t put my finger on why I think that other than to say that it’s something that’s been given by God for our special enjoyment. Whether you agree with this or not: I think music has great power!

I rarely listen to music while I write though. I find it too distracting. I read a famous writer (I can’t remember who) say that it was impossible to listen to music and write because music affects your emotions and that compromises your writing. As a general rule I agree with this. I normally need silence to work well. I find it helps the time go quicker as well and I can read aloud and not be distracted. Other voices, either in the street or in the house, distract me terribly. I cannot stand having the radio on and working.

However, having said that there are a few, occassional times when I do find it helpful to listen to music while I’m working.

1) I often work in sections. An hour writing, then a little reading, then more writing, then maybe I’ll listen to music. If I do this I am normally drawn to something by Bach – normally Brandenburg Concertos or Goldberg Variations – because of their neutrality, lightness and, I think, their completeness and unity. I just find they make me happy. And that helps me write.

2) Perhaps I’m working on a particularly dramatic section I may find it helpful to listen to something of a similar nature. Classical music is normally best – although some bands that I liked as a teenager take me back to a time when I had more emotional ‘angst’ and are helpful – something from the late 19th Century like Rachmaninov or Prokofiev or Wagner.

3) If it is late at night and the lights are dim, somehow, I find alternative/acoustic music, often without lyrics, to be very very stimulating.

4) Finally, and this is rare, but it occurred to me that’s happening to me today, on a day when writing is hard I love putting something on the stereo – probably Bach again – and trying to write alongside it. It’s more of an experiment to see where my mind will take me. The quality of the results vary dramatically!”

More from Jon here

From Rhodri: A Drama and Theatre Studies perspective…

“Audio is quite a wide term. I imagine there is a difference between listening to music and listening to spoken word . Both things I don’t do while I am working creatively, because I find it distracting the majority of the time. If I am trying to concentrate on something important I can’t listen to music, and I can’t listen to the spoken word. The exception to this is when I am trying to find inspiration and trying to be driven by my unconscious imagination. I do listen to music to inspire my writing. But in that case, music is in the forefront. It is never in the background. It is the driving force. So if I am ever listening to music, it has to be the chief thing. It has to be the thing at the forefront. It is never a thing to fill in a blank space. It is the same when I am trying to read. I can’t just have music on in the background while I read. However, I can listen to ambient music as I read if people are being noisy around me. It has to be really ambient. It can’t have any structure or rhythm. It just has to be general synthesised noise.”

More from Rhodri here

What about me?

I’ve become more and more aware of my inability to do more than one thing at once, my wife can testify to this fact. I listen to music and audio books but usually not during the preparatory stages of a painting. This is where all the important thinking comes in, principally coming up with the idea. I usually need complete silence when coming up with an idea for a book cover, although sometimes just walking down the street can spark something off. I leave the music and audio books to the more instinctual part of the process, namely the painting of it. If I’ve prepared correctly, all the hard work is done. I know where all my elements are going to be and what lighting and colour scheme I’m using. Then I can just relax and enjoy painting. Some pieces of music make me more excited, and this feeds in to the painting, possibly creating freer marks or making me braver to try different techniques. There are certain areas where music or audiobooks are used during the less creative parts of the process too, like going out looking for reference, stretching paper and drawing studies of a particular animal or character. In the end, music like painting is very powerful and intensely personal. We all have our own approach to it. When I started this post, I wasn’t quite sure where it would go, or how big it might be. The results have made me think about how audio is affecting my artwork, whether good or bad. I think there are times when I should switch off the music but don’t. Maybe there are other times when I should be thinking more about the music while I paint (making me choose my music more carefully). Whether anyone else reads this post, or just me, it has become a spur to think more about my art and what influences it. That can never be a bad thing.


Comments 1

  1. Some folks work better when it’s silent. Unplugging so you can focus all of your attention on your work is pretty solid advice. Music can be a major distraction. It’s completely logical and valid and I get why many swear by working in silence.

    Others work better when they listen to music (this is apparently Very common with ADHD.) I fall into this latter category. It drives me crazy to work on my art if I can’t listen to music. There’s something distracting about silence; it feels like I’m leaving a door open for other stimuli to come in and distract me. I’m easily distracted so having controlled auditory stimuli is very helpful. When I have my music (or at least some white noise), it feels sort of like a shield so I can focus on the task at hand. I find that instrumental and repetitive music work best for me. Classical tends to have a lot of variations in one piece so that can be distracting. (I’m the same way with books. Reading along with a recording of the book helps my comprehension greatly)

    I think too, it largely depends on the kind of art you’re working on. Silence might be better for more the tedious work. (Or like you mentioned, when you’re brainstorming for a book cover).

    I’m just saying that telling someone that they absolutely will do their best work in silence isn’t necessarily true in all cases. I just don’t believe one should silo themselves into just one way or the other. Like you said, one needs to figure out what works best for them.

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