Reporter's Notebook

The Best Songs to Work To
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A collection from readers of the songs they most enjoy listening to while reading and writing for work (typically sans lyrics).

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Track of the Day: 'Homeless Wanderer' by Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou

A two-parter from reader Kevin Gibbons:

When I am working on websites or doing data-related work, I like electronic music that keeps up my work pace and helps me keep on the anti-distraction blinders. Here’s a good example: “Walking with Elephants” by Ten Walls.

When I’m doing work that requires reading, I love piano music. This album by Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou is perfect for me because of its winding, elegant stumble.“Homeless Wanderer” is a great track if you need one.

The YouTube version embedded above is a mashup of that track and this compilation of snippets from nearly 400 films released in 2013. Watching the mashup isn’t great for getting work done, but it’s a great mental health break for cinephiles like myself.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

A handful of picks from reader Doug:

  • “Midnight” by Caravan Palace. This breaks the rules on vocals a little bit for your series, but I’ve found that the kind of vocals included in this song (more sampled / mixed in than a primary component of the song) can fade in to the background pretty easily when you’ve got it going as background music.
  • “I Slept With Bonhomme At The CBC” by Broken Social Scene [embedded above]. A little older than some of the selections on here, but this is a song that I’ve kept in the rotation pretty constantly since first hearing it.
  • “Gardyn” by Pogo. Some people might think there's a little too much going on in this song, but this is the kind of music that drives me when working ... some nice beats, pretty repetitive on the surface but complex enough on a close listening to keep the procrastination-prone part of my brain occupied.

For a panoply of Pogo songs and entrancing videos to accompany them, go here.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

From Jason in Portland, Oregon:

In regard to the current track-of-the-day prompt, one of my all-time favorite albums to work to is [English duo] Autechre’s 1994 sophomore release, Amber [available in full on YouTube]. Its minimalist-leaning electronic tracks have a hypnotic focusing effect on me. It’s so pronounced that a few songs into the album, I swear I can actually feel my brainwaves changing.

That said, since this series is about individual songs, rather than whole albums, if I had to pick one tune from Amber to put on repeat while I write, I’d probably pick the relatively dreamy, layered “Slip.” It stands out on the album as slightly more memorable than the other tracks, from the first listen, without disrupting the album’s overall effect. It was through “Slip” that I first heard of the band, and thereby found the album.

It’s a good track, but its repeating scratch-like sound was a bit distracting to my ears, so I made an executive decision to go with the second track off Amber, “Montreal.” It tends to melt more into the background while maintaining its energy. Check out both to decide your own preference, and feel free to recommend another favorite song/album for getting work done: hello@.

(Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Reader Doug sends a raft of songs that he loves working to, and I’ve included his first pick here (but I’ll be culling from his long list in the coming weeks). Doug writes:

I’m always on the lookout for new music, but few things make me more excited than coming across a new artist that I've not heard before where I think “oh, damn, this is READING music.” It usually comes in bunches, because if an artist has one great reading song, it’s pretty likely they’ll have others.

Without further ado, a sampling of my favorites (or, if you run out of material ever, any one of these playlists is pretty chock full of stuff that I will throw on in the background when working / reading):

Petit Biscuit might be my favorite recent addition to my “reading / working” playlists. “Sunset Lover” has some light vocals, but no lyrics. Great rhythm, repetitive enough that you don’t need to pay attention too closely to get the general gist, but complex enough that when you do tune in, there’s a variety of layers to unpack to really understand everything involved in the song.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Here’s Lauren:

When I am writing my novel, I love listening to Max Richter—specifically “The Twins (Prague)” on repeat. It’s a short but beautiful piece that always seems to bring out dramatic scenes from within, and onto paper.

Here’s a long playlist on YouTube of Richter’s music that someone put together.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

A relatively obscure pick from reader Christopher:

I love listening at work to the electronic instrumental music of Dosh, a musician based in Minneapolis. His Lost Takes album is my favorite.

Embedded above is the most popular track on YouTube from Lost Takes. Christopher also points to Dosh’s Silver Face album available on Bandcamp. He adds:

Another great office listen is the amazing “Listen to Wikipedia” tool that converts Wikipedia edits to sound. It’s not music, but it’s very pleasing.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

This new series is getting off to a great start with this creative tangent: video game music to work to. Allen K. builds on that previous note:

I will second your reader’s use of classical music from video games. I got started with the descriptively titled, “Epic Legendary Intense Massive Heroic Vengeful Dramatic Music Mix - 1 Hour Long.” But to give you an idea of how vast a library YouTube is of such stuff, check out this playlist.

