What Habit Do Composers Satie, Beethoven, and Bright Sheng Share?

I've been researching composers' creative habits for a month now. What have I found? Among strange habits, frustration, and angst, composers mention one ritual more often than any other. It stands apart for it's simplicity and ubiquity.  Nine out of twenty-five contemporary composers interviewed by Ann McCutchen described this practice. Best of all, it's easy to adopt and work into your own creative process.

One Habit to Rule Them All

He never walked in the streets without a notebook, in which he entered whatever occurred to him at the moment.
— Biographer Anton Schindler on Beethoven
My normal composing process is this: I think about a new piece first while taking walks.
— Bright Sheng
No matter how dark or how cold, I try to get out for a walk every day…Before beginning to write a new piece, I spend a lot of time thinking, reading, looking at art, walking, and sketching.
— John Luther Adams, composing in Alaska

In interviews with journalist Ann McCutchen, the nine living composers who mentioned long walks specifically were: Eric Stokes, John Harbison, John Adams, Claude Baker, Daniel S. Godfrey, Christopher Rouse, Bright Sheng, and John Zorn.

Slate columnist Mason Curry adds to the historic side of this tally. In his recent book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, he mentions six more composers who walked to write: Beethoven, Britten, Feldman, Satie, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler. Award for most devoted walker must go to Erik Satie, who walked 12 miles each day to and from the Parisian cafes that fueled his intellect. Award for most famous walker however, goes to Beethoven, whose daily walks still represent the pastoral ideal. This beloved image has adorned post cards, picture books, and musical paraphernalia for 150 years.

 "Beethoven on his morning walk on the premise of Kahlenberger village."

"Beethoven on his morning walk on the premise of Kahlenberger village."

The Psychology of Long Walks

What drives composers, living and historic, to devote hours of precious composing time to the practice of taking long walks? The benefits, psychology reveals, are clear.

In 2010, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign established a link between long walks and increased cognitive performance. Researches asked sedentary adults to add three 40-minute walks to their week. A control group performed three 40-minute stretch sessions each week.

After one year, fMRI scans showed two crucial changes present only in the walking group. The first is an increased connectivity of the "default mode network" or DMN. This network is active when a person is "least engaged with the outside world". The second change is an increased connectivity in the "fronto-executive network". This network is responsible for complex tasks. Incidentally, you may have read about this research before, as it continues to be rehashed in the media, most recently here.

So composers who take long walks may experience an increase over time in their ability to do complex tasks and daydream. But this study only looked at the acquisition of an ability over time. It doesn't tell us what's happening inside the brain when you take a walk. Wouldn't it be great if we could somehow glimpse the processes of the mind mid-stroll?

This is just the question that Scottish researchers sought to answer when they attached portable EEGs to the scalps of walkers. They only tested walks of 25 minutes, but the effects were already apparent. By taking a walk in a "green space", such as a park or forest, you can decrease brain fatigue. Interestingly, the researches described this as a "meditative" state that "holds our attention while at the same time allowing scope for reflection." This sounds a lot like our last study's increased connectivity of the DMN, the network responsible for minimal engagement with outside stimuli. Introspection.

 Nonsuch Park, captured by Flickr user [Duncan].

Nonsuch Park, captured by Flickr user [Duncan].

Composers are by no means the only ones taking long walks. Arianna Huffington notes that famous minds such as Thomas Jefferson and Ernest Hemingway took advantage of walks. And Mason Curry rounds out his count of historic composer-walkers with philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Kant, Milton, and Wittgenstein.

With all of the mental benefits of walking, would you consider making it a habit? Or do you already use walking to kick start the creative process?

Sources

  • "The Muse that Sings" by Ann McCutchen. Available online. Google for it.
  • "The Life of Beethoven" by Anton Schindler, which is in the public domain, and is available here.
  • Sequenza21's interview with John Luther Adams.
  • Mason Curry's article on composers who took long walks.
  • Study #1
  • Study #2