I’ve always loved having music playing while I’m working, finding the right music to be an aid to concentration and focus. Unfortunately, I’m picky about music selection and sound quality, and I end up fiddling with the volume and selecting the proper tracks. Some albums are helpful when working, others can be distracting, and babysitting the stereo system is generally more trouble than it’s worth.
Also, where do I listen? The wonderful-sounding speakers in my office? Laptop speakers in the dining room? Headphones aren’t an option; cabling running down my neck constantly distracts me.
I recently got AirTunes up and running, eliminating two obstacles. Listening to music while working is now amazingly straightforward—the data is streamed to the “satellite” router next to the stereo, which is plugged into the amplifier. I can listen to my music library over the Celestion speakers I bought in the early eighties.
I also have the laptop set up so I can use keystrokes to pause music, skip ahead to the next track, or change the volume. This lets me keep working, eliminating having to get up and fiddle with the stereo.
From a sonic point of view, the stereo is sort of an intermediate in between using laptop speakers and the studio monitors in my office—the former has lousy sound, the latter has sound that’s wonderfully clear and full, but ties me to my desk. My office is not my favorite place to work. (The light is terrible in there, and that’s part of the problem.)
Here are the songs that best fit the mood my last project, keeping me going while I was making notes to the author, redlining text, and fixing typos.
- Devo’s 2010 album Something for Everybody surprised me by being good a good soundtrack. I thought it would distract me much more than it did. The simple structures and lyrics are overlaid with complex production, so the music engaged the parts of my brain not engaged in work.
- Robert Fripp, “The Cathedral Of Tears”, from the Radiophonics album A Blessing Of Tears. There are several of these “Frippertronics” albums, and they’re all excellent background music as they have little in the way of melody, structure, or rhythm.
- Genesis, Live over Europe 2007—if I didn’t know these songs like the back of my mouse hand, this would have been an amazingly distracting disc. Genesis’s music is complex and challenging, except for the later stuff (which I mostly skip past anyway).
- Holst’s, The Planets, London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andre Previn.
- Miles Davis, ’58 Miles Featuring Stella by Starlight
- Mozart’s Requiem, London Symphony Orchestra (Colin Davis conducting)—This is an old favorite, and Mozart’s Coronation Mass in C, The English Concert and Choir, conducted by Trevor Pinnock. A friend’s choir performed this, so I was in the mood to hear it again while working later in the day. The Requiem works with a surprising number of situations. (It’s not just for funerals anymore!)
- My Chemical Romance, Danger Days—This is one I might let run or not, depending on the material at hand. It’s fairly similar to the Devo album I mentioned above, although with more energy and less structure.
- Rush, Snakes & Arrows
- Paul Simon’s recent album So Beautiful or So What. This is growing on me a little bit more with each listen, as did his 2000 disc You’re The One. It serves well as editing music if I ignore the lyrics.
- Simon and Garfunkel’s albums Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme, and Bookends—this is also music I know so well I can let it run in the background without paying attention. Both are beautiful collections of songs, although I still skip through “Voces of Old People” on Bookends.
- Frank Sinatra, “It Was a Very Good Year” —The owner of a cafe that I frequent likes this song; it keeps popping up on his playlists.
- They Might Be Giants, Mink Car, Lincoln and bits of They Got Lost, a disc of out-takes.
- Yes, Yessongs—a classic live album I had as a child. The CD sounds better than the vinyl did, although the beautiful artwork on the jacket is now significantly less impressive.
- The venerable Frank Zappa’s Francesco Zappa—Baroque electronica)—and Guitar—an album of excerpted guitar work from various Zappa tours.
(There was a moment when the guy next door practicing drums actually fit the mood of a particular scene. I also heard some Motown, some rap, some Tom Waits, and some more Sinatra in a cafe—these were quite nice and fit the parts of the book I was on at the times.)
Those of you who write and edit, do you listen to music while working? If so, how?