Pavlov Dog Yourself: Music, Mood, and Automatic Creativity

by | being a writer, inspiration | 16 comments

Music, mood, and the struggle of creativity.

Can you spot the link?

Maybe it’s not so obvious, but read on and I’ll tell you how music and mood play a huge part in your creative process.

Then I’ll tell you something even better:

How to use music to automatically trigger your creativity.

music box mechanism

If you’re anything like me, creativity is not always a pristine free-flowing fantasy stream.

It’s a puddle sometimes. And by sometimes I mean often.

If you’re lucky, it gets rained on or dumped into and then becomes a stream. It then may wander, peter, or flow itself into a river which then ideally leads to a life-filled and bursting ocean of dolphin+fish BFFs and lobsters that counsel mermaids, etc.

Who knows what the weather will bring on a given day?

On the other hand, maybe you are not like me. Maybe you sit at your desk every day and creation comes easily as breath. Good for fucking you.

happy man at computer

yeah dude, we get it: you are soooo great at getting to work


For the rest of us, though, creation is a series of battles. Though the war we may have faith in winning, the battles are often tiresome.

They must be approached with strategy and doggedness.

I recently wrote a post on ways to overcome self-limiting beliefs when the weight of combat gets heavy. One reader was thoughtful enough to remind me that music can also play a huge role in mental defense.

You may have all talent and creativity in the world, but if your mood is shit, work is hard.

The quest for productivity means that we must develop an arsenal of mental tools to get ourselves in the mood for work.

well organized tool shed

not exactly the tools I’m talking about but do you see what I’m getting at?

Though many artists claim that a continued state of depression or angst fuels their work, I don’t buy it. Neither do many researchers and authorsProfessionals, baby!

What’s even better is that this works both ways:

Happier people are better creatives, and pursuing creativity makes us happier!

So we find ourselves here, where I share with you how to wield the weapon of music in defending yourself against the doom of resistance

It’s No Secret: Music Affects Mood.

Especially in the consumer world.

Marketers have long known that playing soft but upbeat music in a store positively influences spending and even the amount of time customers spend shopping.

Basically, when we feel good, we tend to disregard the negative impacts of spending. If you’ve ever been on a hot boozy date and cried the next morning after seeing your credit card bill, you know what I’m sayin’.

shoppers at grocery store during christmas

tis the season and you WILL BE HAPPY SHOPPERS

In the same way that marketers use music to influence our behaviors to buy more, change our pace, or feel positive about the shopping experience, we can use music to influence our own internal “shoppers.”

It’s like this:

Think of your creative work as going to the store. Sometimes you’re not in the mood, but you’re out of food, so there. You grab a cart and step through the loud sliding doors, and then then you hear We Got the Beat in the background…

Your head begins wagging…you pick up that avocado…and suddenly you are pumped about some guacamole.

pile of avocados

maybe it’s too many avocados. But maybe it’s not too many avocados.

There is magic to music.

It makes us want to gyrate in strange ways. It makes us smile or cry. And it’s universal–we may not be able to discern the mood behind spoken foreign language, but if that foreigner is singing, it’s suddenly easy.

Case in point:

Forty tribal Pygmies from the African rainforest and 40 city-dwelling Canadians listened to the same musical compositions. When researchers compared their responses, the results were surprisingly similar.

This is despite the fact that Canadians are super weird.

Check out my boy Luciano Pavarotti singing Vesti la Giubba (“On With the Costume”), wait until he really gets going at minute 1.35, and tell me you don’t feel like crying just a little bit.

Tell me so that I know you’re a sociopath.


More Than Mood: Using Music to Train Yourself

It’s obvious:

Music is an amazing way to break down mental barriers. What’s more, Stanford researchers found that apart from boosting mood, music can even cause us to pay attention better.

And while it’s true that music can alter our mood, it can do so even more if we set an intention before listening. So don’t just wait for it, let yourself know that you intend to get pumped or happy or whatever.

This, my friends, is what we call a win-win-win situation.

But what if it’s not enough to simply wait for music to set our creative juices flowing?

Sure, we’re increasing the odds just by pressing play, but why not tweak the system à la Pavlov’s Dogs?

cute Pomeranian dog with tongue out

A Pavlovian recap:

Pavlov brought food to dogs over and over, and each time the dogs began drooling. Eventually, the mere sight of Pavlov caused the dogs to drool, whether or not he had food.

