Music and the Creative Process

May 27, 2010 — 43 Comments


“Music and the creative process”

“Architecture and Music”

These are phrases within questions that I have been getting asked since I was 18 years old but I should probably provide you with some of my musical background first. Everyone in my family is pretty musically gifted and despite the tales my father would tell you about his trumpet playing, most of our natural abilities most likely came from our mother. My mom graduated with her college degree in music education and had herself a sweet little recording career (even if it was short-lived). She was in a singing group in college called “The Chordettes” who recorded such timeless classics as “Mr. Sandman” and “Lollipop, Lollipop” and I would bet that no matter your age, you are familiar with these songs. Yes, I know – that is pretty cool.



I grew up with literally musical instruments in every room of my house; we had a multi-tiered organ, a baby grand piano, an upright piano, multiple violins, a french, horn, an oboe, and at one time or another, a clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone, tenor saxophone and a marimba (and no, we didn’t moonlight as stand-ins for the Partridge family). This was all for me and my two sisters, and it was pretty cool until I got to high school and it wasn’t really that cool anymore. Other than the french horn and oboe, I played all the others. I started on violin in 4th grade, moved onto clarinet in 5th grade, than bass clarinet in 7th (clarinet’s were for girls…and adding bass to the front made it more masculine) and when I learned that I couldn’t be in the jazz band with my rocking cool bass clarinet, I taught myself saxophone during the summer before 9th grade so I could be in the jazz band in high school. It was a grade requirement that we try out for All-City bands but I also tried out for All-Region band and All-State band. I made All-City and All-Regions every year starting in 7th grade and All-State my junior and Senior years in High School. Sounds great right? I HATED band more than I can possibly describe without working blue; it had a serious impact on my social life as I perceived it. So why did I do it? Those who know me know that I have a teeny-tiny competitive streak and while I hated what the perception of band did to for me, I didn’t actually hate the music part.



This pattern continued into college where I was in the Marching Band in the Fall semesters and Jazz Ensemble in the Spring semesters. I could only manage to keep up with it for 3 years before it starting creating problems with my architecture studios. Anyone who has gone to architecture school will understand what I mean – studio is incredibly demanding of your time and I couldn’t afford to have a extra curricular activity that required so much attention and dedication, so I finally quit. To this day, I think my mom was a little disappointed that I didn’t pursue a musical career. A little known fact – I made it through 3 years of roommates in college who never knew I was in the marching band – pretty impressive feat I’d say.



I told you all that because being around that much music for that long has broadened my understanding and appreciation of music. I generally believe that I listen to music differently than most people. I break it down without thinking about, pulling apart bass lines, rhythm patterns, etc. and then I put them back together.  When I was in my formative teenage years, I had already put a lot of time in listening to classical, big band and more traditional jazz standards. Despite the wasteland of music that the early 80’s provided (sorry Whitesnake, but you sucked), I was still pulling out albums from my parents collection of vinyl and listening to BB King, Stan Kenton and Tommy Dorsey. Once I realized that I wasn’t helping my street cred in high school, I started going more indie (e.g. the Cure, Depeche Mode, Yaz, etc.). I still liked all that other stuff, I just kept it to myself.



In design studio, where you are trapped for 12+ hours a day, I was the one who played my tapes for the room. Since I didn’t listen to just one type of music, I generally covered the collective musical tastes of everyone (although we did institute a rule that if 1 person didn’t want to listen to what was being played, it got changed). Just like back then in studio, I still listen to a lot of music while I work – probably like a lot of architects/ creative types. Music can help set a mood, bring energy to the process, or act as white noise when focus is needed. There is a lot of research being developed that evaluates the development of your brain when exposed to music; both playing it and listening to it. A particularly interesting article that I came across mentioned that “studies had shown that the brains of adult musicians have structural and functional differences from those of non-musicians”. And “…ongoing study, led by Ellen Winner, professor of psychology at Boston College, and Gottfried Schlaug, professor of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School,…found no difference between the music and non-music groups on skills unrelated to music performance, such as language, perceptual reasoning or abstract reasoning. However, a separate study has found tight correlations between music training and mathematical reasoning, suggesting that continued longitudinal research and cooperation with educators may yet uncover definite links.” Hmmm….interesting…not really.



As I have aged, my musical tastes haven’t changed as much as I like to think they have but they are still pretty broad. I also feel like I’m getting old person music taste because a lot of today’s music all sounds the same to me – that and I remember when the original version the hooks that everyone is using came out. I’m lucky I have a private office so I can stream music all day long and listen to whatever, whenever for however. For me, music is a big deal and whenever I need to get a lot of work done, I have to have music playing. Even when I sat down to write this post, it was almost impossible to select the album covers I was going to use. In the end, I just selected what was on my iPod nano that I use when mowing the lawn.

People always want to associate musicans,  or at least people with musical tendencies, with architecture; that one was directly associated with the other. I never did associate one with the other and don’t really think that they are directly related – otherwise, why was I the only person in architecture school that played in the band? Shouldn’t the program have been lousy with musicans? It wasn’t – but everyone up there wanted music playing in studio, all the time. I just thank my lucky stars that I got to pick the music.



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  • maji

    This is very true.. as a third year student of architecture music always helps me focus on my concept and now my project is to make a school of music and its very challenging.

  • Hey there! I really enjoyed your post on the correlation between music and architecture. I’m a first year at the UT Austin School of Architecture and I was in Longhorn Band this past semester. Trying to do both is extremely demanding! Especially when all of Saturday is taken up by the football games. I’m the only one in the entire undergraduate program in marching band at the moment. I have a pretty similar story, growing up surrounded by music, making All-State on the clarinet, taking piano lessons etc etc. And while there are not many musician/architect students in the program, everyone listens to music in studio (headphones are a wonderful thing). It has become such an integral part of studio that sometimes if I don’t have my iPod on me I have to go grab it before I go to studio. I just started following your blog via Facebook so my comment is a tad bit late….but thanks for posting!

    • Hi Kaitlyn,

      A fellow UTSOA and marching band … we are a rare breed. I was the only one in both for the three years I managed and too my knowledge, there wasn’t another the last three years I was in school.

      It’s very difficult to manage – best of luck with it.

  • I noticed Transatlanticism in your music cover collage and thought I
    should mention that the new DCfC album Codes & Keys is excellent. I imagine you’d especially appreciate “St. Peter’s Cathedral”.


  • If your looking for a comment that you left and can’t find it – it’s because I deleted it. Congratulations on being the first. I don’t want foul language in the comment section and since it’s my site, that’s the way it’s going to be.

    Find a way to say your comment without foul language and be respectful of others who have taken the time to comment here – it’s pretty simple.

  • radioshit

    Fuck radiohead. Listen to real rock music like Iron Maiden

  • Radiohead sucks

    I would listen to Whitesnake anyday over that pretentious boring crap of Radiohead.

  • UpTheIrons

    Whitesnake sucks? Yeah, maybe, if you are allergic to good music.
    What’s good if Whitesnake sucks?
    That’s rather laughable to me… asshole.

  • UpTheIrons

    Whitesnake sucks? Yeah, maybe, if you are allergic to good music.
    What’s good if Whitesnake sucks?
    That’s rather laughable to me… asshole.

  • Craigydelia

    I am a musician and a designer. I firmly believe the creative and discipled effort required in both are highly complimentary. It’s wonderful to be able to enjoy and practice both. Congrats to you for writing about this.

    • Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. It is wonderful to do both, I wish I had what it took to enjoy my time in band more than I did – but I’m making up for that now.


  • Anonymous

    but I’m competitive in a good way – not the “in your face, you suck loser” kind of way. More like everyone elevates their game a bit … at least I hope.

    nobody plays the drums just to get the ladies – at least not after a while. There’s too much work setting them up and breaking them down after gigs. That’s why the singers always gets the best groupies, they get first pick (while the drummers still packing up his gear)

  • What? You’re competitive? How surprising. I am not musical…but my 16 year old is the drummer for the advanced jazz band. But he is considered super cool and the chicks dig him (as explained by his uncle). I loved this post because I love music. And you are a good writer. But competitive? Really?

  • pat cleeland

    thanks! me too!

  • bobborson

    Please do – and congratulations on the 6 year and 4.5 year milestones. I'm glad your grey matter is staying put.

  • bobborson

    Ha – you are soooo corny! I have a book to give you when I see you:
    'The Superior Person's Book of Words' by Peter Bowler. I know how you love your vocabulary.
    (For the record, my office gave me:
    'The Superior Person's Second Book of Weird and Wondrous Words' also by Peter Bowler.)

  • bobborson

    come back and let me know how it goes. I think a class like that would be interesting. Wonder if they will focus on a particular type of music? Whenever its come up before, it always seems to be jazz or classical.

  • Jennifer

    Interesting post – I'm actually taking a class fall quarter entitled “Music and Architecture: Correlation and Comparison.” It's taught by a professor in music, so it'll be interesting to see his point of view on how music and architecture relate.

  • you can find me here:
    it's pretty random–kind of like my life. stream of consciousness.
    and i'm definitely stealing the topic.

  • Well put Bob – you have put a finger on the fretboard of many workaday lives. Music touches us in many-splendored ways; we are moved by a multitude of Muses. Our pipers are many: our labors are fueled by their rhythmic accompaniment, drawn from many influences, times, and origins. To each their own and may we always be open to listening to the influence that another is willing to share with us. Thanks for sharing your motivations of Note.

  • modernsauce

    sigh. I wasn't proclaiming band as the horror – I was being facetious about YOUR reaction to being in the band! I think it’s a shame that music was such a big part of your life but was associated with either bad memories or feeling like you needed to hide that part of your life from people. Of course the wisdom and confidence of adulthood affords me the privilege of that reaction because guess what? I was in band too!!I I played the sexiest instrument ever – the flute! I decided to quit in HS because I wanted to do something even cooler… wait for it… the debate team! HOLLA!!! so you might have been a “band dork” but i was that AND, ahem, a “master-debator.” True story. So, sorry, you don't get the monopoly on nerd suffering. I think it's awesome you were so involved with music!

    Thanks for sharing! Both the list and stories!

  • bobborson

    reale – Haven't listened to Year of the Cat since I was like 10 years old! What a trip down memory lane. Thanks –

  • reale

    I've always found Tom Petty's “Wildflowers” or Al Stewart's “Year of the Cat” to be great music to do homework or office work to.

  • bobborson

    First, I didn't know you had a blog, tell everyone where to find it –
    and B, looking for the message in songs takes a certain type of person, I certainly don't have it. Since all I've ever done is play songs, I don't think I know the words to one song – seriously; not even the Star Spangled Banner. (and I never knew any of the words to our HS alma mater, I can't even remember what it was called, but I can hum the music for 3 or 4 different instruments).

  • bobborson

    I have moved one of the piano's from my childhood into my home and my 5 year old will walk by and push the keys and 'make' music. That's how it starts. I hope she develops my mother's ear – she had perfect pitch, the only person I've ever actually met who had it.

    If you leave your piano out, your more likely to walk by it and mess about on it. Learning to play as an adult would be nice.

  • bobborson

    Here is the list of albums shown above. There are a few duplicates that I hadn't noticed but I honestly don't feel like going back and fixing it – I'm always looking forward! (These are in order)

    Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I am, That's What I'm Not
    Death Cab for Cutie – Transatlanticism
    The Buddy Rich Big Band – Big Swing Face
    Led Zeppelin – In Through the Out Door
    Queens of the Stone Age – Queens of the Stone Age
    Ramones – Ramones
    Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble – Live Alive
    Massive Attack – Mezzanine
    Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy
    The xx – The xx

    Buddy Guy – Slippin' In
    Coldplay – Parachutes
    Matthew Sweet – Girlgriend
    Crowded House – Together Alone
    John Coltrane – Giant Steps
    Queens of the Stone Age – Rated R
    Interpol – Antics
    Big Head Todd and the Monsters – Sister Sweetly
    Led Zeppelin – I
    The Police – Live

    The Arctic Monkeys – Favourite Worst Nightmare
    Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs
    Talking Heads – Sand in the Vaseline
    John Coltrane – Blue Train
    Echo and the Bunnymen – Songs to Learn and Sing
    Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy
    The Who – Who's Next
    Interpol – Bright Lights Bright City
    Queens of the Stone Age – Songs for the Deaf
    Mel Torme – Swings Schubert Alley

    Death Cab for Cutie – Plans
    Crowded House – Together Alone
    Stereolab – Emperor Tomato Ketchup
    Radiohead – The Bends
    Ray Lamontagne – Trouble
    The Strokes – Is This It
    The Verve – Bittersweet Symphony
    Tommy Dorsey – The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing
    Stone Roses – The Stone Roses
    Them Crooked Vultures – Them Crooked Vultures

    Eric B & Rakim – Follow the Leader
    Woody Herman and his Orchestra – Thundering Herd
    Radiohead – OK Computer
    The Who – It's hard
    Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
    Paul Simon – Graceland
    Led Zeppelin – IV
    Radiohead – Amnesiac
    Sting – Dream of the Blue Turtles
    The Stone Roses – Turns to Stone

    Queen – Greatest Hits I & II
    Duke Ellington – Live at Newport 1956
    Big Daddy Kane – Long Live the Kane
    John Mayer – Continuum
    Miles Davis – Birth of the Cool
    Bob Marley and the Wailers – Legend
    Stan Kenton and His Orchestra – Live at the Soldiers Club
    Thelonius Monk – The Best of Thelonius Monk: The Blue Note Years
    EPMD – Strictly Business
    Leonard Bernstein – Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

  • bobborson

    I used to play guess who when I played music back a few years ago when we all sat in a big open studio but everyone hated it b/c they rarely knew what I was playing. I even started offering a dollar to whomever got it right and with every clue I gave, it dropped by $0.25

  • Ecocandle

    This was a fantastic post. I have never had any musical skill, but 5 years ago, I decided to buy an electric piano, with weighted keys. I wanted to learn how to play it, so I took 4 lessons, from a great Russian woman, but life got in the way. I didn't learn much.

    About 8 months ago I started to just tinker around with it. Conceptually the idea of one hand doing one thing, while the other did another, was almost beyond my understanding. I started to try to keep time with one hand while I just let the other hit keys at random. It was a very odd experience, as I could actually feel a physical reaction to the exercise. When I did it, my tongue curled and my mouth tightened up. It was as if the neural pathways were being created and I could feel it.

    I still can't read music, play a single song, but I can sit down and play with my piano and make sounds that are pleasing to my ear. It is a delight. Maybe someday I will learn a song. That would be nice.

  • Hey Bob, I really enjoyed this article. I work in the reprographics side of the business so I am constantly trying to organize, post, print and distribute documents for architects, developers and contractors. The chaos must be accompanied by a soundtrack, some days its classic rock, other days its metal, indie rock or jazz and for the most insane days we turn to classical music to keep us clam and focused. Something you may try with your co workers / employees is finding an internet radio station that plays Movie soundtracks, it is a fun thing to see people pop their head up from there desk and try to guess what movie a song is from. Of course there is always the uber nerd that not only knows the songs but they know the composers as well. Thanks again for the great read.

  • i use music when i'm writing my sermons. i'll usually latch on to a specific song that somehow puts the scripture into perspective for me and i'll listen to it over and over while i'm writing. (that and red vines get me through!) most of my sermons have some lyrics from a song in them. sometimes my sermon titles are names of songs. i've even been known to make the congregation sing. (so i don't have to sing alone.)

    writing a sermon is a huge undertaking–in my opinion. i read the scripture, go back to the Greek or Hebrew (yes, i can read ancient Greek and Hebrew), consider inconsistencies in translation between sources, read surrounding and referenced scripture, find some relevance to what's happening in the world today, and write a sermon. then i throw that first sermon away and write the real sermon. this takes me anywhere from 10-20 hours.

    there is no substitute for music in the creative process. it stimulates my brain and imagination in ways nothing else does.

    my tastes, like yours, run the gamut. in my last sermon i used the song “kookaburra.” the sermon before that was James Taylor's “Home by Another Way.” I've used Talking Heads, Indigo Girls, John Williams, John Barry, Etta James, Marc Cohn…. I'm all over the map, with music from soundtracks making the most appearances.I think this is because the music evokes images and memories for me.

    great post. i may steal the idea and my comments for my blog.

  • Considering that I was the “old guy” in studio (Freshman at the age of 30) I helped to broaden my classmates musical tastes quite a bit. It is amusing looking back at how the first week of studio they were stuck in their top 40 mentality, but by the end of the semester they knew and requested Count Basie, The Ventures, The Bee Gees (no, really!), Gershwin, or Aretha Franklin.

  • bobborson

    The masses always seem to vet out the people in control of the community music if they have terrible taste. Things get ugly otherwise (look at Jay up above – he had to listen to David Hasselhoff!)

