smoking musician

Do Drugs Make For More Creative Songwriting?

If a songwriter attributes his/her creative abilities at least in part to drugs, it doesn’t make much sense to contradict their opinion. It’s not like you can say, “No, drugs didn’t help you — they hindered you”, if they were in an altered state of mind while penning a hit.

So you can look at the question of how drugs help or hurt purely by asking users of drugs what they think, or you can dig through scientific studies. I suspect that the real answer lies somewhere in between.

There have been lots of studies of the effects of drugs and creativity. Unfortunately, most of those studies are unofficial and unscientific, based more on anecdotes than data. We know that some musicians rarely worked without being under the influence of either alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs: Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, and practically every 60s rock & roller.

In the words of Bob Marley, “When you smoke the herb, it reveals you to yourself.”

But most musicians, when talking about drugs and how they affect their music, rarely make the important distinction between imagination and creativity. And that’s an important distinction to make. We know that it is possible to be imaginative without being creative. And most of the comments musicians make about the effect of drugs on their art apply to their musical imagination, not their sense of creativity, even if they err in their use of the terminology.

Dr. Alice Flaherty is a Harvard researcher in the field of writer’s block. Her research has revealed that alcohol, at least, impairs brain activity, and that would have a negative effect on creativity.

In the words of Dr. Flaherty: “What it does is it lowers your judgment — so that you think what you’re writing is more creative. It reminds me a little of William Stafford, who said that all you have to do to get rid of writer’s block is just lower your standards.”

While scientific studies are fairly clear on the detrimental effects of alcohol on the artistic process, it’s a bit murkier when it comes to the use of marijuana or other drugs.

Leaving aside whatever negative social side effects may come with the use of drugs, can they make you more creative? Will you attain a better control over your musical imagination and sense of creativity? Dr. Flaherty’s research says that it depends on which studies you read, and the contradictory answers stem from the fact that we don’t really have a good way of defining what it means to be creative.

There are studies that show that marijuana use can lead to making connections between seemingly unrelated thoughts, which is an important part of divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is an important part of the creative process because it is based on the notion that there are many possible solutions to a problem, and that’s a key factor in creative thinking.

So the question is: will drugs make you a better songwriter? The likely answer is that it depends on which part of your songwriting process is weaker. If you find it difficult to come up with original thoughts (i.e., to tap into your imagination), some evidence shows that cannabis might help that condition. But the same studies show that your ability to put those fresh thoughts together into something that makes musical sense (i.e., to be more creative) can be impaired by the same drug.

I’ve always thought that if you can’t do something creative in your unaltered state of mind, it’s part of the process to solve that without resorting to drugs. At any rate, it would seem that the benefits of drugs are also the detriments.

Which means that Jim Morrison’s (The Doors) observation is probably still the last word: “Drugs are a bet with your mind.”

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.Songwriting eBook Bundle - Gary Ewer

Gary Ewer“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters.
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  1. Hi Gary,
    I’ve been reading your blog for some time now and I would like to say thank you for all the extremely helpful articles. I wouldn’t consider myself a songwriter but rather someone who makes music as a hobby (with definition of “making music” being somewhat vague here as I just put ideas down in Garageband). I must say I never knew I had a creative musical mind until about 5 years ago when my brother introduced me to weed. From my personal experience of smoking weed the chances of it boosting creativity are 50/50. Sometimes after I stand up after enjoying a spliff an idea will out of nowhere pop into my head. Some of the ideas are great and some of them are not so great (which is about the same as when I’m sober). I think boredom is ultimately the best thing to boost creativity because when I’m by my parents during the holidays there’s absolutely nothing to do (they live in Florida) and I seem to have a surge of musical ideas without being high. The outcome is the same too (half the ideas are good or sometimes even more than half). I’m not too worried about working on my craft and developing the ideas as its just something I do for fun, although if all goes wrong at least I know I have music to fall back on, and your articles will help me (and have already helped me) to understand how to make good music by learning about the theory and the methods of putting ideas together. On a final note, I have a question for you. Is there anyway to copyright a beat? I don’t plan on becoming a performer but I think I could make money by selling my beats to people. I’m just worried that my ideas might be stolen. I love reggae and old school r&b where the foundation of the song is the bassline, therefore i’m worried that the basslines I come up with might be stolen instead of bought. I guess I could avoid that risk by trying to sell my ideas in person rather than on the internet.

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