Unexpected notes in my ears spark serendipitous ideas.
Do you listen to music while you work? I love music so much that I usually work best in silence because otherwise I get distracted, my mind sucked into the sonic soundscape. To clarify, music is fine if I’m developing artwork and instrumental music is sometimes inspiring when I’m writing but for conceptual thinking, I find silence is best, with one exception - jazz thinking.
What I call jazz thinking is a state of mental flow where a stream of consciousness is influenced by the mood and contrasts in a song inspiring new ideas. If like, me you find music evocative, you can immerse yourself in sound while thinking about a problem and feel your neurons bouncing around and your thoughts dance into unusual territory. I think it might be a function of synaesthesia, defined by Wikipedia as: “a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway”.
If you would like to try jazz thinking, here is some advice based on personal experience. First, study the problem and produce initial ideas - get the spontaneous and obvious stuff out of your head. Wait until you’ve hit a conceptual dry spell to turn on the music. Avoid tunes you know, it is vital to be surprised by the music. Listening to music you know and love is very pleasant but you always anticipate what will happen next, to foster new ideas it is far better to expose yourself to unfamiliar music. Seek out not just new songs but also different styles. Change the style from song to song - play a random reggae tune, classical fugue followed by an ambient track - all the while thinking about the problem and following the updraft of the sounds. When you find an interesting association don’t try to develop the idea. Write it down for later and keep exploring, keep changing the music.
Jazz thinking is a fun way to get out of a rut. Even when it doesn’t produce a winning idea it can help you discover beautiful music. Yesterday I was inspired by ‘Boom! Italian Jazz Soundtracks at Their Finest 1959-1969’. Those songs have been inspiring people since before I was born. Maybe they’ll inspire you too one day.