Sounds and music to put you in the mood (for work)
How to profitably plug your audio channels to quiet the mental noise
Anyone who works with their minds and hands has a preference for background sounds, or a lack thereof. Some of us crave absolute silence so we can concentrate fully on our work. Other people can work in a noisy office with construction equipment banging away in the background and feel perfectly at home. I believe that many of us prefer a controlled sound experience - attuned to our preferences - to help us work.
The late psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi studied individuals for years and came up with the concept of flow 1 as an ideal mental work state. Flow is an experience of total immersion in one’s activities, when time seems to stop and you take a certain amount of pleasure in that mental state. Achieving that state is extremely dependent upon your own skill levels and the type of work you’re doing vs. what’s happening in the background. Simply put, the work has to be interesting and challenging enough to fully engage your attention and enter that flow state.
I’m not suggesting that the right background sounds will automatically put a person into a flow state. I’m focusing mainly on creating the environment and mindset to feel (and hopefully be) productive. The right sounds and music can create the feelings and a positive state of mind to carry out your work but cleaning your bathroom is not the same as writing a PhD dissertation. Or so I assume, having only done the former!
There are three types of sounds and music that I’ll write about in this post and I’ll share examples that help me get into a mental working groove.
Ambient sounds - water and fire
I find the sound of running water very soothing and it helps me block out distractions. Waterfalls or running rivers are one good source, rainfall is another. Rainfall mixed with thunder works well, too, as well as some wind. Usually I just search YouTube for these sound clips, it’s pretty easy to find 3 - 4 hour videos which are dominated by these sounds.
Burning logs in fireplaces or in campfires are pretty swell, too, but water works better for me.
On a side note, there are also long videos which take the sounds of spaceships from various SF movies and TV series (yes, I know there’s no sound in space, you smart H.A.T.T.E.R.2) and play them on endless loops, too. I’ve tried these but they don’t work as well for me.
Instrumental music from movie soundtracks or classical music albums work help put me into the right work mood, too. There’s a pretty wide variety of options available: the main idea is music without words. Some pieces that I’ve enjoyed:
Film Noir compilation (iTunes) - note, I can’t seem to find this one online now - there’s a wide variety of movie themes available on this one, some of these are my favorite songs to work to. The pace of these songs varies and I don’t care for some of them as working music: the theme to Bullitt is one example, is too fast and bouncy.
Some of my favorites from this one, though, include themes to Memento, Blood Simple and Blade Runner (note: I’m not sure but I think the songs on this compilation were partially rearranged and re-recorded by other artists because they don’t quite match the original soundtrack versions I’ve listed).
Memento’s theme is one of my favorites to work to although it’s only about 6 minutes long. I’ve tried to listen to the entire soundtrack but the dialogue samples from the movie are too distracting.
I’ve enjoyed listening to some Bach and Mozart compilations… I’d like to try The Rites of Spring again but I think some of it’s too dynamic to help me stay focused. I’m going to try A Love Supreme, I think I could probably get into that one more easily. On the flip side, Neil Young’s soundtrack to Dead Man is pretty jarring (full of distorted guitars) but it works for me.
I’d particularly like to recognize Adagio in G minor by Albinoni, arranged by Giazotto as a lovely piece to work to, I just wish it was 10 times longer!
Music with (at least some) words
The field of viable music narrows considerably in this category because lyrics are quite distracting when they are in the front of a music mix. I prefer to write or work to songs with a relentless rhythm and bass track, often in a minor key, where the singing is there but it’s overpowered by the rest of the songs so it’s just like another instrument in the mix. There’s no rap, hip hop or other beat oriented music here.
Some of these choices may surprise you, though.
Surprise! But it’s their slower and more relentless songs are what work for me. I can hit a mental groove with the following songs:
Master of Puppets: The Thing That Should Not Be, Welcome Home (Sanitarium), Orion
The “Black Album”: Sad But True
Superunknown and Down On the Upside are their two albums that I can work to. They are more energetic in places than I’d normally like but I’ve listened to them enough that they still work for me. Badmotorfinger is a great album but not something I could work to (with the exception of Outshined).
Much of the Meddle album works for me. I haven’t listened to Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here for many years but I think they’d work, too.
The Trinity Session makes for modest ambient music that’s great for working to.
Physical Graffiti has the right working vibe, especially Kashmir, The Rover, Custard Pie and In My Time of Dying.
Garbage - My Lover’s Box
The Smiths - How Soon is Now
The Cult - various cuts from the Love Album
Pulp Fiction soundtrack - various cuts
Hopefully you get the idea!
Over to you: do certain ambient sounds or music help you do better mental work? Or do you just need some peace and quiet, darn it! Share your thoughts, H.A.T.T.E.R.s! Please let us all know in the Comments section!
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Csíkszentmihályi’s book about Flow is a great read, well worth your time.
H.A.T.T.E.R. = How About This Terribly Enthusiastic Reader