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).

Show 4 Newer Notes

Track of the Day: 'Music for Airports' by Brian Eno

Coming off a two-week vacation, traveling through several airports, I especially need our “songs to work to” series to help transition back to office mode. Sarah is the latest reader to lend a hand:

Since I spend a lot of my days reading and deciphering complex scientific papers and work in a noisy office, music is often the only way to get anything done. Like many people, I listen to a lot of classical music to focus, especially the Karajan recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies that I’ve loved since I was little, as well as Bach’s B minor mass and “St. Matthew Passion”—because nothing soothes the soul like Bach (and that opening of the Passion gets me every. single. time.). Josquin Des Prez’s “Ave Maria” and “Missa L’Homme Arme” have also been favourites since I heard them in my first year of music school.

When I stray away from classical, Brian Eno’s Music for Airports [first part embedded above] or Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven are longtime favourites—waves of lovely, lovely sound.

And when I’m doing work that doesn’t require intense focus, like answering emails, it’s Beyoncé of course. I often think of it as a little treat to myself for getting through a complicated math or physics paper. Yes I’m lame.

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

Reader Barbara, who recommended a full playlist of classical music earlier this week, shares a lyrical description for her top choice:

The champion long-running compositions for working, for me, are the J.S. Bach Cello Suites, performed by Mstislav Rostropovich. (These do require a quiet environment or headphones that limit competing noise). The notes push onward inevitably, flowing and cascading, for a couple of hours if I play all six suites.

It’s like going into a large, high-ceilinged room that has minimal furniture, but very rich textures—bookcases with leather-bound volumes, silk oriental rugs, deep-cushioned velvet upholstery, satin pillows, a lacquered chest, taffeta draperies, window seats with brocade cushions, and glazed plaster walls, all in aquamarine, emerald, sapphire, ruby, pearl, and silver tones, with one or two cloisonne tchotchkes, an arrangement of tulips or apple blossom or pussy willows, and a marble fireplace with an enormous mirror above it.

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

For those struggling back to productivity after the long weekend, reader Barbara has several recommendations—starting with the soundtrack to a Washington Post video about Hawaii’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument:

I really liked the music that was used, but the credit was remarkably unhelpful: “Podington Bear.” No track name or album name. Some exploring did not identify the track, but it did inform me that Podington is Chad Crouch, who has a lot of ambient music available online. I listened to the album Springtime more than once—I like the cheerful aspect, and sometimes I work best with a little bounciness to goose me to more productivity. The tracks are short, but “Sidecar” and “Transmogrify” are fun, and “Golden Hour” [embedded above] is lush and relaxing. Several albums are on the Free Music Archive, which was also a new discovery for me.

I listened to “Golden Hour” a few times this morning, and can confirm both bounciness and relaxation. Back to Barbara’s list:

A reader in Nashville, Holly, runs through a handful of picks:

I usually listen to something I’m going to be reviewing, or interviewing about. But when it rains, I listen to Rickie Lee Jones’ Pirates or Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain [full album on YouTube, and its first track is embedded above]. When it needs to go into overdrive, any version—Waylon Jennings’, Emmylou Harris’, Foghat’s—of Rodney Crowell’s “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This,” or the very first Prince album. And when my soul’s on the line, Valerie Carter’s A Stone’s Throw Away: churchy, soulful, undulating and forlorn in phases.

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

A reader writes, “Speaking of video-game music, Geometry Dash is the best, because it is like an energy booster.” If you’re also unfamiliar with Geometry Dash:

It’s a 2013 mobile game and Steam game developed by Sweden-based developer Robert Topala, and published by his own company RobTop Games. It is a rhythm-based running game which currently has 20 levels. Each level features unique background music. Other features of the game include a level editor, map packs, user-created levels, secret coins, and a great variety of icons and game modes, as well as user coins and a secret vault in the latest versions.

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

Three more picks from reader Doug:

  • “Mary’s Song”—Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Pretty sure I picked this one up from the Dish, but a phenomenal instrumental song that tends toward the more relaxing, if that's what you’re craving.
  • “Thing of Gold”—Snarky Puppy [embedded above]. Came across this band via my little brother (who was lucky enough to be featured on TotD back in the early days). I think of them as an evolution of jam bands, a little more classically jazzy maybe but in that same kind of thread: something a little more than classic jazz, but that clearly maintains the connections to the great improvisors / instrumentalists of the past.
  • Linus and Lucy”—Winton Marsalis. Because what sort of monster doesn’t love the Charlie Brown theme played by two of the jazz greats of our time?

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

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.)