This post comes with a soundtrack.
Different people work in different ways. Some need to read, write and think in silent solitude, while others can be happily productive in a cafe while conversation, music and noise swirls around them. Some will work away while you chat to a colleague in their office; others will ask you to take it elsewhere.
Personally, I’m a bit of a mix. A single clear conversation breaks my concentration but a busy library – or even a cafe – is no issue when multiple conversations blur together and I can’t easily understand what is being said. Without words to cling to, noise slips into the background and soon I don’t hear it at all.
Wherever I am, when I really need to get stuff done I work to music. For example, I’m writing this post to the music featured above.* The only exception to this is when I’m completing a final edit on a piece of writing. Then I seek pristine silence.
In a way my ability to work well with music playing seems odd, even to me. Outside my university life I am also a musician, music fan and occasional DJ. I listen to music daily, explore widely and become passionately involved with the music I love. When I’m in a venue with a band or DJ playing the best I can do is to half listen to the people around me, and I only manage that when someone is speaking to me directly. The majority of my attention is on the music. I have even been known to insist that anything which works well as ‘background music’ is little better than aural wallpaper and should be actively discouraged.
But when I’m reading or writing – for work or pleasure – it’s different somehow. My attention starts on the music until the text grabs, then I hardly hear the music for a while as I become absorbed in my task. Later my attention fades and I emerge from whatever zone of concentration I was in until I am listening to the music again; and after a short period of mental recuperation I re-immerse myself in whatever I’m doing.
This cyclical process lies at the heart of why I find listening to music while working so effective. Without it, when my attention fades momentarily my brain starts darting around for something else to latch on to. It could be Twitter, my emails, online shopping, a sudden urge to wander off and chat to someone, or a pressing need to read the news, reorganise my desk, put on a load of washing and do the dishes. After this sort of distraction I go through a whole new phase of procrastination before starting again, whereas after focusing on music for a few minutes I find I can easily pull myself back to my work.
The result: with a constant sountrack I end up taking short regular ‘music breaks’ at my desk, with longer breaks every 2-3 hours; without, I get distracted every 15-20 minutes and end up losing significant blocks of time to other pursuits.
Music is therefore a key part of my routine, but I can’t work to anything. Over many years of experiments I have developed a few basic rules.
The soundtrack above – by Thom Yorke (Radiohead) and Robert Del Naja (Massive Attack) – provides a lot of clues. It’s instrumental and atmospheric, but with more structure and texture than featureless ambience and much more intelligence than meditation music and other true aural wallpaper. (The only relaxing part of meditation music is when it finally stops.) The electronica playlist I often work to contains over a day’s worth of similar material, from German minimalism to Aphex Twin to Terre Thaemlitz to Italian electro tech house. Other favourite instrumental genres include 1940s-1960s jazz (particularly when reading fiction), a wide variety of orchestral music, and a little Afrobeat here and there. As for vocals, some choral music is good but operatic singing is better, and full operas better still provided the libretto is in a language other than English. (A 2-3 hour opera is also a great time keeper for sessions of work.)
There are some exceptions to the above, but not many. On the whole, the only time I can work effectively to music with English language lyrics is when I’m doing something less language-oriented like searching library resources, assembling and sorting references, editing databases, working with code and technical specifications or creating spreadsheets. Then, anything goes – metal, rock, punk and post-punk, soul, funk, blues, hip-hop, jazz and more – played loud.
Whatever I’m doing, I find I’m nearly always more effective if I do it with music. And when I want to be super effective, as those who follow me on Twitter may know, there is only one solution. When I really need inspiration, whether the task is reading and absorbing a few hundred pages or writing several thousand words in a day, nothing beats Wagner – in particular, Der Ring des Nibelungen (the Ring Cycle) which is sublime, uplifting, atmospheric, German, and 15 hours long.
* Many thanks to Carmi Cronje for the link to the UK Gold soundtrack – one more in a string of great electronica recommendations.