Good, Thoughtful Hosts #303: Inspiration Through Listening To Music with David Serna

In this episode, we’ll chat with architect David Serna about how he plays music — or opts for silence — when he’s looking to groove deeper into his work and set just the right tone.

Episode #303 Transcript | Listen on SoundCloud

Producer 00:00
Today’s special guest:

David Serna 00:03
My name is David Serna. I am an architect at Cushing Terrell. I work a lot with remodels of tire stores with the Les Schwab team recently introduced with Whole Foods, and I’ve just dabbled on a couple other projects, but I’ve been with Cushing Terrell for about two and a half years.

Sarah Steimer 00:21
Awesome. Well, David, thank you for joining us. So tell us what or who inspires you.

David Serna 00:27
So I’m really into music. And so music has been like a creative outlet for me. And whether I, you know, just listening or I learned how to play, I taught myself how to play guitar. I used to be in band in high school. So music has really been a big sort of creative outlet for me growing up and in my professional career as well.

Sarah Steimer 00:52
Welcome to Good, Thoughtful Hosts. I’m Sarah Steimer. And we’re talking about one of my own personal favorite ways to dial into inspiration today, which is listening to music. As I’m sure you can imagine, there is no shortage of research on how listening to music inspires us. Scientists have found for example, that music lowers our stress levels, and it strengthens both our learning and our memory. However, it is worth noting that music doesn’t help our creativity in every single situation. And there are some studies that show it can actually hamper our problem solving abilities depending on what we’re looking for at the time. So, for example, if a person is in that initial stage of creativity, and that involves analyzing a problem, and eliminating any obvious choices or solutions, background music probably is not helpful. And so keep this in mind this piece of research in mind, because David will talk about times when he chooses to turn his music off. But by and large today we’ll be discussing when music is helpful when we do want something playing while we problem solve. And actually many of the points made in this episode are backed by research. And I only discovered that after we had our conversation, you know things like why familiar music feels like having a running partner. And it’s because we know that when something in particular, like a beat or a lyric comes next and we anticipate it, it actually helps to motivate us, or how upbeat songs boost our creativity because positive music is linked to positive thinking. So I won’t say too much more. And let’s go ahead and just get into this episode. So what I’d actually really love to focus on because of course, there are so many different avenues that we can go down when it comes to music and inspiration. But the main thing I want to talk about is actually the listening piece because not everyone is necessarily going to play an instrument but everyone has heard music, you know, if you if you can hear you have heard music. So tell me a little bit about why listening to music seems to inspire you creatively?

David Serna 03:15
Well, it just sort of depends on the on the genre, I guess like, for me, it’s always been listening to sort of familiar music or stuff that I liked in high school or college or sort of that nostalgic feeling really gets me in like a really deep creative focus zone. And so for example, like I can listen to, if I’m trying to focus on on getting some work done, then I’d probably put on some like really intense metal music or something like that. And I don’t really get my I don’t know why it gets my brain flowing. But you know, I just, I can get kind of into it. And it becomes at some point, it’s kind of like a runner’s high, where I just, I’m not even listening, because the music is usually super familiar when I’m working or drawing or doing something trying to generate ideas. And so yeah, I just tried to listen to something kind of familiar. So it’s no longer focusing on the actual thing that I’m listening to, but more on like what it does for me, in my mind.

Sarah Steimer 04:09
Yeah, you know, it’s I’m glad that you brought up listening to music that’s familiar to you already. Because, you know, when I was doing a little bit of research on to why music does inspire us, or sort of sparked something within us, I learned that one of the big things is that sort of structure or that ability to recognize patterns. So as something as simple as already knowing the lyrics to something, for example, like, you know, what comes next, you know, we know that it’s like, we will, we will blank you like, obviously, we’re all sitting there going Rocky, we know we will rock you. And and there’s something about that. It turns out that having that anticipation can be motivating, you know, do you think you’ve felt that where it’s like since you sort of know what’s coming next in a song that it helps to move your brain forward a little bit? Yeah,

David Serna 04:59
I definitely agree. With that, especially when I’m solving a design problem, I just, it kind of makes the beat drop more satisfying. So, you know, I’m like, I got to figure out these restrooms, how to lay them out. And then I’m like, Oh, that was just an incredible idea or something really simple solution or what have you. And then I take a pause, and I celebrate with him from listening to. So that, yes, I totally agree with that.

Sarah Steimer 05:23
That kind of cracks me up. I feel like it’s that, you know, one of the something that feels similar to me is, you know, when there’s always like, those stereotypical scenes, which are true, I will admit, you know, I went to college, where all the girls are getting together before they go out. And the music just keeps getting more like, dance heavy party heavy, everyone’s just like kind of raring to go and like you play that one last song to really kind of get you out the door, get you ready for the party or the bar, whatever it is. But, you know, it’s, I want to go back to that idea of, do you think and, you know, this kind of just occurred to me personally, do you think that knowledge of what comes next, whether it’s, you know, that beats going to drop or, you know, the lyrics that are coming up next? Do you think having that ability to predict something while you’re in the midst of something, perhaps a bit unpredictable, grounds you in some way?

