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What do you listen to while writing?

March 26, 2008

I’m sure most of you (my readers) are involved or affiliated with science (especially of the Earthly variety) in some shape or form. And many of you probably do quite a bit of writing … scholarly and/or technical writing, that is.

I enjoy listening to music when I’m writing. For me, it has to be without vocals and usually towards a more ambient style. I dislike the term ‘background’ for music because I think music is something to be experienced in its own right, but when I’m trying to focus and get in the ‘zone’ the more the music blends into the background the better.

A monthly music podcast (that I posted about a long time ago) delivers exactly what I’m looking for. It’s called Bending Corners and each month they produce an hour-long set of (usually) instrumental music. Most of it is a nice blend of jazz, electronica, and funk elements. Very interesting music (to me) yet not in your face commanding your attention. Plus, I like that each file is one long set … there’s no monkeying around with playlists and such. When trying to find a writing groove, we all know how the smallest distraction can result in yet another hour of procrastination thinking. At this point, I’ve downloaded over 10 of their sets and can just hit play and have great writing music for several hours.

If the task I’m doing is a bit more mindless (e.g., drafting figures, screwing around with spreadsheets, etc.) then I’ll sometimes choose less ambient music.

Do you listen to anything? Do you like it silent? If you do listen to music, what kind? Anyone have good recommendations?


21 Comments leave one →
  1. March 26, 2008 8:09 am

    Hmm…I’d have to say I lean toward the classical side. Mozart, Nielson, Grieg, Beethoven (lite), Copland… I tend to be easily distracted by vocals, too, unless they’re in another language that I don’t speak (because then I don’t bother trying to listen to what they’re saying). I have one CD from Daniela Mercury, who’s a Brazilian singer, that I really enjoy (although it’s very energetic, and not so great for intense writing sessions).

  2. March 26, 2008 8:26 am

    The soundtrack for “The Fountain” has been a regular staple in my office as I write. It’s a collaboration between Mogwai and Kronos Quartet and it possesses many terrific moods and atmospheres. Also let me recommend John Foxx’s ambient/electronic album “Tinycolourmovies”, for the music and the amazing liner notes. And Steve Tibbetts creates some lovely soundscapes in his work. Good post…

  3. March 26, 2008 8:38 am

    Interesting subject! I lean toward silent when working or writing, but sometimes use “space” music or “new age” music (meditative – Metamusic), or occassionally go towards classical – Scheherezade maybe, sometimes something Baroque (e.g., Bach) – although repetitive can get to me depending on how it’s going. (I will actually use ear plugs, or headphones with light music to block out other people’s music if it’s to loud or metallic.)

  4. March 26, 2008 8:43 am

    Cliff, thanks for the recommendations … I didn’t realize Mogwai was on that soundtrack, I like them.

    Tuff Cookie and Silver Fox … I have yet to really get into classical music. I like it, I’ll sometimes put a radio station on, but I never know what to get. Thanks for the suggestions.

  5. March 26, 2008 9:48 am

    When I have mindless drudgery to do, I like to explore other iTunes libraries on the network – my department has a lot of bluegrass fans, which is great. But most bluegrass music is full of shouty singing with words and stuff, and I can’t work to that.

    I usually work in silence. I do have a playlist full of songs with no compelling lyrics, no attention-grabbing dynamic contrasts, etc. etc., – mostly fiddle music – but it’s not large enough to listen to very often without getting bored.

    Hmm. If I had a few more spare brain cycles I’d offer to organize a “work music” CD swap…

  6. March 26, 2008 10:06 am

    My favorite music to write to is “Koyaanisqatsi.” I am a big fan of the movie, and the Philip Glass score puts me in a super-productive geo-writing trance. It requires headphones, but works every time. I think even the way that it starts slow and builds makes my brain accelerate along with it. I think it works because something about it stops my mind from wandering, doing unproductive things during the workday like reading blogs…..oh crap! Break out the headphones!

  7. March 26, 2008 11:31 am

    Occasionally I can listen to jazz (not “soft”) or latin jazz, but mostly I click on an unnamed satellite radio station and listen to their classical pops or “classics”. I don’t have enough classical on my ipod to warrant its use, though I do occasionally break out the Chopin piano waltzes (an all-time favorite). There’s a wonderful local radio station, but alas, my office has no &*%^$*#@% reception. My work computer keyboard has an easy access mute function, so it really makes streaming music on my computer the best option when I get one of my very frequent phone calls.

  8. March 26, 2008 1:55 pm

    I can’t stream anything off the web at my office … bummer. I used to like listening to an internet radio station called “Groove Salad” at

    Thermochronic … I love that film too … never thought about listening to the soundtrack.

    Maria … when I was in grad school (all of two months ago) we had a nice, eclectic iTunes network of mostly other grad students. I miss that too.

