Before we get into this, let me set the record straight.
I am not now, nor have I ever been, a music hater. Or a kid hater. Or a kid-who-loves-music hater. Come to think of it, if some kid wants to get on my lawn, that’s fine by me. Hey, if the dandelions don’t care, who am I to object? Clint Eastwood would be appalled.
So, yeah. I like music.
I will admit that I’m not going to die of boredom if I don’t have Metallica or Lil Nas X or Charlie Puth bellowing in my Airpods every second. I’ll further admit that, when I’m in the car, it’s NPR or the Boston sports guy whining about Xander Bogaerts going to the Padres.
That said: No one is a bigger believer in what music can bring emotionally to an ad than me.
Where I draw the line is when I’m working. Try as I might, I can’t think worth a damn if there’s music anywhere within the range of human hearing. I’ve tried. I want it to work. So many psychologists insist that music can actually free you up creatively. Maybe not as much as a hard microdose of psilocybin, but music can be creatively liberating nonetheless.
And let me tell you, there are a whole lot of creatives who agree with those psychologists.
Stephen King once told The Atlantic that he typically works with Metallica and Anthrax shaking the walls. Same thing for Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: the louder and more intense, the better. For artist Michael Armitage, it’s Soukous music from the Congo, especially Franco and his band TPOK Jazz—whoever that is.
For the record, while I was writing this column, I’ve tried listening to all of them. Just as I’ve tried with Ludovico Einaudi, Taylor Swift, the queue music from Soarin’ at Epcot, Vince Guaraldi, Franz Liszt, John Williams, Max Richter, Yo Yo Ma, Alexi Murdoch, BIKBOK—it’s always the same. I totally shut down. It’s silence or nothing.
Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s some wire missing from my cerebral circuitry. To find out, I asked some of the most creative people in advertising where they shook out on this.
“I find that once I know the idea, I can then use music to set a mood or tone for whatever it is I’m writing about,” says David Baldwin, founder and lead guitarist at Baldwin&. “Music can put you into a flow where you’re not really listening to it so much as absorbing and returning whatever the energy is in the song or piece you’re listening to. It can be a kind of recursive loop—so much creativity flows. For me, music is a tool to get in the zone.” Well, yeah, what else would you expect a lead guitarist to say?
“I’m for dead silence,” says Greg Hahn, cofounder and chief creative officer of Mischief USA and a kindred spirit for working in silence. “I tend to write in my head before touching the keyboard. Music gets in the way of that. I get distracted or lose my train of thought.”
As I soon found out, Hahn was not the only one. “It inhibits me.” This is from John Doyle, freelance art director and designer. “I need to focus and not have a tangential creative element competing with my own. It’s different for something like skiing where rhythm can help movement.”
Besides being chair of the TBWA New York Group, Rob Schwartz is one of those aggressive music fans. You know the ones. Not enough to just let the music wash over them—no, Rob must listen to the music inside the music. “I want to hear Charlie Watts playing behind Keith,” he explains. “I want to take in all of what Rick Rubin leaves out with folks like Tom Petty and Run-DMC. And even though I can’t speak a lick of Portuguese, I like to feel the meaning behind the lyrics when I listen to Jorge Ben Jor or Seu Jorge.”
That said, the only thing Rob wants to hear when he’s trying to think is the clack of his Apple keyboard or the scratching of a pencil on paper.
But just when I think, “Hey, other than David Baldwin, it’s not just me that goes for silence over music”, along comes Gary Koepke, cofounder and director at SeyhanLee. “I listen to a variety of music when working,” he says. “The mornings I listen to softer, more meditative stuff, even frequency music of 417hz or 528hz or 629hz. Basically, solfeggio frequencies. Then in the afternoon, it’s usually contemporary jazz. Nala Sinephro maybe. Leonard Cohen is good. If I have to work late, I’m thinking Trentemøller, H.U.V.A. NETWORK or Tinlicker.”
Um, no. Respectfully, Gary, no.
In the end, of course, if Stephen King and David Baldwin and Gary Koepke and who knows how many more of you do your best work with the likes of Mozart, Metallica and God knows who else assaulting your every neuron, by all means, rock on. As for me, I’ve got one word for you: