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The Power Of Sound In Ritual - And How It Can Help You Write Your Book

In the 1890s, a Russian physiologist named Ivan Pavlov was conducting a series of experiments on dogs to research their salivation in response to being fed. He noticed that sometimes, the dog(s) would start salivating even before the food was put in front of them. When he investigated further to try and figure out what was making them have this anticipatory reaction early, he discovered that he could train a hungry dog to start drooling upon hearing a particular sound - in this case, a metronome or buzzer - by teaching it to associate that sound with the sight (and, usually consumption) of food. This experiment became one of the most famous of all time, leading to one of the most notable discoveries in psychology: the classically conditioned reflex, or classical conditioning.

Nowadays, the concept is one of the most basic entry-level ideas taught to young students of psychology. Even people who are not familiar with the terms "Pavlovian", the concept of "Pavlov's Dog", or the details of the experiment itself, understand what conditioning means and how it can affect humans. For better or worse, whether done intentionally and with awareness, intentionally without our knowledge, or accidentally, the bottom line remains: that with regular exposure, the human brain can respond to a specific stimulus in a predictable way.

So what is the connection with writing a book, you might wonder? Well, we can use this idea to create a writing ritual intended to help condition ourselves into responding in the way that we would like: in other words, using sound to help us write our books, or stick to a writing routine.

Becoming Pavlov's Writers

When you hear the "ding" of a toaster, does your mind immediately conjure up images of warm, fragrant toast popping up invitingly, ready to be slathered with butter? How about when you smell your coffee in the morning, the aroma tickling your nostrils temptingly: if you always have your cuppa when you sit down at your desk ready to work, does the scent of it alone make you feel like you're alert and ready to work? It's funny, but if you ask most people when they start to feel more awake after grabbing a coffee, it's not when the sipping commences that they begin to perk up - it's when they take that first treasured sniff. It's often the same with smoking - while many smokers are addicted to the nicotine, for others, it's also the ritual of it all: the way they'll sit or stand in a certain spot, the hand that they use to hold the lighter, and the circumstances that really make them want to light up.

Triggers can come in many forms, including places, smells, things we see, certain words, even emotions - but sound is a powerful one, as evidenced by Pavlov's experiment. We are susceptible to triggers and conditioning whether we like it or not - so if we are trying to actively create a habit, a ritual, or a routine that sees our brains snap into "writing mode" more quickly and efficiently, then why not try and use this to condition ourselves in a positive way?

Photo by Alphacolor on Unsplash

In a practical sense, it could look a little like this: I like to make playlists to listen to while I write. They are a means of using sound to help me write, by helping me set the mood. I'll pick certain tracks that evoke the right tone or feelings that I'm trying to draw up for that story or scene, and it makes it easier for me to tap into those parts of myself, so that I can pour them onto the page with more vigour. Most of the time, those playlists will contain songs that I enjoy - and since I like them, I might be tempted to listen to them at other times, too. After all, the moods that I'm trying to evoke for the book will often cross over with things that I feel in everyday life - so why wouldn't those songs also seem like a suitable soundtrack for my non-writing moments?

And they are great to listen to for other activities - but there always inevitably comes a point where I've listened to them so much that I start to blur the lines. When I sit down to write and press play on that playlist, if I've been listening to it outside of my writing sessions, over time it begins to lose some of its magic. Here's one key example: I used to listen to an excellent playlist of soulful liquid drum and bass while working on my first novel. One day, I was having a particularly challenging time writing an article for my day job, so I put on that same playlist. It worked - but then I did it again the next day, and the next day. By the time the weekend rolled around - which is my sacred writing time - when I tried to listen to it again, I found myself unable to focus on my novel because I couldn't stop thinking about work. No matter how much I tried to shove those "day job" thoughts out of my head, they kept creeping back in. "Oh no," I thought - "I've gone and ruined my stupid playlist." And it's not only sounds - the same thing can happen with places. When I did some work for that same day job in the cafe that I usually work on my novel from, although I only did it a few times, I soon found myself regretting tainting that space with those blurred lines. It was then that I made a promise to myself: be strict with these boundaries. From then on, I would only work on my novel from certain cafes, and if I needed somewhere to work on my day job from remotely, I could find another place to do it. I vowed I'd do the same with my playlists: I could only listen to the ones created for my novel while working on that novel. If I wanted music for my other writing work, then I'd have to make other playlists for that.

And you know what? It worked.

