Walk Like a Composer

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Beethoven’s daily routine included vigorous walks with a pencil and sheets of music paper. Robert Schumann’s regular walks were punctuated with poetry writing and drawing sketches. Tchaikovsky took two walks per day: a brisk stroll in the morning and a two-hour hike after lunch. Benjamin Britten had company on his walks, during which he talked about music and after which he wrote it down. The list of strolling composers could go on and on. More than just mundane details of famous biographies, these examples give credence to Nietzsche’s overstated but still compelling aphorism: “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”

The link between walking and creativity is apparent across disciplines. Celebrated cases include John Milton, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Immanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud, and Eric Hoffer. Again, the list could stretch on without end. A skeptic might note that walking is a natural human activity: it is something that creative and not-so-creative people share in common. But this is walking of an intentional and recreational kind, not the humdrum mode of moving the body from place to place.

Until now, connections between walking and novel idea generation have come from historical and personal anecdotes. Britten working out a musical passage on a leisurely jaunt has parallel in the average person working out an average problem on a stroll around the neighborhood. Perhaps the benefits are so apparent that scientific confirmation is not needed. Be that as it may, the emerging science provides intriguing confirmation.

A recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology outlines preliminary findings of four walking experiments. “Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking” (a highly technical study with a deceptively inviting title) shows that walking not only increases formation of creative ideas in real-time, but also for a period afterward. Without going into depth here, the experiments, conducted by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz of Stanford University, record thought processes of people in various combinations of seating and walking. Not surprisingly, walking resulted in substantial creative boosts, with outdoor walking producing thought patterns of the highest quality and novelty.

Without jumping to premature conclusions, the authors predict that the walk-thought mechanism “will eventually [be shown to] comprise a complex causal pathway that extends from the physical act of walking to physiological changes to the proximal processes.” This is something we could have learned from Brahms, who was often seen walking around Vienna with hands folded behind his back. He gave this advice to Gustav Jenner, his only formal composition student: “When ideas come to you, go for a walk; then you will discover that the thing you thought was a complete thought was actually only the beginning of one.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

5 thoughts on “Walk Like a Composer

  1. John Morton

    I, too, enjoy walking although I’m not sure about the causal aspects referred to, apart from the fact that any increase in fitness will benefit all aspects of our life. My opinion is that, because music is a temporal idiom and, because we spend so much time refining and focusing on details, walking, because it re-connects us with the broader picture, helps us to step back and take a broader view, especially with long works. Our perception of time is complex. A short period of time that is full of events, especially pleasurable ones, will pass very quickly but seem longer upon reflection. This is an important aspect of composition where a very short piece can be made to appear long. Of course, it’s no coincidence that educational establishments have always placed emphasis on physical activities. They help prevent us from going crazy!

    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      Right you are. I think that walking as a “broadening break” from the tediousness/craziness of the composer’s chair (or other creative perch) is something we intuitively take advantage of. The neuroscience is just now come in, but, like many other studies, it seems to confirm what we already know to be true.

  2. Mike Overly

    Although I, too, enjoy walking, I prefer to do my musical musings while riding my bicycle. I “notate” my musical thoughs with my Olympus VN-5000 Digital Voice Recorder. I think, for me, going faster through space adds a special extra dimension to my novel idea generation . . .

    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      Very cool. I drive about a thousand miles per week for work. I spend some of that time outlining essays (and sometimes writing whole essays) on scraps of paper. My wife does not approve.

  3. Pingback: Walk Like a Composer | creative process or what...

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