#46:How to Use Music to Unlock Your Creativity

Music is my secret weapon in the arsenal of my creative process.  As I am writing this post I have music playing in my headphones. My music choices vary dramatically based on what I am doing or where I am in the creative process. From organizing, to creating, to sending something off to the client, I am listening to some kind of music, most of us do. Most of us choose to play music intuitively when we are creating without knowing why.
Understanding the seriously profound effect music has on our creative minds can help us use it to its potential and to our advantage.
One of the most important things that I promote here at Design Matters is how important it is to have a process. I believe that the behind the scenes motivator of that process is music. So I want to share with you some of my thoughts on music and how it can really boost your creativity, motivate you, and make for a much more enjoyable work time as a creative.

My music taste is extremely varied. I love 1920s Jazz, swing music, classical and classic rock, 90s alternative, Christian rock , indie music and so much more. But not all of these are beneficial to each stage. I want to share with you specifically the kind of music and even the playlists that I love at each stage in my process.There are tricks to choosing what music to listen to while you work; music that will  make you work better, smarter, more creative, and ultimately more productive.  I will also give you a bonus secret on how music can prompt more creativity if you use it.

Client proposals/Design Brief

Before you start working on a project, you have to send out a quote or a client proposal. The first thing I do is get together everything my client has given me, from the creative brief to any emails that pertain to the project. Then I sit down and put together the information so I have everything I need to make an accurate estimate.
During the client proposal or design brief review stage, I generally listen to a playlist that has almost a running or workout feeling to it, to motivate me to be pumped up about the project for the client. Using music that is upbeat and optimistic with minimal lyrics helps me to be able to focus. Something like “Epic Workout”, “Rock to Work”, or “Morning Walk” are perfect.


When brainstorming I need literally all of my brain power. I am doing a part of the process that is enjoyable but can can tend to be a little intense. The first part of my process and I would venture to say the most important, is brainstorming via a mind map. The mind map is a great tool for starting the creative process. It combines the use of your right and left brain by using your hands, a pen or pencil, and preferably paper (vs. a digital, app-based mind map) and writing down words that you associate with your client.
Even though people who are creative consider themselves right brained, much of the left brain really goes into so much of what we do. When we do a mind map and engage the left part of our brain using words, we also draw shapes, and use colors to highlight things and this engages the right side of our brain.In doing these things we will figure out the perfect words to write that will eventually become our concept if we exhaust and empty our brains of the words we have.
Listening to music stimulates (and therefore connects) the left and right sides of our brains, causing the best possible output of ideas.
Because we need to utilize both sides of our brains to complete a proper mind map, the kind of music I listen to is usually something instrumental.
If you listen to music with words during this phase it is super easy to be distracted and start to only be able to focus on the words you are hearing through the speakers.
I have a good variety of music playlists that I listen to during this phase. Spotify is my go to lately since they have already curated playlists that are specific to so many things, from the obvious to the obscure and finding one that is perfect for your situation never really takes more than a few minutes. Time is money so this is a huge plus for me. Here are some more playlists I love for this stage: (the one with a collage is the “Superior Study Playlist”.
Sometimes its hard to just get started and when that happens I like to listen to things that will wake me up and get my brain working a little before I start brainstorming. Some that work for me are “Productive Morning” and “Brain Food“.
Listening to music during brainstorming (and sketching) allows your brain to drift to a sort of dream mode where your mind is free to wander and go from [creative] thought to thought. This is obviously really crucial at this stage since you are trying to figure out a direction to take and you want to have as many options on the table for you to create from.


Once you’ve finished brainstorming ideas and mind mapping, you can search for style references to match your direction. This is the first point in my process where I don’t need specific kind of music. Any enjoyable, upbeat music will do until the sketching phase. I usually start the research stage on a high note of music that I know well or even new music.
The research phase is so fraught with figuring out what it is I will be doing with my project it is good to listen to a wide variety of styles in the same way I am going to be looking at a wide array of different style references and artists and designers to reference when I get to the sketching phase.
The research portion of the process requires that you really soak in a ton of information, both visually informationally (client information, direction, images, etc.). So for me this kind of music is usually something like “Creativity Boost”, “Seize the Day”, and my new favorite, “Be Bold. Or Italic. Never Regular”.
 Primarily because I also know that the research phase is going to be one of the longest parts of the process, you want to have something that is both stimulating and inspiring; honestly, optimistic music helps too. Anything that you won’t get bored of.
Another thing to keep in mind during the research phase is that you don’t want to stay on one thing for too long. For example, if you’re research art deco, don’t spend hours looking at just art deco posters and forget to look at the social and historical elements of that time. So listen to something that will keep you moving from one topic to the next. Set a time limit for your research. This is much easier to do when you research using books but it is crucial when you are doing the majority of your research online.
If you have ten different things you need to research, use your music as a timekeeping tool for you.
Maybe decide you will only look at stock photos for the length of an album or a few tracks. Even if you are looking at sites like Behance or other idea generating things like Pinterest. You can change your search criteria to be something different with each new track, and once your time is up, you move on so you don’t get trapped researching for days.
A cool trick is if you are doing a design for a particular era,  listen to the kind of music from that era during the project. For example, If you are doing a design for the Art Deco period listen to swing music, put it in your headphones, immerse yourself in the time through music, it can really transport you and help you to get in the mood for designing. This has also been helpful for me when I am not particularly familiar with a certain era or feel that a client wants for their piece, music will become an integral part of your research because music is an indicator of time and culture and the thinking of that generation.


If there is one part of the process that I would say is the most influenced by [my] music choices, it would be sketching. This is the one that requires the most right brain power. You have to take all the research that you did (hopefully) the day before and your mind map for reference. This is where you soak in all the style references, and words from your concept [that came from the mind map] and mush them all together in your head so the ideas come out of your pencil on the other side.
During sketching, all of the music I listen to is what I would consider motivating or exciting. Definitely something with lyrics because at this point it does not take intense focus to look for style references and sketch out my ideas. This, like searching for style references, is where you can listen to whatever gets your brain juices flowing.  A few of my  personal favorites include Sleeping at Last, House of Heroes, Anberlin, Paramore, and a few key others.
During the sketching phase, distractions don’t matter as much because it doesn’t take such intense focus since you have a direction. I find that listening to songs that I know really well or want to sing to tend to make me work more intuitively instead of thinking so hard about every single thing I sketch.
The sketching phase is much like the mind mapping phase in the sense that you should just let the ideas flow out of you, not with words or a mental thesaurus but with your visuals.
Studies show that using music while creating can actually make you more creative. Letting go of your inhibitions creatively at this stage is really important. Listen to jazz and experiment with your ideas or listen to rock but listen to something that will spark you to keep creating without thinking about if it’s good or not.


When you’re designing, this is kind of the free for all music-wise. At this stage you have already done all the things that take the most brain power. You now have your game plan laid out and are ready to start doing something with that blank art board that you worked so hard to ideate for. There’s a few tricks to designing and listening to music.
I have found that listening to music that 1) is upbeat keeps me working continuously, 2) music that is energetic makes me work quickly, and 3) music that I can sing to makes me work more intuitively and I don’t think so much about every decision I make.
The most important thing at this stage when it comes to music is to pick something that is motivating and inspiring; something that makes you feel good. This is the time for the songs you have memorized or the songs that you just have to tap your foot to, music that makes you feel confident. Heres a few of my favorite playlists: (on Spotify)
Another fun trick is when I am designing something for a band, I listen to that bands music during the majority of my process, especially the ideating or brainstorming phase. It is really useful and important to listen to it while you are in the designing/rendering stage. I have found again and again that doing this makes it so much more intuitive to get the design to “feel” right for that band or musician. Listen to music that mimics the kind of design you do, especially when designing for a band.

So why is music important to the creative process? Or does it even matter what kind of music you listen to while you are at any given step? Studies have shown that certain types of music effect us differently. Our focus isn increased and our inspiration is sparked by music. I challenge you today or tomorrow, or sometime this week, to do an experiment. Try listening to different kinds of music for an hour at a time during a certain creative task and see if your motivation, creativity, or focus is effected. Music has always been a part of my process, even before I knew I had a process. Using headphones if you are easily distracted can be another useful tool in using music to keep you interested and focused on the design task at hand.

The Crazy Secret
Something really incredible happens when you use music to create. Test your brain’s ability to use music to your advantage by using the song memory technique (not an actual technique-totally made that term up). It is the idea that songs attach themselves to certain memories or actions. Theres a reason we have certain playlists for when we run or for dancing or dinner with friends. Often those songs can attach themselves to the thing you were doing or the person you were with but more importantly for our purposes, songs have an intense attachment to feelings.
This is important for the creative process. Say you find a particular set of songs that you used when you were hit a creative wall and got out of it and got your brain juices flowing. In theory, if you run into the same problem in the future you know that you have the ability to go back to that set of songs that “worked “ when you needed inspiration the last time and your mind memory could go back to that feeling of being inspired and prompt you to feel inspired. Crazy right?
Just like a song from a past relationship can make you sad or another song might make you feel nostalgic, music can actually help you respond to a problem more creatively by associating your productivity with a song. There’s research out there for you if you are interested in learning more specifically and scientifically how this concept works. [links to articles below]

The creative process on its own is a powerful thing to know and follow if you are going to be an effective designer. But if you can unlock the power of your creativity by adding music to it in an intentional way, not just settling for whatever is playing on the radio or shuffling all your random music. You might just be surprised at the significance in the quantity and more importantly, the quality of your output when you intentionally choose your playlists. I can’t wait to hear from you on how changing how you use music has influenced you. Design is a wonderful world. I hope you’ll join me here, because design matters.
LINKS to Articles

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