Left Brain, Right Brain, and Music

March 1, 2008

I will probably never be accused of being an audiophile, but I do like listening to music.  Most of the time, the music is not an ends in itself, but rather accompaniment to something else that I doing, such as driving, playing video games, and especially programming.  I say “especially” because programming is far and away the most frequent and most time consuming activity I perform while listening to music.

I noticed a while ago that I can’t listen to music while I write prose, however.  For some reason the music, even instrumental music, distracts me too much.

This past week, though, I began to take inventory of the programming-related things that I don’t – or can’t – do to music.  If I am researching a bug, writing a technical specification, or thinking about how to architect a solution, I find that I more times than not take the headphones off.  Once I have a clear path to what I’m doing, I can don the ‘phones once again, and madly type away.

At first blush, writing software would appear to be very left-brain, analytical, logical work.  Writing fiction would appear to be very right-brain, intuitive, creative work.  For those readers that have never written a software program, you might be surprised to learn that there is quite a bit of creativity that goes into a piece of software.  It’s not all 1’s and 0’s – most of the time we programmers are trying to find a solution that maximizes functionality, usability, performance, maintainability and a half dozen other frequently-conflicting attributes.  The left hemisphere will get you to a point, but the truly elegant solutions require at least a little input from the right.

What was a little surprising to me in these last few months is the amount of logic and analysis that I’ve had to put into writing TheNovel.  Sure, there have been multiple sparks of intuition and creativity needed to flesh out the story, but there has also been a lot of left brain activity too: “Why is it about X’s past that would justify them saying this?”  “If Y used their magic in this way, what would happen?”  “Z was in this scene one day, and then they just appear in that scene the next day – what did they do in the interim, and is it important for the story?”  A hundred questions that need to be answered to make the story feel more plausible, and only a handful that seem answerable by intuition alone.

So where does music fit in?

It seems that the activities that I can perform to music are the ones that require less of my right hemisphere than the others.  Perhaps the music distracts the right side, and while it is off enjoying the audio input the left side can function better.  When I need the right side more, I have to turn off the music so it won’t be so distracted.

Perhaps there are aspects to writing software that I’ve done so many times that I can do them almost on autopilot, but others require more of my attention.  With writing prose, because I’ve only really been doing it for a few months, ALL of it requires my full attention.

What’s really ironic in writing this post is that while I’m not listening to music right now, I can’t help but think that if I were I might find a better explanation.


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