Music to Read and Write By

I usually can’t read while music is playing; the exception is if we’re on a long car journey – my husband needs to have peppy music playing to keep alert while he’s driving, so I have to find a Kindle book or two that I can zone out with. In day-to-day life, though, I tend to read in silence. If I find myself a little dozy and want to stay awake to get more pages read or edited, my music choices tend to be wordless: a classical compilation, or some instrumental folk. However, here’s another exception: I can read and work very well to Sigur Rós, an Icelandic indie/post-rock group who sing in Icelandic and/or Hopelandic, their invented language. For some reason Jónsi’s ethereal falsetto just washes over me and I can turn off the part of my brain that tries desperately to make English sense out of the words.

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Writing is another matter. Unless I urgently need to concentrate – for instance, if I’m writing my first article for a new venue and feeling daunted and inadequate (cough, LARB, cough) – I almost always have music playing. I often turn to albums I know very well: they provide good cheer but aren’t distracting, so make for good background music. My most played tracks of all are from three playlists I made for my sister around the time of her husband’s death. I chose songs that would be meaningful and even uplifting without being in any way sappy. Examples: “The Drugs Don’t Work” (The Verve), “The Heart of Life” (John Mayer), “P.S. You Rock My World” (Eels) and “All Possibilities” (Badly Drawn Boy).

I recently discovered the play count feature on Windows Media Player and had great fun going through and seeing which individual songs and whole albums I’d played the most in the couple of years I’ve used my secondhand laptop. In some cases I was surprised, but most of these artists I could have predicted:

My 17 Most Played Albums:

Fading West, Switchfoot (32 plays)

Flat Earth Diary, Krista Detor (30 plays)

Memory Man, Aqualung (30 plays)

The Take-off and Landing of Everything, Elbow (25 plays)

You Knows It, Folk On (25 plays)

One Wild Life: Soul, Gungor (25 plays)

Barely, Krista Detor (24 plays)

Collapsible Lung, Relient K (24 plays)

Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens (23 plays)

Sparks, Imogen Heap (20 plays)

Havoc and Bright Lights, Alanis Morissette (17 plays)

Chocolate Paper Suites, Krista Detor (16 plays)

With Love, Rosie Thomas (16 plays)

Ghost Stories, Coldplay (15 plays)

Born and Raised, John Mayer (15 plays)

The Impersonator, Marc Martel (15 plays)

This Earthly Spell, Karine Polwart (15 plays)

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Of course, this mostly just tells you my listening tastes. But I’d like to think these artists hit a good balance of upbeat and mellow, catchy and contemplative. Or just plain daft, in the case of comedy folk trio Folk On. If I’m feeling particularly nostalgic, my inclination might be to play albums that defined the late 1990s or early 2000s for me, from artists like Matchbox 20, Snow Patrol, Coldplay, Sting and The Verve. (Not represented on this list, but I feel like I play them all the time: Bell X1, The Bookshop Band, Duke Special, and The Shins.)


Can you read or write to music? What are some of your favorite albums to work by?


We’re moving on Monday and may be without home Internet access for a week, so I’ll be scheduling a few posts ahead in case I can’t devote much time to blogging.

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17 thoughts on “Music to Read and Write By

  1. It’s a privilege to learn your tastes. I can cook by upbeat, lively music. But reading non-fiction requires soft instrumental. Fiction I can handle with quiet contemporary Christian music. I enjoy classical and Yannni at times. I almost always write in silence. I read back what I wrote to hear how it sounds.

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    1. I didn’t think to differentiate between fiction and nonfiction. I think I’m more likely to be able to cope with music with lyrics while reading nonfiction, whereas words could get in the way of me engaging with a fictional story.

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  2. I can read to anything so usually it’s just whatever I’m binging on at the moment, the last three artists being Tom Waits, Pink Floyd and Vivaldi (I’ve never listened to the Four Seasons before, but it’s amazing; best season is Winter). It just settles into the background like a warm blanket.

    Writing is another matter, if it’s anything of depth or length. I don’t take to it easily and get distracted at the drop of a hat. Gotta have silence or it’s just not going to happen.

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    1. Here’s his poem for Winter:

      Allegro non molto
      Shivering, frozen mid the frosty snow in biting, stinging winds;
      running to and fro to stamp one’s icy feet, teeth chattering in the bitter chill.

      Largo
      To rest contentedly beside the hearth, while those outside are drenched by pouring rain.

      Allegro
      We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously, for fear of tripping and falling.
      Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground and, rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks up.
      We feel the chill north winds coarse through the home despite the locked and bolted doors…
      this is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights

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    2. Thanks for commenting, William. Sounds like you’re the opposite of me and need the silence for writing rather than reading. I’m not sure I’ve ever listened to that Vivaldi all the way through. I literally own just two classical CDs, a Beethoven collection and a Mozart collection. I’d like to own more: Chopin, Liszt, and so on.

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  3. No way can I read and listen to music. My brain can’t divide itself like that. But I can write and have music playing at the same time though often I realise I haven’t actually heard the music – its just there i the background. Classic tracks work best though I like some of the jazz divas too. I then put on some samba music because that is guaranteed to get me up of the chair and jigging for a bit so very good for the posture!

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  4. Excellent choices! I tend to wonder off in a book while listening to progressive rock like Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, Sigur Ros, and others like these.

    I also find myself listening to my Bon Iver, The National, Sufjan Stevens, and Midlake albums when I write or read…more of a folk edge. It’s funny how we all have differing habits. Great post!

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  5. I find Sigur Rós so relaxing! I think, like Air (or any lyric classical free), they are one of the few artists I could listen to and read. Otherwise, I get distracted by the lyrics and daydream.

    I love the sound of your writing playlist, I find electronic (again lyric free) music suits me best when I write my blog. I’m so easily distracted.

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