  9. March 26, 2008 3:03 pm

    I’ve got a “grading” mix on my iPod. (That should tell you about what I tend to procrastinate most. My grading:writing ratio is somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000:1, and that’s only if blogging counts as writing.) It’s mostly instrumental mixed-genre stuff. Jerry Douglas’s album “Under the Wire” is one of my favorites on there, and some Chris Thile, and Steve Kimmock, and a variety of Celtic-ish fiddle music.

  10. Bob Patey permalink
    March 26, 2008 3:31 pm

    Thanks to the pointer to Bending Corners. I’m listing to the first download now and it’s perfect for reading or writing. Like most I find brain work and lyrics incompatible. New age or classical has been the standard fare. The soundtrack to The Lord Of The Rings is one of my favorites. A lot of my work is mindless digitizing and for this lyrics are appropriate. I often listen to good science radio programs or independent podcasts just to keep my brain turned on. The BBC has some good stuff; Samwise’s “Sorting Out Science” is great; and of course there’s my local favorite “Quirks and Quarks”. Does anyone know of anything with some good geology programming. I’ve got 10 1:50 000 sheets to do in the next few weeks and my wife does not want to come home to a mind numbed husband.

  11. March 26, 2008 11:50 pm

    Great topic! I (unfortunately) can not have classical music (Mozart, Beethoven, ect…) while I write, but my normal musical flair is also out because of the noise level. I tend to opt for movie soundtracks. The Fountain is a great one, I agree. My favorite motivational music is the Rudy soundtrack (goofy, I know). Others on high rotation on my playlist are the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Star Wars trilogy, Indiana Jones, Lawrence of Arabia, Braveheart, A River Runs Through It, Legends of the Fall….things like that, and I tend to only use the music from calmer movie moments, no war-like music, just to keep the stress level down (its amazing how music can change your blood pressure and speed of typing).

  12. March 27, 2008 6:45 am

    Vespers 1610.

  13. March 27, 2008 10:33 am

    Well, since no one has mentioned what I listen to, I thought I’d chime in. I call it “Rage” music. Anything that gets the blood pumping gets me excited and keeps me writing on task. For example: Rage Against The Machine (hence the catagory Rage…), 311, Marylin Manson, Korn, Flogging Molly, ACDC, Faith No More… I could go on and on because it’s not all “hard core” but most of it is. I find I work best when the music is louder than the vocals in the song or the vocals are completely incomprehensible to me, but the energy keeps me going. But, when I really feel the need to procrastinate even energetic music won’t keep me going. My solution then is to put up a timer (sans music). I have to click it on when I’m writing, and off if I get distracted. I then begin to see how few minutes I’ve been writing compared to my distraction time and that ol’ catholic upbringing kicks in and and the guilt gets me back to writing. It’s a mind trick (a religious mind-trick on an atheist!), but it works for me.

  14. March 27, 2008 11:03 am

    Wow! I like driving to that kind of music sometimes. And I used to study to heavy or loud rock and roll — somehow that changed.

  15. ltj permalink
    March 28, 2008 7:31 am

    I’ve been enjoying writing my dissertation to nine inch nails new album Ghosts. It’s really long and has no vocals. you can check it out for free at too!

  16. jwinget permalink
    March 28, 2008 12:26 pm

    Lately I’ve been loading up Last.FM and putting in “Gershwin” as the starter for the station. This seems to pull from enough different genres that it stays interesting, but nothing too distracting from the task of writing.

    Ambient sort of trip-hop stuff isn’t bad either.

  17. Ekim permalink
    August 13, 2009 11:23 am

    I usually listen to album called “yansımalar”. You can find a playlist at youtube. It is an instrimental music. it is a blend of ney, and modern instriments. Classical music is too slow for me , I’ll get sleepy, and rage is just too much for writing (for me). This is in the middle, and very inspriring.

  18. Doug permalink
    January 20, 2010 10:38 am


    A friend recently introduced me to the Cocteau Twins. Typically, this is not my kind of music at all; however, I find it fantastic to listen to while writing journal articles. The music is subtle and interesting, but not distracting, and the voice of the female lead is amazing and inspirational. My friend started me off with the “Blue Bell Knoll” CD (1988) and I would recommend it as a good starting place as well.

    Nice thread — thanks everyone!


  19. Dan permalink
    February 3, 2010 3:41 pm

    I always go to and put in Bach :D

  20. Christina permalink
    March 12, 2010 12:10 pm

    I found your post when I googled the same question, while writing (procrastinating) a paper. Thanks for all the suggestions! I usually listed to the Whisperings: Solo Piano Radio station on Itunes.

  21. September 26, 2011 8:43 pm

    Music to listen to while writing computer code:

    Try this for pleasure without distraction.

    Gargantua is a set of 24 canons and fugues based on random variations of the Musical Offering by J.S. Bach. The piece is scored for string orchestra, piano and strings, solo piano and solo organ. Each section lasts about an hour for a total performance time of 24 hours.



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