For a more directed recommendation, I’ve found modern cello to be particularly fruitful (even if not used in a video game), especially by Zoe Keating—e.g. “Sun Will Set” and “Tetrishead”—and in the same vein, Julia Kent’s “Barajas.” Those three are really beautiful cello pieces. Do check them out, even if you don’t spend days researching the epic mixes above.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Reader M.J. has a wonderful find for the new series:

As a PhD researcher, it’s difficult to find the right kind of music to work to. Music with lyrics distracts from reading and typing. Absolute silence is just as distracting as a complete din. I’ve sometimes used one of the white-noise or nature-sounds websites, but they get boring.

After some searching, I’ve found that the classical music used in video games is very helpful. Thanks to sites like Bandcamp, it’s easy to find and buy music from indie games (ones that often aren’t focussed on shooting as many people as possible). My latest find is the composer Austin Wintory, especially the soundtrack to Journey. Highly recommended.

The video game and its music got many plaudits:

Journey won several “game of the year” awards and received several other awards and nominations, including a Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media nomination for the 2013 Grammy Awards. The music, composed by Austin Wintory, dynamically responds to the player’s actions, building a single theme to represent the game's emotional arc throughout the story. Reviewers of the game praised the visual and auditory art as well as the sense of companionship created by playing with a stranger, calling it a moving and emotional experience, and have since listed it as one of the greatest games of all time.

The full soundtrack is available on YouTube, and its most popular track, “Apotheosis,” is embedded above.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Yesterday—in attempt to get a new TotD series going, centered on songs that are great to listen to while working—a reader gave a shoutout to the post-rock band This Will Destroy You. I just checked out their eponymous 2008 album—which you can listen to in full on YouTube—and immediately recognized one of its tracks, “The Mighty Rio Grande,” but I wasn’t sure from where. A quick googling turned up the answer: the 2011 film Moneyball, based on Michael Lewis’s book of the same name chronicling the Oakland A’s efforts to revamp their struggling team based on sabermetrics. I’m listening to the moody atmospheric track as I type and it’s simultaneously soothing without slowing my productivity.

Do you have any recommendations for similar songs—ones with little or no lyrics that are great to have in the background while you’re typing away at work or trying to write something at home? Please drop us a note: Update from a reader, Jack, who mentions a movie that’s been high on my to-see list:

“The Mighty Rio Grande” was also featured in Room, which came out last year and was nominated for Best Picture. It’s in the pivotal scene of the movie and the music fits it perfectly. Such a great scene.

(Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Our social media team runs a Writers group on Facebook, and one of their recent posts, “What’s your favorite music to write to?,” reminded me of an idea I’ve had for another Track of the Day series (to join cinematic songs, transformative covers, weird workout songs, etc): songs to work to.

Personally I can’t listen to music with lyrics; they’re too distracting. But curiously that’s not the case when I lack control over the music, like when I’m working in a coffeeshop and the lyrics over the speakers are melding with the ambient noise. (That mixture of sounds is so comforting that I often work to Coffitivity, an awkwardly named site that provides a variety of ambient tracks from the cafe.)

So what’s your favorite piece of music to work to, either as an individual track or a whole album? Please send us your pick to and describe a little why you like the track or album so much. Benjamin, one of the readers in the Writers groups, sounds off:

I usually write to Radiohead, Sigur Ros, or St. Vincent. Sometimes I throw a little Nick Cave in the mix, but he has a lot of words and an imposing voice so ... not always.

The Austin-based post-rock band Explosions in the Sky is big on my list. When I plugged their album The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place in the Facebook group, Roberta replied:

Love, love Explosions in the Sky. Their music is an experience and it's really inspirational. Check out the band This Will Destroy You if you’re into the post-rock ambient sound.

Ria gets vivid:

Closing my eyes, I listen to Gabriel Faure’s “Pavane” [embedded above] and imagine myself sitting inside an ancient, ruined cathedral, while it’s raining outside. I rest my back on the damp, mossy wall of the cathedral and watch the blurred view of the green valley. I have a blank notebook and a pen. The notebook lies open on my lap. My heart longs to write something. I open my eyes and start writing.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)