David Serna 06:16
Yeah, I think, you know, there’s times when that silence is actually helpful. But yeah, I think that whenever I’m doing something a little bit more hands on, there’s like a grounding effect. I guess, like you said, when something it’s so familiar that you’ve listened to 1000 times comes on, or, you know, usually what happens to me is I’m like listening to a song. And I’m like, Okay, this one’s not good enough for what I’m about to do. So like, let me find a song that like I can enjoy while I’m doing this activity, or that can ground me while I’m trying to solve whatever design problem or draw or what have you. And so like, I just hit next a bunch of times on shuffle until I get, I’m like, Okay, this one’s good enough, or this one will do. So I definitely think that it grounds me gives me a little bit more focus. And like I said, Sometimes silence is what you need, right? And so I know, like, I’m talking about, you know, how music is a bit creative outlet. But sometimes I, especially if I’m doing like code research, or something that’s a little bit more like studying kind of, then the absence of music is really what can actually help me focus more on what I’m doing.

Sarah Steimer 07:20
That’s interesting. I mean, it sounds to me, like, you know, you can use music as a motivator to help pull you forward. But sometimes you just need to sit in the silence, you need to sit with a blank whiteboard or blank piece of paper and go, Alright, gotta start from scratch, or I’ve got to have the space, at least to be able to do this thing versus, you know, maybe thinking of music as the running partner. Sometimes you just have to take the headphones off and be like, Okay, I can I got this, this is on me like I need, I need the room to think the room to breathe. David, I was hoping you could give us an example of a time that maybe a certain genre, or a certain song kind of helped to motivate you forward or move you forward with something that you’re working on that like, maybe you were stuck in a little bit, or you needed some sort of boost of inspiration, motivation, whatever it is, you know, is there a specific example that comes to mind in your work? Yeah,

David Serna 08:12
I mean, when I’m kind of cranking out deadlines, every year, just about, we get probably four or five projects that I’m directly working on in some capacity or another. And so usually, they stagger or overlap a little bit. And it’s during those times, I usually like try to focus in, you know, I have my headphones on, I work in a basement, since I’m a remote employee, I’d have no one else around me, it’s just me and my work. And the kids are kind of like upstairs with their mom. And so usually I just like kind of walk in. And the genre at that point, can vary, but most of the time, it’s either, you know, I’m trying to get something done really fast. So then I put on like a really upbeat EDM kind of dance track, that’ll kind of walk me in or if I’m, you know, it’s a little more casual, you know, I still have a deadline. But I can be a little more casual about it. I usually listen to that, you know, early 2000s, pop punk, blink 182 type music, and that’ll usually, like motivate me to sort of multitask, finish, like whatever I have. And then you know, if it’s really serious, right, I’m like, Okay, well, I really, really, really need to get this done. Like right now, I usually put on like my metal playlist, and eventually all, all that turns into noise, right? So I’m just, it’s just like having a little bit of energy boost to sort of finish go across the finish line on that.

Sarah Steimer 09:31
It almost sounds and correct me if I’m wrong, but it almost sounds like your choice in music is almost like, where you’re going to sit in the office. Like if music is your coworker. It’s like okay, if I’ve got a knuckle down, I know I’m gonna go into this work room where these people are or you know, if I need some motivation, or if it’s just like, like, blink when you choose sort of like your fun CO or, you know, you can tell some jokes while you’re with them. It’s not super serious, like you’re gonna get stuff done, but, you know, it’s kind of just nice to have out there. But But does it feel like it’s a little bit of like reaching out to the right co workers sometimes?

David Serna 10:05
Yeah, no, I think so I, you know, like I said, I’m a remote employee. So most of the time I work alone. So I guess that is like the way that I sort of connect. And I talked to a lot of people at different times during the day. But yeah, it’s kind of like having that that additional co worker that you know, will sort of be like, Hey, that looks kind of nice. Or maybe you should try this, right. Or sometimes it’s like, Well, hey, man, let’s like you should go into another room and focus. And so that’s, you know, depending on what genre of music I’m listening to, is usually what determines that.

Sarah Steimer 10:34
Do you ever notice, because this is something that so I, you know, I when we talked previously, I mentioned that I also have to have music on pretty much 24/7. Just in general, I actually find it very stressful when I get an Uber and they don’t have music on because I’m like, I don’t know how you’re driving right now like this. It’s a sin. I hate this. But every so often, I’ll actually notice when I don’t have something playing, you know, let’s say if I’m playing music off of my phone, and I stopped to like watch a video on Instagram, let’s say in the music didn’t automatically start playing again. You know, I’ve walked away and spent like, a few minutes without music on and I can feel this sort of lack of happening. It’s almost like my room got all the color got sucked out of it, that sort of thing. Like, have you noticed times when you really needed the music where you haven’t turned it on yet, or something was, there was a reason it got turned off, or whatever it is where you really notice it’s like, oh, I need this.