It was actually this idea that led to another beloved pursuit of mine: creating soundscapes to write to. As a meditation teacher, I've always understood and appreciated the power of sound in helping take our mind to certain places - more on that in the next paragraph. But when I began working on a fantasy novel that required me to escape to a very specific fantasy world in my head, I struggled to find appropriate mood music. Until I remembered that I could actually create my own sound for that. Using my skills as a meditation teacher and soundscape producer, I mixed together sounds of the leaves rustling through the trees, the trickling of the water from the stream, and the birds that were chirping from the scenes in my head. When I played this audio the next time I wrote, I was immediately transported to the lush island in my head. And you don't need to know how to create your own soundscapes to try this, either: there are plenty of them on YouTube, for instance, ready to aurally whisk you away to another place while you tap away on a keyboard.

Riding The (Sound) Wave

Which brings me to my next point, on using sound to help our minds become more attuned to writing: Learning how our brainwave states can be affected by sound can help us understand how we can use that to put us into a more writing-friendly state, like a flow state. Flow state is a psychological term to describe a state of hyper focus and intense engagement, where we are so totally and utterly absorbed in what we are doing - in a positive way - that distractions melt away like water off a duck's back, and we are able to create more easily, effortlessly, and productively. This is also sometimes called being "in the zone".

When we listen to sound - not just music, but sound in general - we aren't only hearing it, we are also feeling it, through its vibrational frequencies that can affect us on an invisible or almost imperceptible level. This is, in essence, the basis of sound healing. When we feel these vibrational frequencies, our brainwave state can be affected - and the different frequencies associated with different levels of sound can make us feel anything from more energetic to more relaxed. We've all experienced it at some point: the heart-pumping energetic tracks that hype you up for a good workout at the gym, or the soothing background song at a yoga studio that makes you feel instantly calmer, for instance.

These brainwaves come under five different categories: Alpha, Beta, Delta, Gamma, and Theta. The ones we want to focus on in this case are the Theta and Alpha brainwaves. When we are in Beta, our brains zap into action mode: this is the frequency range associated with activity, dominant behavior, and external attention. This is the one you want to be radiating when you're busy running errands, exercising, or doing something that requires fast, intense, outward focus. Meanwhile, Alpha brainwaves are the ones that we experience while doing more menial tasks that allow our minds to wander - where while our bodies are on autopilot, our brains are a little more free to roam. Have you ever wondered why you're more inclined to daydream while you're doing something simple like washing the dishes, folding the laundry, or lathering up your hair in the shower? That's why. And the next one is the Theta state - this is the one that we feel during deeper meditations, such as sound healing, or when we're falling (or rising from) sleep. While Alpha helps us feel more relaxed while maintaining passive attention, Theta lulls us into deep relaxation with a lot of inward attention.

When it comes to my writing habits, understanding the difference between these brainwave states and the mental states they can put me in can help me arrange my day's schedule and activities to nudge me more easily into my flow state. Everyone's body will ultimately react to their stimuli a little differently, but for me, writing science fiction and fantasy - or scenes where my characters are experiencing a gamut of deep and twisty emotions - is a lot easier when I am in the Alpha brainwave state. I've realized that if I do a morning workout just before a weekend writing session, I take a lot longer to get into that dreamy state that helps me write those scenes better, and it's probably because my brain is still in its Beta wave "buzz buzz buzz, roll into action!" phase. When I'm stuck on something, unable to figure out what to do next to get past that block preventing me from finishing a scene or fixing a plot hole, the natural instinct of my go-getter inclined personality would be to sit down and pro-actively figure it out. And that works, sometimes. But most of the time, I find myself overcoming that block most easily and smoothly when I give in and let myself go with the flow. Perhaps through a meditation that helps me get into a Theta state, allowing for deep introspection, and taking me to the answer I already had in my head but was racing too fast to find.

If this idea intrigues you, you don't need to be a brainwave expert or a meditation teacher to figure it out - simply try and look at the different activities in your daily life and observe how the sounds around them are affecting you. Then the next time you're gearing up for a writing session, try to mimic the ones that best encourage your flow state, or the state you write best in. There are also plenty of soundscape and meditation channels on YouTube, Spotify, and so on, that specify the frequency range and tones of the track they're putting out there. Many of these are one to three hours long, making them great for a focused chunk of time.

Rituals have been a part of the way humans move through life for millennia, and sounds have always been an inseparable part of our psyche - from the crackling flames of a fire warning of us of danger, to the rushing of a refreshing waterfall inspiring feelings of restoration and release - so if we can tap into this primal part of ourselves to help us overcome the all-too-common struggle of sticking to our writing routine, even when life's distractions try to get in the way, surely that's worth a try!


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