You Got Bebop in My Norgie

By Peter Oshima

Our Music Fridays came to a halt after a bit too much Endless Love flowed from the speakers. With peace restored for a while now, a fellow p202er sent an office-wide email recently, raising the question: “What music do you find yourself listening to the most while you work in the office?”

A few people chimed in, sharing what they felt helped them while performing different activities: writing, wireframing, and designing, while others wrote to recommend what they listen to when needing concentration or energy. While trying to think of something to contribute, I wondered if music was necessary at all, and if so, what would really be the best for visual designers? Occasionally, the mere act of putting something into or around my ears was enough to help me concentrate, and I would often forget to hit “Play”. It got me into the zone in the same way I would imagine helmets would work for football players on the bench, or goggles and a scarves would work for pilots on the ground: necessary just in case, but not impossible to do without. With the portability of music, and the abundance of streaming media available online as well, it’s not a question of should or should you not listen to music…but what kind should you listen to?

Researchers at the University of Wales in Cardiff have recently found that listening to music while performing some tasks actually hurts concentration. Their recommendation was to listen to music that we like separately from performing tasks that require concentration. Now, if we were performing solely cognitive tasks such as information recall, perhaps this may apply, but for designers everywhere, headphones and speakers would fall silent if we were forced to listen to music we didn’t like – much like our Music Fridays. The researches added that the study doesn’t necessarily negate the popular Mozart Effect studies that come out in the 90s, since those studies focused more on “therapeutic interventions, rather than performing tasks while background music is being played.” So could it be that the benefits of listening to music all depend on individual mental tasks and personal tastes? Sure it can. But what if there was something more to the music we listen to in what inspires us and fosters creativity?

For me as a designer, I can usually point to any one of my comps and remember what I was listening to at the time. For example, country western and enka music helped inspire early Georgetown Rail and Charles Schwab designs, and disco (no lie!) was used very often when doing visuals for projekt202. For inspiration in the office (as well as learning and entertainment), I listened to everything from old time radio plays and yé-yé to classical music and synthpop. But out of all the things that I’ve listened to while designing visuals, only one genre has constantly worked the best for almost every task from rendering concepts to posting specifications: jazz!

I didn’t always listen to jazz music while doing creative work, and so this recommendation doesn’t come from a fan’s perspective, but from a designer’s perspective. Modern, modal jazz music encompasses three major themes that I found essential in visual design: 1) the pursuit of new style through improvisation 2) embracing and respecting structure and standards and 3) communicating and sharing “solo time” between individuals. As Dizzy Gillespie put it, “Jazz is supposed to be the most unselfish of art forms. In jazz, you give yourself completely to make somebody else play their best. You try to do something to make them, inspire them to do something.” While these themes have always been good to keep in mind, and can be dissected out of almost every typical performance, practically speaking, I’ve found switching between a state of actually listening and paying close attention to the music (and keeping those themes in mind), to zoning it all out into the background and concentrating only on the design itself or the task at hand is easy with jazz.

The relationship of listening to jazz and creative work has been established from a scientific point of view as well. Sr VP of the MITABrain Based Center, Robyn McMaster, PhD writes, “listening to jazz, chock full of improvisation, can enhance creativity as you work on most any project.” She refers to Dee Joy Coulter, Ed.D. of the Kindling Touch Institute, who says that listening to jazz can “lift the listener into theta consciousness.” According to them, the slower theta brain waves are “considered the most highly creative brain waves, and give birth to artistic and spiritual insight.”

Creating jazz music also has its perks. Charles Limb, M.D. and Allen R. Braun, M.D. at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine published a recent study on jazz music and creativity, in which they found that artists enter a different state of mind when improvising jazz music. You can see Limb’s TED talk here. Their research found that parts of the prefrontal cortex linked to self-expression and activities that convey individuality, such as communicating and language, light up when improvising.

While you can listen to a number of things while working, listening to the right music at the right time can really do wonders for your concentration and creativity. Give modern jazz a try! Even if you dislike it, it’s got to be better than Endless Love, right?