Brain Triggers Part II: Sounds

Creative Commons by Gaetan Lee
Creative Commons by Gaetan Lee

As part of my ongoing series on using brain triggers, today I’m looking at ways we can all use sounds to improve our writing. If you want to learn more about brain triggers and how they work, you might want to head back to my last post, Be a Better Writer, Use Brain Triggers.

I’m sure we all know our brains are wired for sound communication, both verbal and non-verbal, it’s genetic. Sure, we don’t need to hear, and many people can’t and do just fine without it. But sounds sure help our lives in a number of ways. For one thing sound acts as a safety feature. We learn from toddlerhood that some sounds mark danger. An animal’s growl tells our brains we might need to take action to protect ourselves. It triggers what’s called the fight or flight response. We also learn as children to orient our bodies in relationship to other people based on sound levels. If a person whispers, we understand they are inviting us into greater intimacy. We move closer if we want to share, and beat a hasty retreat if that intimacy is unwelcome.

Most writers I know seem to fall into two distinct sound camps, the total-silence people, and the listen-to-music people. I do some of each depending on what I’m writing. I enjoy music most of the time, but find editing almost imposable without total silence. Since I have kids, and normal background noises to deal with, I keep earplugs in my desk, and I use them. A lot! Modern life pulses with grinding, buzzing or humming noises. These droning sounds are even considered harmful by many brain researchers, so it’s a good idea to give your brain some downtime even if you don’t crave silence the way I do. As long as you control the decibel level, there is no right or wrong way to work.

However, if you want to use sounds to boost your brain activity here are three tricks to use. 1. Using songs to tap into past memories. 2. Mastering instrumental triggers to help create moods. 3. Using background sounds to regulate your brain waves and increase your productivity.

  • Tap old memories by using songs:

When looking for brain triggers in songs, it’s likely the words you’re responding too. It might seem as if the artist is speaking the sentiments you feel, and the words you wish you said during a painful time. Finding song triggers takes research; any event might hold a key. Start with the music your parents listened to while you were growing up. If you’re from a bilingual or culturally rich home, try songs from you family’s original language or heritage, such as folk or religious songs. Or you might find a rich store of memories to tap with the songs from your high school and university days.

When you find a brain trigger song, record the name and artist in your brain trigger journal along with a description of how the song made you feel. Also, jot down how you might use the song for your writing. For example a favorite love song might help while writing a romantic exchange. As with scent triggers, you should limit your exposure to the song for a while before you plan to write. Sounds have a slightly longer trigger lifespan than scents do, but they will start to decline over time, so plan ahead to make the best use of your trigger while it lasts. After the trigger stops working pull the song from your playlist and take a break from hearing the song. Once your brain has a rest the song should start to work as a trigger again.

  • Use instrumental music to create atmosphere:

Above I talked about song with lyrics, but instrumental music is a more powerful trigger, although it’s also more difficult to cultivate because many people detest classical music. Since I don’t advocate listening to anything you hate (unless you’re trying to get angry enough to write a fight scene) one way around a classical aversion is to look for movie soundtracks. People who would never sit through an hour of Bach will gladly listen to a full orchestra blasting out the Star Wars theme. The great thing about movie music is it’s always custom designed to provoke emotions. And if you listen to soundtracks without the visual distraction, your memories of the story often feel more intense and personal. I suggest you start with your favorite movies, or look for compilation CDs featuring tracks under a specific heading, like romantic melodies. I pick up soundtracks every chance I get, and some very unusual soundtracks are some of my favorites. I love the one from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. You heard me! I feel strong, in charge and a tad reckless when I hear that soundtrack.

Boston Symphony Orchestra 1891
Boston Symphony Orchestra 1891

If you don’t mind classical music your options for triggers grows exponentially. Many of the finest symphonies have strong story elements, meant to invoke a sense of journey or discovery. Others will depict well-known plays or events. I love Mendelssohn’s overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This music never fails to sweep me back to my favorite performance of that play, one I watched it in the dead of night at an open-air theater. You can find instrumental music that helps create any atmosphere you need. The music can be chaotic and foreboding; all the classic Noir films excel in this area. Or the music can be patriotic and adventuresome, John Williams is a master at this form. Romantic soundtracks often rule the day, and some of the best-known tracks feature hauntingly beautiful compositions, like Lara’s Theme from Dr. Zhivago.

  • Use background “noise” to super charge your brain waves:

Although not exactly a brain trigger, what some people call white (or pink) noise, particularly those in high frequencies ranges like nature sounds, help change our brain chemistry. These sounds help us concentrate, improve focus, and they can boost your writing productivity. These sounds also reduce stress and help you sleep better. Stress and sleeplessness can be a huge creativity killer in anyone, not just writers. There is a long and complicated explanation for why these sounds work, the short version is they stabilize and calm your brain waves. Historically many writers have attributed their success to their cats, and since a cat’s purr is at the perfect wavelength, they might be right.

Best of all, nature sounds work for anyone. If you have kids that have trouble falling asleep or can’t seem to sit still long enough to do their homework, incorporating some nature sounds into your household might help everyone live better. Nature sounds such as crashing waves, rushing water or rainstorms can also trigger emotional memories in some people. Moreover, they absolutely help when you’re writing about a specify nature setting, they will trick your brain into seeing the setting with renewed clarity, making writing about the setting easier and more vibrant for the reader. There are a huge number of nature sound options to choose from and I recommend you try a few of them. I can’t stand the ones with whales, dolphins or birds calling, but I love rain and wave sounds. Maybe the Amazonian jungle or crashing waterfalls will be perfect for you.

Using any type of brain trigger is all about personal preference. You must find what works for you. Once you do, you will be able to create a sound cocoon that helps you work better, faster, and with a greater range of emotion.

Up Next From Robin…. Brain Triggers Part III: The Eyes Have It.

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, educator, and historical consultant. She writes mystery fiction, with diverse characters and a touch of snark. She's currently working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook( However, Pinterest ( is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

One thought on “Brain Triggers Part II: Sounds”

  1. Excellent blog! Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
    I’m hoping to start my own website soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you propose starting with a free platform like WordPress
    or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that
    I’m totally confused .. Any recommendations? Thanks a lot!

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