Sounds and silence and headspace

A final reflection on music for writing (see the first and second parts here).

In this reflection (which first existed as a part of my current Masters study), I look at what we are really doing when we use quiet or music for making a headspace. Is it creating silence? Is that silence for reflection? Is it tuning out the noise? Is it turning off the chatter in our heads? Is it providing a prompt for to get up and dance?


So when is silence to do with the absence of noise, and when is it the absence of noise we don’t want? 

People who go on silent retreats a lot (and you can imagine I know a lot of them) say it takes at least a day, and sometimes 3, of being in silence before the ‘inner chatter’ calms down, before there is true silence.

Some people find birdsong and tibetan bells and rushing water and white noise a good way to cut out the chatter. One of my Shut Up and Write buddies recommends this café soundtrack; another recommends the sound of a crackling fire mixed with the sound of falling rain to mask other noise and get her in the writing mood. Unfortunately, all these white noises just make me feel sea sick… (though I do really like the real sounds of working in a café, of rain falling on a tin roof, of a wood fire burning, or indeed of music.)

And when is the ‘noise’ or the ‘chatter’ inaudible, but visual or textual? Is it silent when we ‘shut up and write‘? Is it silent when I sit, dissociated from the other people in my tram, reading my Twitter feed? Was it silent when Mr Bennet retired from his family of girls to his library?

When I was doing my PhD, I needed to find lots of ways to return to my body, to be mindful and present (instead of thinking and reading and writing about things that happened 60 years ago). I made bread. I weeded my allotment. I sat in the sun and watched the dragonflies flit around my potted water garden.

More recently, I’ve found total engagement in physical activity helps me to turn off the chatter in my head.

Last semester I was working All. The. Hours. I was teaching a master’s course that had blown up from 20 enrolments to 60 on the day the course started. I had been forcibly seconded to the Giant Web Project of Doom. I had an article that was going badly, and various minor teaching gigs that I’d already said yes to. I had just about pulled it together, I had ended up running the Giant Web Project and made it manageable web project that was about to go live, when a senior manager threw a totally unexpected spanner in the works. I was ropeable. So I went to No Lights, No Lycra and stood in the semi-dark, not speaking, with 70 strangers and danced my heart out. I came home a different person.

This is what they started with:

I guess silence is not monolithic, and what matters is not sound/not-sound, images/blank, together/alone… but a place where you can stop, feel safe, find calm. A way to retreat and then return to engagement, however that might work for each of us. 


Each of these posts has garnered a huge response–thank you! The diversity has been fascinating, but also the fact that none of us are alone, even in our ways of constructing solitude. What do you use to create ‘space’?


  1. For to create space, I like to go somewhere I enjoy by myself. For me, I love sitting on the beach doing yoga which allows be to relax. Great posts!

  2. Tricky. We live in such a populated pulsating proledom, hearing oneself think is a luxury few can ponder. I’m selling my house. I hope so. Soon. To move to the coast, far away from the madding crowd, to listen to the beat and the rhythm of surf on sand. I cannot wait. Love your writing.

    1. I love the coast–the sound of waves is one of the most soothing sounds, so lucky you! Until you get there, maybe think about how to create that space inside your own sea shell–through sounds or exercise or meditation or shutting the door.
      I used to live in Hong Kong, a populated pulsating place if there ever was one. People’s external lives were busy, noisy and crowded, so they had to find techniques to find a bit of space, a bit of quiet.
      It’s easier at the beach though!

  3. My mom went on a silence retreat once. I found it quite peculiar since she lives by herself but this blog helped me to see that a silence retreat is just not simply about being quiet, but silencing the inner noise.

  4. I work at Legoland and hear the theme music of the section I am working at over and over again. Then at night as I try to get sleep I have to work at getting it out of my head as my brain continues the music even though there is no music. Weird.

    1. That’s what ear worms are–and theme park music is designed to be very catchy! I hear similar stories from people who work in retail, so you aren’t alone!
      The only cure I’ve ever found for earworms is other actual music. You can play it quite softly (since you are trying to sleep), maybe on a timer so once you are asleep you have the quiet…

  5. I will have to try some of those soundtracks, as well as one of those silent retreats one of these days. I’m still looking for ways to quiet the chatter in my mind when I write, so some of these could come in handy.