    BTW – your food photos are always really great. The one from Sunday – Banana Pudding – looks delicious and I won't eat a banana to save my life (yuck!)

  • bobborson

    Wow – the Hoff huh? Were you working in Germany?

    I had wireless Sennheiser headphones for years that were awesome because they covered up my ear without crushing them and I could turn up the volume without bothering anyone else. I'm sure I looked stupid walking around while wearing them but it probably kept me out of some stupid conversations.

    Hadn't thought about writing music – that's an entirely different set of skills but what a great outlet. Let us know when we can go online and listen.

  • bobborson

    I am right there with you. There is definitely a style of music required for the activity at hand. Charlie Parker, Lionel Hampton, or John Coltrane when I need background music with energy. Deadlines and techno seem to go hand in hand for everyone.

  • (From Twitter) My tastes are as varied as yours. Big Band, Jazz, Swing, Rock, Heavy Metal, Folk, Techno, Southern Rock, Country, Bluegrass, Classical, World, Reggae, some Grunge, 50's 60's 70's & 80's pop (lost interest in pop after that). You get the idea. My MP3 library is close to 100GB and growing, the majority of it ripped from my CD collection.

    Music helps me focus and let the creative juices flow. Certain genres for certain types of work & certain situations. When under a deadline, Techno seems to be the soundtrack of choice, but when working by hand like on a rendering or physical model, Jazz, big band, and swing work better.

  • Great post! I don't know, I've met quite a few musician/architects. I suppressed my musical interest after a souring piano lesson experience as an adolescent, then it resurfaced in architecture school while reconnecting with my creative side. So much so that I started a band with some non-architect friends.

    For me, the process of writing music has always served as a release valve when long-term nature of the architecture creative process seems to drag on. It can take a couple of years (and a lot of concessions) to see a large project from conception to completion, but you can write a song in an afternoon or a couple of days. There may not be a direct link in terms of music, but I would bet all architects have some hobby that involves short-term creative release.

    On a side note, the office stereo: The first firm I worked for had a community stereo, which played the David Hasselhoff album in regular rotation… That's when I discovered headphones.

  • Gotta know Bob, do you whistle? I mean, really whistle?

  • Yes, yes, yes (and Whitesnake does suck)! I had an onsite copywriting gig at a software company, and one of my pals was in charge of the music. I can't even imagine the hell I would have had to endure had he not had a broad (and good) taste in music. Yikes, the job was bad enough.

  • bobborson

    I never said marching band was my worst secret…but your response doesn't surprise me. For some reason, when people hit a certain age, they all think playing a musical instrument is cool and wish that they knew how to play one. Yet these are the same people who lovingly peppered me with nicknames like:

    band dork
    beewee (stylized from band weenie)
    band nerd
    4 eyes – okay I made that one up since I didn't wear glasses and it has nothing to do with band.

    I didn't like band for reasons that had nothing to do with the music. If I had had to confidence then I probably would have enjoyed HS a whole lot more than I did.

    and yes – Big Daddy Kane is awesome

  • modernsauce

    OH THE HORROR!! If marching band is your worst secret I think you're doing okay! But I don't know how in the world you could keep it a secret for THREE YEARS???!! that's dedication! I was also in charge of the musical stylings of our studio – thanks to kazaa I can barely look at drafting dots without thinking of wu tang clan.

    And Big Daddy Kane? Awesome.

  • bobborson

    I never did have Marcos as a professor – my only experience with him was when he had his class so some installation in the hallway outside our studio in Sutton Hall and there was a meeting to discuss if it was a safety hazard or not! I think you and I were only in one studio together (Smilja's?).
    (And for the record, unless you're out in a field, I don't think anybody wants to listen to someone else's whistling, and that include's people who love whistling – Ha!)

  • Wow! I had no idea…marching band? Did you ever take Marcos Novak's Music in Architecture studio/class? I'll post this on his wall on FB. Interesting info Bob….thanks for sharing.
    By the way, I remember one studio I keep playing Rush on my headphones over and over. I must have heard the same album over 20 times. I was on a deadline and it was the only thing keeping me going!
    Another time I was stuck on Annie's song by John Denver and I kept whistling it…after a while the Studio told me “Nice song Marcy, but could you STOP THE F%^NG WHISTLING?” oops!