How Does Music Affect Your Creative Output?

“The purpose of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a new reality of equal or greater impact” -Duane Loose

I remember watching a package designer lay out sans serif type and bold, clean geometric patterns while he listened to Zero 7 and M83. He told me that to master the modern style, he had to work exclusively in that style and explore all its nuances. He’d won dozens of awards.


I wondered as I watched: how much credit does this music get for his creative output? What happens when The Shins or Suicide Machines or Mozart replaces the ethereal electronica on his playlist? Would the tempo change disrupt his flow, or could it even steer his creative output in a new direction?

Stephen King blares Judas Priest and Black Sabbath as he writes second and third drafts. Would the tone of his prose shift if he listened to slow, haunting music or to polka? I really want the answer to be yes, but I understand that coincidence does not imply causality. Steven King’s taste in prose may complement his taste in music, but one probably doesn’t cause the other.

An argument that music influences creative output would go like this:

To design is to solve a series of little problems. How sharp or blurred should this graphic element be? How quickly or slowly should the viewer’s eye move through this passage, and how can I make it happen? If, for each problem, the designer has a slew of solutions laid out before him or her, then the mood of the music could focus the artist’s attention to a narrower subset of solutions. This argument seems like a bit of a reach, and you’d reach even further to argue that music opens your mind to new solutions you otherwise couldn’t have generated.

I’ve tried a hundred times to use music to push my paintings towards a mood or style that seems just out of reach.  It doesn’t work. Music selection is pretty arbitrary while I’m actually painting, but I enjoy the exercise.

Music matters when I’ve nearly finished a painting.

I stand back and check my work. The music I hear at this moment affects how I assess the painting and which changes I’ll plan to make.

Joshua Eckert - Color Spring 2
Under music’s influence, my landscape becomes part of a story. For example, the first and second tracks tell me that the gondola’s passengers are lonely and regretful. They’ve been banished or they’re being sent to a place they don’t want to go.

Maybe the passengers are descending to fulfill some duty in an unfamiliar and dangerous location.

The gondola trip could be a weekly routine the passengers enjoy.

Or a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Or maybe their destination doesn’t matter and the gondola ride itself is an otherworldly experience.

On its own, the painting above won’t fill you with loneliness, fear, whimsy, excitement, or awe. It’s a neutral stimulus. But a well-selected score can charge it with any of these emotions. From here, I can add narrative elements to the painting to support one of these interpretations. I could add a single figure standing on the ledge, or a massive construction project with scaffolding around the two temples and men pushing wheelbarrows below.

Ideally I’d also want to go through the music exercise when I begin a painting, after I’ve made a few thumbnails but before I’ve chosen my composition. At that point I have more flexibility, and music actually might generate new narrative ideas.

Aside from these two very specific moments in a painting’s creation, I think music has little influence on an artist’s creative output.

Familiar music helps me drown out the distractions so I can focus, and unfamiliar songs distract me. To answer the questions I posed earlier, I don’t think M83 aids a Modern designer any more than The Shins or Suicide Machines or Mozart. That the work and the music coincide does not imply causality here.

[Update: Illustrator James Gurney has also written on this topic. He said that Howard Pyle “had his daughter read the text from his NEXT illustration assignment while he worked on the last one, so he might be imagining pirates while actually painting the Civil War.” ]

Related: Listening to Retail

How Does Music Affect Your Creative Output?

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