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?
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?