Road Trippin’ with Margaret Atwood, Or, Why listening to music while reading your favourite novel does not make you a bad person

It has been shown that when you are studying for exams, or in another situation where you really need to learn something, then listening to music is probably a bad idea. Even those of us who did slap on headphones in the school/university library (myself included) will likely agree that cranking your favourite rock band to 11 while trying to engage with the finer points of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity isn’t likely to result in a solid understanding of why mass is equivalent to energy. (It’s something to do with giant mirrors and passengers waiting at train stations, right?)

However, reading for pleasure isn’t the same as reading to learn something, in much the same way that being subjected to an educational video is vastly different to gorging on the latest Marvel movie. And, in the interest of justifying something that I have done since I was a child, I’ve compiled a few reasons why listening to music while reading may not be such a bad thing after all.


Music is the new sense of smell

Listening to music (particularly songs with lyrics) may not assist you in remembering specific plot details in the same way that it can be used as a way to learn new languages, but I would argue that at times it competes with the sense of smell as far as inducing memories is concerned. We’ve all had specific songs and albums remind us of times in our lives and, in the same way that the first Mumford and Sons album will immediately transport me back in time to a holiday I had in Tasmania, I have some very fond memories of sitting on trains and reading novels while listening to music.

To this day, in my mind, Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale will forever be paired with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ album Californication. Similarly, Semisonic’s Feeling Strangely Fine is inextricably linked with The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. And, for better or worse, my sixteen-year-old self felt it was truth not-so-universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice was best accompanied by Offspring’s Ixany on the Hombre.

Thoughts on the appropriateness of these album-novel combinations aside, my point is this: far from muddling my memory of the book, I find that associating a song/album with a novel can give me a kind of double hit of art-fuelled nostalgia. Like a good jam-filled donut, the outer part is the music, providing that initial, sugary, happy-memory smack. Then the book is the jam filling. It broadens and deepens the whole experience, and gives you a nice warm feeling in your belly which lingers long after the donut is gone.


Brains can multi-task … A little bit

The science is in people: we can all multi-task! This article shows that when given the challenge of performing two tasks at the same time, the brain is able to split itself in half to cope with the problem – i.e. the left and right sides of the prefrontal cortex stop working together, and the left hand deals with one problem while the right side deals with the other. While the experiment conducted doesn’t exactly equate to what is going on in the reading/listening areas of the brain, it does seem to infer that coupling a complex active task (reading a book) with a relatively passive one (listening to music) is well within the realms of your brain’s capabilities.

Though it does offer fair warning that we seem to max out at two tasks because the brain only has two hemispheres available for task management, and adding a third can be a recipe for disaster. Like, say, texting on your phone while pushing your nephew on a swing while practicing your squats.


Whatever gets you reading

Those of you who have ever tried to motivate yourselves to exercise more will know that the best exercise regime (or regimen, if you’re fussy about that sort of thing), is the one you will stick to. If you’re struggling to find the time to read, and the only way you can get the necessary seclusion to facilitate that activity is to pop on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones and retreat to a part of your house the rest of your family is most likely to ignore, then so be it!


Authors listen while writing

This feels like the clincher to me. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many a screenwriter likes popping on the odd soundtrack while penning a few lines of dialogue and Quentin Tarantino even finds that, not only does the right music not distract him from the task at hand, it helps him to imagine the scenes better. On the novel writing front, one of the most prolific writers of our generation, Stephen King, listens to rock artists like Metallica while scribbling out his horror stories.

While I am currently lucky enough to live in a quiet house, and don’t listen to music as a matter of course when writing, I certainly used to while I was living in Perth. To get the space and time to write I used to visit the library after a hard day’s work, but the problem with libraries these days is that they’re so noisy. I really don’t think many of my Australian Beasts stories would have been written without the aid of a a few decent playlists of lyrically deficient music and my trusty Shure SE315 headphones.

The only occasion I have received a definitive “no” on this listening-while-writing point is when I asked Simon Armitage CBE personally at Perth Writers Festival whether or not he ever did. Despite being a huge fan of music, and a musician himself, he said he couldn’t listen to music as it would interfere with the beats and rhythms he was trying to create as part of his poetry. Which makes a lot of sense really.

So, unless you’re cracking out the collected works of Shakespeare, or settling in to catch up on your Lord Alfred Tennyson, why not do what the authors do? Rock on!


Further Reading/Listening

And there you have it. I think I’ve provided a pretty compelling argument for why none of us should feel bad about listening to music while reading.

The book-novel match-ups I provide above are all relatively old examples as my music-listening-while-reading peak was in secondary school. If you are interested in marginally more up-to-date music-book pairings, check out this article on The Guardian’s website. They have their own thoughts on what to listen to while reading A Handmaid’s Tale (hint: it’s not Red Hot Chilli Peppers), and album recommendations for Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, Andy Weir’s The Martian, and many more.

This article also serves as an introduction to a number of others I am (or will be) writing, pairing my Australian Beasts stories with Spotify playlists. Check out the first one I have compiled for The Raven, and keep checking back on the Ramblings and Playlists section of this website for more suggested listening.

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