Tag Archives: Aphex Twin

Sounding out the best music to work to

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

Blame the iPod. The ubiquity of that little device in the mid-2000s changed the working lives of many of my generation.

That, and the noisy open-plan offices we worked in. Steve Jobs’ little white box provided a perfect way to drown out background noise, focus on the task at hand, increase focus and productivity.

Didn’t it?

Perhaps it did, for some. As a working journalist in those years, listening to music wasn’t an option. The time you spent after phoning and meeting contacts was used to write, usually against a deadline. Fidgeting for the new Coldplay song five minutes before your copy was due was not advisable.

Outside the office it was different matter. At home I’d write and read to a constant soundtrack, and still do. Over the years I found some recordings worked better than others when it came to cognitive function.

For months I read at night to Aphex Twin’s “Selected Ambient Works Volume II”. But when I tried to do the same with John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” it was a no-go. I’d barely last five minutes. Beethoven’s sonatas? No problem. Bob Dylan? Not a chance.

After years of hit-and-miss listening I recently investigated what works and what doesn’t.

With the help of a couple of articles, from Inc and Time, I’ve narrowed it down – for myself at least.

Here’s the secret:

  • Listen to music without lyrics (no Dylan, more Beethoven)
  • Don’t listen to new music
  • Don’t listen if you’re trying to learn something new (the line between this and reading for pleasure is blurred, I find)
  • If you’re learning something new, listen before you start
  • If the task at hand is repetitive, listen to music (even if you’re a surgeon)
  • If there’s a lot of background noise, music you’re familiar with will calm your brain, improving focus

A case in point: as I write this I am listening to Caribou’s album Swim. It’s a recording I know pretty well, with songs whose lyrics are simple, few and repetitive. Hearing the music raises my levels of feel-good neurotransmitters (dopamine and serotonin), which relaxes me and helps me focus. My thought process is smooth and my output is consistent.

As a test I’ve now switched it out for one of my favorite non-cognitive tracks, music I use during workouts but not elsewhere – Slayer’s Raining Blood. My foot’s tapping but my concentration’s shot.

My perfect music while working is somewhere between these two poles – Brian Eno’s Discreet Music or Dustin O’Halloran’s Lumiere are two albums that spring to mind.

Of course there’s a simpler way to improve your working focus, your reading and your writing: work in complete silence and listen to nothing. Modern life renders the first impossible and, frankly, where’s the fun in the second?

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Listening between the lines – books and music

Reading at Big Sur, 2011 Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Reading at Big Sur, 2011
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words

So said Victor Hugo, whose 1,400-page tomes suggest he might have had an easier career as a songwriter than a novelist.

But are the two forms mutually exclusive? Or, to look at it from the perspective of the sofa, what’s the best music to read to?

None? Something unobtrusive? A solo piano recording or an ambient soundscape? Or something louder or noisier, a barrier to block the outside world?

The thought occurred to me as I read an article this week which – very specifically – paired books with albums (The Pet Shop Boys and Stephen King’s It being one of odder suggestions).

Over the years I’ve seesawed on the issue. While certain reading environments demand music (a packed-to-capacity long-haul flight, for example), others benefit from silence. Blasting Aphex Twin while reading in a pacific yurt in Big Sur a few years back, for instance, would have been a no-no.

Certain books still bring to mind certain albums of course. When I worked newsroom night shifts in the early 2000s I’d return home at 4 or 5am to pick up Don DeLillo’s weighty Underworld; Sigur Ros’ Ágætis byrjun was the soundtrack of the few weeks it took me to dig through it.

Likewise, Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II provided the soundtrack to Michael Smith’s account of Tom Crean’s famed trans-Antartic journey.

The scientific jury’s out on whether either of these albums helped or hindered my comprehension of nuclear dread or icy heroism. It appears that lower-information load music aids cognitive tasks, while recordings with more going on – particularly those with lyrics – hinder them.

This may explain why I find Brian Eno a better reading companion than, for example, Sonny Rollins. That said, I can read anytime to Bach’s Cello Suites – which are hardly low-information compositions.

In recent years, perhaps due to daily digital overload, I’ve cut music accompaniment altogether. Now I read to the sound of the refrigerator, kids playing outside or low-flying aircraft.

That said, the research above has found that listening to music before you read can increase cognitive processing.

Mind you, this also risks a tumble down a streaming site wormhole, as you waste hours compiling exhaustive lists of John Lewis ad soundtracks or 1964-66 Bob Dylan covers (email me for that playlist).

Perhaps music and reading don’t mix after all. If Victor Hugo had Spotify would he have churned out Les Misérables?

Don DeLillo/Sigur Ros Pics: Thousand Robots/Jose Goulao

Don DeLillo/Sigur Ros
Pics: Thousand Robots/Jose Goulao

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The right notes – music to read by

FullSizeRender (1)Back in the early 2000s I worked a night shift job. Each morning I’d return to the house I shared with three others at 4 or 5am, and read for a hour in bed before turning in.

I’d always believed that reading, like sleeping or writing, was best done in silence. But there’s silence and then there’s 4am silence. The coastal suburb I lived in was pin-drop quiet.

And so I picked up a new habit – I’d play music as I read. The only condition was that the music had to be quiet – not solely in terms of volume but also by way of sound.

I spent most of those early mornings listening to Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Volume II. The slow surges, whale-call noises, absence of percussion – all served to fill the lingering silence of an early summer morning in Clontarf.

The music also helped me, it seemed, focus on what I was reading. The subject matter might have differed (two of the books I read at that time were Crime And Punishment and a popular biography of Irish Arctic explorer Tom Crean) but the effect of music was the same. Like the ambient hum of one’s body heard in a sound-proofed room the music lingered, just out of feeling but present, while I read.

Brian Eno. Detail from 'Music For Films' sleeve

Brian Eno

The use of music as an aid to reading is a well-covered topic. This week I was brought back to my pre-dawn reading sessions when I encountered a post by Sam Jordison on the Guardian’s Books blog. Much of the article concerned how we can battle ‘aural sludge’ – distracting and loud daily noises -when reading.

I find it difficult, if not impossible, to deep read amidst loud noise – even custom-made soundtracks are unlikely to help me.

But the article led to me to ask: what other music worked like Selected Ambient Works, Volume II did, as a reading aid?

In the 12 years since those night shift days I’ve encountered only a few: a Naxos collection of Chopin’s piano works, Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks and, perhaps, Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way.

The ‘x’ factor in each of these recordings is hard to pin down. Perhaps the tidal feel of the music in each set of recordings is the key; or perhaps the absence or mere suggestion of a beat which, when present, is no faster than my resting heart rate.

Whatever their key is they all work to break ground, coming through silence to open my ear and eye and mind to absorb the words.

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