Music to work to

I listen to music almost constantly through the day, and when I was working on REST I did some reading about music and the brain, and the different kinds of music people work to. It helped me make some sense of the music I listen to through the day, and why certain kinds work and others don’t.

At the most general level, creative people listen to music to drown out other auditory distractions; or to improve their mood, focus, or some other emotion. (If you’re in a boring job, you might listen to music to pass the time, which is a different kind of situation.) The research says that for most people,

  • Instrumental music is less distracting than vocal music, because we have a hard time not paying attention to voices and lyrics (especially problematic if you’re writing).
  • Simpler music is good for when you mainly need to focus and aren’t trying to generate a sense of urgency, or feel upbeat.
  • After that, things get more complicated and idiosyncratic. We all have different musical histories; different kinds of music that we find energizing versus distracting; and different needs through the day.

For example, let me share what I listen to, illustrated by Spotify playlists. I often get up to write between 5 and 5:30, and the purpose of music in the morning is to help me stay in a calm, walking-up-but-not-quite-there state. For that, something like the Yundi Chopin nocturnes is just the thing.

I also like Gould’s recordings of the Bach Goldberg variations (or the Calefax Reed Quintet’s arrangement of the variations), or the Emerson String Quartet’s recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier. I also like the Budapest String Quartet’s late 1930s recordings of the Beethoven String Quartets: I find the old, slightly shaky sound to be very romantic in a black-and-white, Europe-before-the-storm kind of way.

During the day, I usually want something that has more spark to it. When I was writing REST, I listened to a lot of movie soundtracks. Here are two:

and

The thing I find great about movie music is that the good stuff is great, but it’s almost always the case that composers have written music that’s meant to stir and energize, but not distract, viewers: the music is meant to underline and accentuate a scene, not call attention to itself. When I’m writing, this is perfect: I want the emotional charge, and just enough of my attention diverted so my creative mind has more freedom to operate.

Then there are times when I need more of an energy boost. For that, I have another playlist that’s highly idiosyncratic.

What this highlights is that while there are some general rules about what makes for good music to focus to, your own musical history and the associations you have with particular songs also matter. “Regiment,” the Brian Eno/David Byrne collaboration, is from an album I discovered in college; I’v loved Pat Metheny’s work since high school; Rob Dougan’s “Clubbed to Death” and Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up” are from the Matrix soundtrack; Moby’s “Extreme Ways” is used at the end of the Jason Bourne movies, which I love.

I might also listen to Led Zeppelin, again because it’s music that I know really well, and because generally Robert Plant is incomprehensible so the words aren’t so hard to tune out.

So don’t assume that there’s a perfect playlist that works for you, or music that will be guaranteed to put you in a super-productive frame of mind (requiring employees to dance to Pharrell William’s “Happy” will NOT make them more productive). Rather, you should think about what you want to get out of the music (focus, more energy, or whatever); think about what you like; and then experiment. Don’t copy my choices, or anyone else’s. Make your own.

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