Here’s a paradox for you. If you want to write great songs, do absolutely nothing. Except daydream - a lot.
Letting your mind wander at will is completely crucial for creativity to happen. Downtime, or as some people call it, intentional inaction, actually encourages those problem-solving “eureka moments” and it is as important to maintaining good mental health as sleep.
And if that sounds like total nonsense, well there’s a whole swath of scientific evidence to back up all those famous anecdotes of being inspired while seemingly doing nada. Let’s talk about how an idle mind can actually help your songwriting.
Default mode network
When we are awake but at rest, the brain is anything but idle.
In the mid 1990s, researchers discovered that a particular set of scattered brain regions switched off when someone was concentrating on mental challenges, but fired up when someone was lying still letting their thoughts wander. These same parts of the brain also become highly active in people at complete, wakeful rest.
This “daydreamer’s” brain circuit became known as the default mode network (DMN). The DMN has been shown to be crucial in several complex mental processes from learning to memory retention, making creative connections, and even the maintenance of a sense of self and moral compass!
What the research highlights is that even when we chill, our brains do not. There’s a bunch of mental housekeeping tasks that get done during periods of downtime that are essential for us to function normally.
And the mind can crack tough problems big or small while daydreaming, rather than actively seeking a solution to problems. These are similar to those “A Ha!” moments that can sometimes happen when you’re in the shower, or in Archimedes’ case, the bath.
Yet while those epiphanies seem sudden and random, they’re the product of unconscious mental activity when your brain is technically idling. Essayist Tim Kreider describes the sensation far more prettily:
“The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration.”
Cooperating with our default mode network, as well as a good night’s sleep, partially explains why exceptional artists follow routines of intense practice punctuated by breaks and recuperative periods. Some artists call this creative method: Feast and famine.
Research psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, he of the “10,000-hour rule” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, concluded that most people can engage in deliberate practice for only an hour without rest, while extremely talented people in many different disciplines, including music, rarely practice more than four hours each day. Ericsson writes:
“Unless the daily levels of practice are restricted, such that subsequent rest and nighttime sleep allow the individuals to restore their equilibrium, individuals often encounter overtraining injuries and, eventually, incapacitating ‘burnout.’”
Ericsson also raised the issue that there's a big difference between admiring the idea of more downtime and actually committing to it:
“Getting out into nature on the weekends, meditating, putting away our computers now and then—a lot of it is stuff we already know we should probably do. But we have to be a lot more diligent about it. Because it really does matter.”
Professor Jonathan Schooler, yet another expert of the wandering mind, concurs: “Many people find it difficult or stressful to do absolutely nothing.”
Instead, Schooler suggests choosing non-demanding tasks that require less mental engagement, like going for a walk in a quiet place, doing the dishes, or folding laundry; things that occupy your hands or body, and encourage the enlistment of your DMN.
From 2016, visual artist and Stanford University lecturer Jenny Odell developed her own notions for how to do less and enjoy life more. She argues against succumbing to online addictions, and encourages shifting your attention to the people, animals, plants, and environments that surround you. “Doing nothing” requires severing your ties to what she describes as the attention economy and cultivating an interest in other things.
Okay, but how can this help my songwriting?
Songwriter Fyfe Dangerfield underlines the same insidious provocations on our attention that Odell warned about, and instead turns this into a simple piece of advice:
“One of the most difficult things is the sheer number of distractions: mobiles, email, Twitter, YouTube. When you're writing, you have to be very disciplined, to the point of being awkward: Turn off your phone and find a space to work without any of these distractions.”
In that spirit, here are a few ideas for using idleness and downtime to your best advantage in your songwriting practice and beyond.
Get your low-grade physical activity on: Anything you do reasonably regularly but without too much mental effort is great for mind wandering from doing the dishes to shovelling snow, walking, gardening or washing the car. Repetitious crafts like knitting work well too. Try not having earbuds in while you do these things.
Chill and be still, and preferably alone: Either in places of non-commercial contemplation like public parks or galleries (not malls), churches or museums, or anywhere in wild or humbly domestic nature, let your ears have a break from your playlist but be open to noticing and listening to the world about you. You’ll be surprised by the melodies that appear to you.
Go unplugged at home: Schedule (yes, schedule) a pyjama day or a device-free day and let your mind wander free as a bird. Meditate if that’s your thing. No to-do lists allowed, but hand writing thoughts and ideas are all great.
Be bored: Rather than scroll relentlessly when you’re stuck in an airport or your doctor’s waiting room, in some interminable meeting or on a long train journey, just let yourself be bored. Your mind will drift off eventually and you may be surprised at the ideas you come up with and the conundra you unravel.
And when you do these activities of mental idleness, always keep a notebook handy. Whatever external stimuli enters your mind, you’ll want to make sure at least the most explosive bits stick around as inspiration for future songwriting fodder. Just make sure not to sit around and write the whole song; enjoy the birds.
Embracing idleness; a conclusion.
The concept of allowing yourself the opportunity to do nothing can feel a tad foreign to many busy folk just trying to hold skin and bone together. As a working songwriter, I know this feeling all too well.
But when the inaction is intentional, as opposed to inaction by way of mind-numbing activities like binge-watching television, it can do wonders for your imagination.
So find whatever sets your mind roaming free—your songs will thank you for it.
Charlotte Yates is an independent New Zealand singer-songwriter with a growing catalogue of seven solo releases and fourteen collaborative projects. She also provides a songwriting coaching service, Songdoctor.
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