  6. Katherine, I just found your blog reading through the Freshly Pressed. I have done some reading about how the brain works and thought about my own situation, and I think I’ve come up with something. At least something that applies to me. The mind is made up of the conscious mind and the subconscious. More specifically several subconscious processes that run more or less independently of each other and the conscious. Our ability to do really creative things depends on us being able to suppress certain conscious mind functions and allow our subconscious processes to work.

    The most difficult part of the conscious mind is what I call my “inner critic.” This is the voice that is always telling me that I am no good, I can’t write, nobody is reading my stuff anyway. I think most people have this.

    What I think happens, in a purely metaphoric sense, is that when you turn on music, you are saying to your inner critic, “Ooh, listen! Music!” The inner critic then goes off and listens to the music and it leaves the rest of your mind free to write without the constant distractions and second guessing. This seems to be what’s going on in my head anyway. Your mileage may vary.

    Nice post.

    1. Thanks! A lot of what I talk about here is about letting your subconscious work & about silencing that inner critic. So I’m sure you’re right that music enables you to do both, and that’s a reason it can be so powerful!

      1. I am now following your blog. I am looking forward to reading more. If you have time you might find my blog interesting. Thanks.

  7. Immersion – in a thought, a sound, an activity, or a space. When I’m doing repetitive work, I can get totally lost in another world by listening to a good audiobook. The story swallows me up.

  8. Reblogged this on b l 0 g and commented:
    “I guess silence is not monolithic, and what matters is not sound/not-sound, images/blank, together/alone… but a place where you can stop, feel safe, find calm.”

  9. I just started blogging. This is the first blog I’ve read on this site. As an undergrad, I found your take on silence is riveting! I’m going to perceive the concept of sound and silence in a completely different perspective thanks to your reflections here.

  10. I like the post. What I do is listen to instrumentals while I’m preparing for my Masters exam due in a week. And while i take tea breaks, I read a couple of blogs.

    1. Listening to music while you revise can be unhelpful, because your brain will look for the music when you are trying to remember the information in the exam. You should either revise in silence (our usual advice); or (if you can) silently hum the music in your head during the exam!
      Good luck for the exams!

  11. You just helped me consider something entirely outside my schema. I love that
    . Great post. I’m curious- do u listen to music often?

  12. I can’t turn my head’s chatter off.
    Silence I achieved only if I’m asleep or if I am reading, and that too requires some efforts to turn the noise off.

    1. That sounds exhausting! You may find that meditation (with a mantra, or a guided mindfulness meditation) is helpful–replacing the chatter with more helpful talk for a bit. As you get better at it, you may find it helps you transition to sleep and reading more easily. If you have an active inner life, there may always be chatter, but you can turn down the volume!

  13. I too find a moment outdoors helpful to keep myself present, while also allowing my brain some time to reorganize. I find that after a quick walk (or even a few minutes spent outside hanging laundry on the line) I sit down to write feeling more mentally organized and less overwhelmed. Great post!

    1. There is research that says being outside and exercise are both helpful–so this tip should definitely work for others. Glad you’ve found ways to integrate being present into your everyday writing life!

  14. Reblogged this on Finding My Own Bravado and commented:
    Really makes you think… I need to work on quieting the chatter, or at least finding calm. One of the main reasons I’ve stopped my creative writing is because of how scatterbrained I’ve become. It’s hard to sit and focus on something… I’m beginning to agree that all this constant technology can be a bad thing.

    1. All this constand anything can be a bad thing. When I was really trying to get some hard creative writing done, I bought a typewriter. I took it out into the garden and had to hammer away at the keys–but all I could do was keep going forward. No backspace. No email. No flicker banner ads. It helped me to regain that focus and acutally produce creative work. Writing longhand can also help do that!

      1. I need to do something like that. I’ve purchased a journal, along with a book of writing prompts. I need to take those books out of my distracting apartment and really get back into it.

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