The Creative Power of Music

by Tom Kenny (@tkenny)

As part of my desire to discover how we can enter the state of flow and be much more effective and creative with our design work, I’ve been seeing what the effect of music can have on creativity and the news is good.

Music has the power to change our state of mind, so we can use it to achieve greater focus on our design work and be more creative and with services like Apple Music, Spotify, Rdio and YouTube, all music is available anytime we want.

Focus with Familiarity

New music requires some thought as you go through the process of discovering what’s coming next and figuring out whether you like it or not. The thought process this generates can snap us out of flow or prevent us from reaching it, or at least make it more difficult.

If you are already familiar with the music you are listening to, you know what to expect, requiring much less thinking. At this point it basically becomes automatic, which is exactly how you want to feel when you’re in the zone.

Video Game Soundtracks

As you’ll see in my recommendations at the end of this article, video game music features prominently (just to be clear, we’re talking about original music created for video games, an important distinction as you’ll see).

The most important aspect of music specifically created for games is that game music is mostly designed to enhance the experience without distracting the player, making it also a perfect fit to work to.

Similar soundtracks for movies also work well and I have a few recommendations for those too.

Built-in Familiarity

The familiarity of video game music for me as a gamer is part of the reason why it works so well. I’ve already been lost in the worlds game designers have created and the music is a big part of that.

The familiarity of a soundtrack from games you love creates a positive association every time you hear the music. This in itself makes you happier as you’re reminded of your love of the game and happiness makes you more creative (see number 2).

Noise-Cancelling Headphones

I strongly recommend Bose’s QuietComfort 25 headphones to block out most unwanted noise. They don’t completely block out everything, as you’ll still be able to hear people talk nearby but they definitely make everything quieter. The addition of music, even at low volumes, completes the job of blocking out all noise, helping you get in the zone and stay there for as long as possible.

I find noise-cancelling headphones to be a critical component to getting into the state of flow if you work in an open plan office but they are also great for unexpected noise distractions in quieter workplaces too, even if you work from home.

You don’t have to buy an expensive pair of headphones like the QuietComfort 25s but they definitely help. I used very cheap earphones for years like these Panasonic ones which only cost £5 ($10 in the US). The downside is you’ll have to listen to music quite loud to block everything.

Research on the Effect of Music on Creativity

A study on software developers, found that listening to music improved performance:

“Results indicated that state positive affect and quality-of-work were lowest with no music, while time-on-task was longest when music was removed.”

Another study found that lower levels of music is more effective:

“Results from five experiments demonstrate that a moderate (70 dB) versus low (50 dB) level of ambient noise enhances performance on creative tasks and increases the buying likelihood of innovative products. A high level of noise (85 dB), on the other hand, hurts creativity. Process measures reveal that a moderate (vs. low) level of noise increases processing difficulty, inducing a higher construal level and thus promoting abstract processing, which subsequently leads to higher creativity. A high level of noise, however, reduces the extent of information processing and thus impairs creativity.”

This explains why I love my QuietComfort headphones so much because I don’t have to listen to music so loud anymore.

Avoid Music with Lyrics

Music with lyrics can work for you if you’re extremely familiar with it but you’ll find that music without lyrics tends to be more effective because the words can be too distracting.

You want the music to become the background noise, overpowering any distractions but you definitely don’t want the music to distract you from the work and songs without lyrics are much more effective.

The only music I can listen to with lyrics are songs in languages I don’t understand. I have a strange obsession with J-pop (especially as I can’t stand English/American pop music) but I find I can work without being distracted by the lyrics because I don’t understand them at all!

Music Suggestions

Now on to the fun part! I have so much music to recommend so you’ll be guaranteed to find something you like to help you in moments of flow and getting there too.

Much of my music discovery comes from gaming, which is handy for reasons mentioned earlier. Who said gaming is a waste of time?! The magic of gaming for me is getting absorbed into a different world and music often plays a bigger role in that than you think.

Where possible, I’ve included Apple Music, Spotify and Rdio links to all the music I’ve recommended and I’ve embedded YouTube videos where I can for those without a music subscription account.

