Two strange creativity chargers: Songs on repeat and movies with the sound off
A few years ago, I procrastinated on my homework by reading books on productivity.
Yeah, it was weird. (Another topic for another day.)
One of the productivity systems I noticed was David Allen’s Getting Things Done. I don’t really use the full system these days, but I remember one key point from it: “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”
I started writing down each of the things I needed to do. Today, I use a combination of my calendar, a spreadsheet, Trello, and an accountability group, to keep track of my tasks and things I need to remember.
But more importantly is that first part: “Your mind is for having ideas…”
The brain is a connection machine. It’s why so many people that do work that’s considered creative, like music, have unusual associative relationships. For example, Nile Rodgers’s brain produces music constantly. Like many musicians, he has synaesthesia — music makes him see things. This type of cross-wiring of the mind is the gold mine of creativity.
As it turns out, the rest of us might can also cross these senses. Perhaps not to the strength and degree that a hardcore natural synaesthete might, but we can still tap into our brain’s associative relationships.
Why do Kanye West and Kid Cudi watch movies with the sound off?
This type of cross-wiring relationship is most clear to me between making music and movies. It reminds me of how Kid Cudi describes his music process in The Star:
“When we were recording, there was always sci-fi movies on in the background. We were watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A little bit of E.T., even. Apocalyptica…it’s something that Kanye did, and something I borrowed from him. I mean having a movie playing, like with no volume, we just watched it, and you actually start to look at the cinematography, and get ideas because you notice things that you never really noticed before.”
A concrete example from Kanye:
“I watched The Holy Mountain on repeat while working on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. His sensibilities drove me to make my most progressive work to that date. Simply put, Jodorowsky is a prophet of creativity. For those who know, the mere mention of his name commands respect.”
Mac Miller even made an album entitled, Watching Movies with the Sound Off.
Not only is music part of a warmup, something that primes your brain for great work. It’s also an inherent part of the process. One that will influence the thought and synthesis process. Similar to Kanye’s dimmer switches, it drowns out all the background noise in your head, and frees you up to just focus on making and expressing.
A lot of artists and creative types turn to different rituals (or drugs) to focus and spark these associations. The goal of these rituals, or these background tools, are the same: to enable artists to create with pure intention and full expression.
It’s not just the background movie or soundtrack. The physical environment also changes the ways we think. I try to change it up as much as possible. I need the stimulation. But, I’m not saying it needs to be extravagant or sublime. Roald Dahl wrote in a hut.
In a creative block? Change your music, or your environment
There’s always been an interesting relationship between music and writing. In Dr. Frank Luntz’s Words That Work:
“Great language has exactly the same properties as great music,” says Aaron Sorkin, the brilliant writer/creator of the hit television drama The West Wing. “It has rhythm, it has pitch, it has tone, it has accents.”
Eddie Huang talks about this in his an interview with Miss Info, where he talks about picking one song — whatever he felt like for the day — and putting it on repeat. Ryan Holiday and Michael Lewis do this, too. Tim Ferriss also watches TV with the sound off.
As a writer, I’m inspired by other people and conversations. But the act of writing is inherently a one person activity. Even ghostwriting means interviewing someone, then walking away with a transcript, thinking about it, and writing alone. That’s why the physical environment matters even more for writers.
Environments are a product of the media in it. TVs and speakers provide an opportunity to tweak important parts of the environment. Clothes do, too. (Kanye would make everyone wear suits in the studio.)
The brain is a connection machine. You can’t expect creativity to come pouring out on demand — you must prime the machine and warm it up.
Movies with the sound off, and soundtracks on repeat
By setting up your environment, you also enhance your writing. You enable your subconscious work its magic with associative relationships. By immersing yourself in great content while you create, you improve the likelihood you’ll produce great content. Like my friends at Tiny Hearts say, “You are what you eat.”