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.
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