David Serna 11:28
Yeah, it’s really funny, because we know we have a music is a big part of my life in general. So you know, we have like our kid playlists for our children, but my kids are two and three. And so periodically, they like to have dance parties upstairs while I’m working. And so because my phone is also connected to their speaker, periodically, I’d just be working, listening to something and then the music stops all of a sudden. And it does sort of feel like I’m not noticing it in the moment until it stops, right. So I’m like focus, focus, focus, work, work, work. And then it’s almost like we stopped to take a breath for a second, unintentionally. So then I’m like, oh, what’s going on? Is someone calling me is what’s happening. And so then, you know, I look, I look at what’s going on. And I’m like, oh, okay, well, the kids want to listen to music. So let me just like, I have to, like disconnect from their speaker, and then either start back over sort of feels like a reset a little bit. But yes, I don’t know if it like completely dulls my day. Like, if I’m like, if I see color, and then all of a sudden, it’s great. But it definitely at least accidentally forces me to sort of stop and take a breath for a second. And then maybe that’s when I switch genres. Maybe I just like I’m like, Okay, well, that wasn’t doing it for me. So let’s, you know, do something else.

Sarah Steimer 12:42
I was I had myself on mute but I was cabling throughout all of that because I can imagine what they probably switch the music to you know, going from like maybe like if you’re listening to metal or EDM and suddenly they’re upstairs listening to like, I don’t know, Bluey or something.

David Serna 12:58
They’re really down with the Wiggles right now. So that’s that’s definitely their creative outlet. You know, a lot a lot of follow-along songs, a lot of a lot of nursery rhyme songs. So for sure.

Sarah Steimer 13:08
Which is also funny, because it’s one of those things. I mean, we could get into there’s so much psychology behind listening to music, of course, but you know, the way kids respond to music and how much it helps them learn memory and patterns in this and that everybody in your household is getting helped and inspired by music motivated by music. So my last question for you, David, because and I warned you, when you and I talked previously, we could talk about music all day long, and how looks like the role it plays in our lives. But the last question I really have is kind of taking the helicopter up here. Why is it important to you to have this sort of inspiration within your work life? You know, what, what does inspiration I suppose mean to you?

David Serna 13:46
I did a little bit of research as well on on sort of like work and like listening to music, right? And so it’s really funny because they did like studies on people that they were allowed to use their headphones. And then all of a sudden, they like got that taken away from them. And it was like it caused like a revolt, right? So people were like, not down with that. And then on the flip side, right, so that people that were allowed to listen, music felt like they could be more productive and finish their work. And it was almost like an incentive. It’s kind of weird, as you’d never think that’s something so minimal as just like putting on headphones or whatever would cause such a ruckus within people. But it’s almost like, Hey, I can’t believe you’re taking that away from me, I really need to do this. Otherwise, I’m not going to be productive and you know, productivity, it’s kind of like a little bit subjective. But it sort of feels like at least from my point of view, and it is like an inspiration for me to be able to sort of have that, at least a minimal creative outlet. Also, while I’m listening to music, or the act of listening to music as sort of my small creative outlets because I have a little bit more ownership of what I’m listening to and what I put in my brain and sometimes it can be like I don’t need to be this intense. I just maybe needed to calm so I’ll put on some like very more ambient stuff like Got more worship music, stuff like that. And so in that way, I feel more inspired to be more productive, I guess? Hopefully that answers your question.

Sarah Steimer 15:07
Absolutely. And I mean, there are two things that I just want to underscore for the audience. You mentioned this, this study about headphones being taken away and feeling like, you don’t get to have this like sort of control over the environment, maybe or this thing, it takes music away from being considered, in my opinion, like a treat, or just entertainment, it really makes it part of the space part of the environment part of once again, something you have control over. And then again, like you mentioned, like, yeah, you might not be working on something that would be your first choice. That’s the nature of having a job, right. But at the same time, if you can put on something that is yours, that is what you know, is going to help you forward. I mean, that’s, that’s enormous, right like that, that brings that control that brings that sense of ownership into the space that may be otherwise sketching something out for whatever client potentially wouldn’t. Well, David, this is such a pleasure to talk with you about this, you’re making me think about my own relationship to when I have music on and what sort of music I’m putting on that sort of thing. I understand the need for certain music at certain times. But again, this has been such a pleasure to chat with you about all of this. And if you have any other thoughts on inspiration, speak now. Otherwise, thank you so much for taking the time.

David Serna 16:29
Yeah, no problem. I just hope that everyone has some sort of creative outlet that they can use during their work time, whether whatever it is, whether it be music, or any other sort of side thing that not necessarily occupy the mind, but sort of inspires them to be better designers, better architects, better engineers, whatever. So that’s really the only thing I had to stay.

Sarah Steimer 16:49
Yeah, it’s all about that forward momentum. Right? Of course. And awesome. Well, thank you, David. I really appreciate it.

David Serna 16:52
Yeah, no problem.

Producer 17:03
Music for Good, Thoughtful Hosts was written, produced, and performed by Sam Clapp. Our moderator is Sarah Steimer. Editing by Travis Estvold. And a special thanks to our content development team, Amanda Herzberg and Marni Moore. For more information about the podcast, visit Thanks for listening!

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