Their bodies associated Pavlov with food, so they drooled upon seeing him.

Our bodies can associate music input with creative output.

Pavlov = Music

Dogs = Us

Drool = Creativity

Let’s briefly consider two components:

1. Individuality

Though emotionally we may understand music in similar ways, our actual preferences for tunes vary greatly.

How else can you explain why some people like Nickelback?

For this reason, it’s important to know how various types of music influence you. In the same way fast music causes shoppers to walk faster or happy music causes them to buy more, various music will hit you differently.

We’ll talk more about how to manage this to your advantage in a minute.


2. Consistency

Once we find the right music, the training must begin.

As with all dogs, we must be consistent with our training or else the results won’t become part of our natural behavior.

I might have just called you a dog?

Give yourself at least 30 days worth of training, but more if you need it.

fresh bulldogs on leash

this is where consistent training gets you.

Experimenting with Music and Mood

The way music affects your mood is based highly off of your own individuality. Yet oftentimes what you think your reaction will be is not what it actually is, so experimentation is key.

Ask yourself this:

How many times have you heard that that you should listen to classical music to focus?

Not bad advice, but if you’re like me, you may find classical music to be a distraction because you get caught up in the melodies.

My suspicion is that I’m not alone in this, yet so many people simply assume that classical music leads to creativity or focus that they haven’t noticed it actually doesn’t.

In fact:

If I can recognize any tune, the odds are it will take over my mind, so it’s pretty much a non-starter for focusing.

The best way to find the right music for you is to run experiments with yourself, paying attention to both subconscious and measurable results.  

arrary of laboratory beakers and the like

the self-experimentation starter kit

Give yourself an “experimentation” month.

(And keep it clean, folks.)

During specified blocks of time, do various tasks like reading, writing, painting, etc. all set to different music styles.

Avoid music with any lyrics that you understand unless your work doesn’t involve you having to be in touch with your thoughts.

Also, tell me what that work is.

Here are a few genres to try:

  • Classical (orchestra, piano, winds, strings, etc. are categories nested within)
  • Ambient
  • Hand drums
  • Acoustic
  • [Your suggestion here—leave a comment!]

Start off at a relatively low volume. Music is powerful stuff even without words, and you don’t want to drown out the internal and subconscious processes that feed you.

Once you figure out the right music for the task, experiment with volume.

When you get done with a session, ask yourself these questions (and take notes if you’re the organized type):

  • Did you feel relaxed/anxious/excited/etc.?
  • How much did you actually get done? 
  • How antsy were you to get it over with?
  • Could you feel the time passing or not?
  • Overall, how did it feel?

The trick is finding the right music for the task at hand.

dancing woman

you want to be as sure as this woman about what gets you grooving. And she knows.

Here’s what I’ve found: 

Creative writing, for me, wants tribal beats. Something about the fast pace gets me in the zone, what can I say? You can check out my “tribal” playlist on Spotify (username: Bossmeggan–and please give me suggestions if you have ’em!).

Reading or research, on the other hand, wants classical piano–Claude Debussy if we’re really talkin.

Editing is more of an orchestra or string quartet thing.

Abstract thinking? Ambient or babbling brook all the way.

Brainstorming? Silencio.

For most, I tend to keep the volume at the lowest level before mute, but maybe that’s just me.

drooling dog

Automated Creativity: Pavlov-ing Yourself

It’s time to Pavlov that shit.

You’ve put in the time finding the right music for your efforts, so whenever you do your creative things, play what you find works best.

We’ve discussed how you are influencing your mood and thus your work, but you’re also training your behavior to always want to do the task when it hears that type of music.

Tribal beats are the only tunes I hear when writing creatively; furthermore, the only time I play tribal beats is when I’m writing. Since I’ve been doing that for several months, I now automatically am influenced to write when I hear tribal beats.

On shit days, pressing play can be the precise push I need to get to work.

You might even try playing the same “kickoff” song before work as a trigger to get you in the mood…and I’ve got the perfect suggestion.

happy girl at desk

if this was my desk, my brain would explode. But I wouldn’t mind the smile.

The Pavlov mood and music training is my own little theory, but I hope it makes as much sense to you as it does me.

Well, it’s not just that it makes sense to me…

It works.

There’s an art to this music thing (and I mean that in more ways than one), so let’s play music so it plays us right.

Try it out and let me know what you think, or just let me know what you think about Nickelback.

Either way, let’s talk…

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