Tron: Legacy (Movie Soundtrack)

I haven’t seen Tron: Legacy because I’ve heard it isn’t very good but the soundtrack is incredibly powerful. I listen to this album to prepare myself before a football game because you can walk down the street and feel like you are somewhere else. I find it increases my confidence for whatever I’m going to do next. Perfect for hitting the state of flow or assistance on the way.


Monument Valley (Game Soundtrack)

First of all, Monument Valley is one of the best puzzle games on smartphones/tablets. The graphics are simple but beautiful and the music helps to bring you into this strange world so you can focus on the puzzles. The soundtrack helps you focus on your work too.


Bastion (Game Soundtrack)

If you’re an action RPG fan, you’ll love this game and if you’ll want to get some work done, the soundtrack is a great world to immerse yourself in.


Transistor (Game Soundtrack)

Following on from Bastion is the next game from the same developer and also the same musician, Darren Korb. Whereas Bastion has more of a fantasy old world vibe, Transistor is very much more futuristic.

Swords & Sworcery (Game Soundtrack)

This soundtrack has an electronic magical world feel, which actually perfectly represents the game but that doesn’t mean there aren’t strong powerful songs. Some of my favourite powerful songs come from this album.


Braid (Game Soundtrack)

Braid uses a clever time rewind feature to solve puzzles and the soundtrack has a classical feel to it but you don’t have to like classical music to like it. I’m not a fan of classical music but the music from Braid is calming and relaxes you in the direction of the state of flow.


Ori and the Blind Forest (Game Soundtrack)

I haven’t actually played Ori and the Blind Forest even though it looks beautiful but the soundtrack is equally wonderful and also 89 minutes long, the perfect length for ultradian rhythm.


Machinarium (Game Soundtrack)

Machinarium is a beautiful point-and-click adventure game. It has the ability to make you feel stupid and clever at the same time as you travel through beautiful hand drawn worlds as a little robot trying to make sense of everything after being dumped on a scrapheap.

The music is a bit quirky at times but nothing extreme and definitely something I really enjoy working to.



I discovered this album because it was created by Tomáš Dvo?ák, the musician behind the Machinarium soundtrack. It’s not one of my regularly listened to albums but I’ve included it as it’s a bit different from the rest and definitely worth a listen.


Scripts From El Shaddai

Apple Music’s recommendations are the best in the business and that’s exactly how I found Scripts From El Shaddai. I know nothing about it except that it’s a great album to listen to when working. A couple of songs have lyrics so it’s worth listening to a few times to become familiar with it.

The Social Network (Movie Soundtrack)

The soundtrack to The Social Network film is a Trent Reznor masterpiece and quite different from his band, Nine Inch Nails but one of my favourite albums to work to.


Inception (Movie Soundtrack)

My wife kept telling me to listen to Hans Zimmer and I eventually got round to listening to some of his work from the Inception film soundtrack, which I can definitely recommend. Powerful is the one word I think of when I think of Hans Zimmer and he doesn’t disappoint here.


Epic YouTube Video Playlists

There are many YouTube videos which are just collections of 2 hours of epic music with some nice artwork for each song.

Here’s an example:

I always discover some great music from these playlists that I add to my “music to work to” playlist (see below).

My Music to Work to Playlist

I prefer to listen to albums, as the familiarity of knowing which song comes next helps but now and again I will listen to a playlist of good music to work to on shuffle to mix it up.

This is my ever-growing playlist of music I listen to on shuffle when working, if I’m not listening to an album:

Listen to the playlist on Apple Music.

I’ve also made a giant Apple Music playlist folder containing all the albums I’ve recommended, so you can even shuffle every song from them all.

Listen to the “Albums to Work to” playlist on Apple Music.

I’ll be adding new album discoveries when I find them.

Your Recommendations

Even though I’ve got so much music to listen to, I would still love some more recommendations. What do you listen to? Please let me know and I’ll add them here.

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by Tom Kenny

I’m a freelance web designer and front-end developer with over 7 years of experience designing for the web. Follow me on Twitter here.