I’ve spent a lot of time searching for music to accompany work.
The search began in earnest when I was at university. I was required to produce essays at the end of each term. I was convinced that finding the right music would help me focus on the writing. Looking back, this was really just excellent displacement activity.
I knew that I needed music that is largely instrumental. I find work music with discernible vocals too distracting. Albums that I liked were The Cinematic Orchestra’s Man With A Movie Camera, Bonobo’s Animal Magic and Sasha’s New Emissions of Light and Sound plus the first CD of his Global Underground Ibiza mix.
I listened to these albums to the point that they became ingrained in my mind. They provided a comfortable sound bed to whatever I was trying to do — they created a little world that usually encouraged my typing.
I experimented with other albums but with limited success. Four Tet’s Rounds has tracks like ‘Spirit Fingers’ and ‘Slow Jam’ that are just too distracting. Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85–92 was too varied in tone for me. These are great albums but not for working to.
I tried producing playlists on my laptop, favouring long repetitive techno tracks like those being produced by Radio Slave at the time. But this never really worked because I would end up spending more time fiddling with the playlist than writing my essay.
Towards ambient (via dub techno and pianos)
After university I went to do the law conversion course. This required particularly intense periods of study. Luckily I also came across The Coldest Season by Deepchord. This introduced me to the wider world of dub techno.
The kind of dub techno that works for me fuses together soothing ambient music with a gentle pulsing beat. This creates an immersive but focused sound that isn’t too sleepy. (There are other more intense forms of dub techno, perhaps best stitched together on Deadbeat’s Radio Rothko mix).
The Coldest Season is a great example of good work music. This created a few leads I could follow into this kind of ambient / techno crossover. For instance, Deepchord’s label Echospace has a whole back catalogue to explore (now easily accessible via Bandcamp). I particularly liked the extended tracks by Variant like those on the Vortexual Tape Sessions.
The move towards full ambient was encouraged by listening to bvdub’s White Clouds Drift On And On. I discovered this as Intrusion (a Deepchord moniker) did an entire CD of remixes of it, but I also enjoyed the originals too. This led me into Brock Van Wey’s prolific output that seems to be divided half into ambient and half into dub techno.
Around the same time I also discovered the ambient / modern classic sounds of Eluvium. This was through his piano pieces ‘Radio Ballet’ and ‘Prelude for Time Feelers’. I became interested in piano music after hearing Gonzales’ Overnight on Erol Alkan’s Bugged In mix. I got Gonzales’ Solo Piano album, which led onto Dustin O’Halloran’s Piano Solos. Eluvium came recommended as a result.
Much of Eluvium’s output is grand and ambitious. My favourite piece of work music he’s done is the more restrained Static Nocturne. This is almost an hour of gently evolving ambient white noise.
As I’ve moved from being a student to an employee, using work music has become part of my daily routine. I’ve slowly refined the range of music that is most effective for me. This includes:
- Warmth — Parallel (see also the Essay album too). This is particularly gentle ambient that I’ve enjoyed a lot recently. The Archives label has some good stuff.
- ASC — The Waves. This has an underwater quality to it, which ebbs and flows nicely. The Silent Season catalogue contains lots of other gems, such as great dub techno albums by Segue and Wanderwelle.
- Hotel Neon — Context: This has quite gentle if slightly flat ambient sounds that I find useful on grey days.
- Brian Eno — Reflection: I find this album is the most approachable of Eno’s ambient output. It’s simple and effective. The first time I listened to it I had accidentally set it to repeat. I managed to listen to it four times before noticing. (Interestingly, this is also available as a generative app for £30).
- Shorelights — Summer Cottage Soundscapes. From the Echospace label, this is more of an ambient / field recording crossover that gives quite a nice ‘alive’ feeling to it. Good on sunny days.
- Rod Modell w/ Kevin Hanton — Illuminati Audio Science: Also known as the Deepchord Continuous Flow mix, this is dub techno in its most simple and effective form (in terms of work music). An hour or so of gentle propulsion for when a bit more of a nudge is needed.
- Jónsi & Alex — Riceboy Sleeps: This is particularly happy ambient from one of the members of Sigur Ros. I experimented with Sigur Ros at uni but it’s far too invasive for work. But this gets the balance right and has a nice uplifting effect.
- Eluvium — Shuffle Drones: This is a great experiment from Eluvium which takes a series of 32 second tracks which are designed to be shuffled between endlessly. This is achieved by the first and last seconds of the tracks being the same. This sounds like it should be very flat, but it can create some lovely moments.
- Moby — Long Ambients. Moby made these long ambient tracks available for free a few years ago. They’re solid late night ambient tracks, although perhaps a bit static after several hours of them. I prefer using this for the odd hour or so. For the same reason I find Max Richter’s Sleep not quite what I need. Unsurprisingly, it’s a bit too sleepy.
I’ve also put together some mixes of work music that appear on my Mixcloud, which I still regularly listen to:
- Night Protections: this a straight ambient mix, that takes about an hour to reach the release of a single piano chord.
- Out To Sea: an attempt to repeat the formula Night Projections, but this time with a quietly epic bvdub track at the end.
- Tidal Streams: this is an ambient / dub techno mix, that pays more attention to sticking to a consistent key than a consistent tempo. I think it works. It’s the most popular mix I’ve uploaded.
Something which I toyed with for a while was the various long-streams of white, pink and brown noise that you can find on YouTube. In the end, I found these both weirdly flat and invasive at the same time. The same goes for the channels that exist on YouTube that are dedicated to ‘binaural beats’. These make big claims about the effects of sounds at certain frequencies. I’m not convinced.
Two final things that I also regularly use are:
- Endel — this is an app that uses algorithms to create sounds that are sensitive to the time of day and circadian rhythms. It includes modes like ‘Relax’, ‘Focus’ and ‘Sleep’. Of the three I tend to find that Sleep mode is the most conducive to working well. I like how the modes create endless soundscapes, so there’s no need to think about what to play next. The quality of the music is higher than most similar apps, recalling Eluvium’s Static Nocturne or Brian Eno’s Reflection. This is high praise.
- Ear plugs — I bought some reasonably good ear plugs for gigs. They’re called Isolates by Flare Audio. They turn down external sounds rather than block it out entirely. I’ve found these particularly effective, especially in the office. They are more subtle than headphones, which I think some colleagues think aren’t very professional. They also save the hassle of having to choose some work music, which can take me a little while to judge what my mood requires. They’re good at creating the little world I need to work better, although sometimes it can be a bit too intense having such an internal experience.
Lessons about me
Stepping back from all this, why do I need work music in the first place?
Ultimately, it’s an aid to concentration. It’s about helping me focus and improve the work I’m doing. I have struggled with the levels of concentration required to do my job and the right kind of music has helped tackle this.
As part of this work music provides a signal that focused work is about to start. It forms part of my ritual of getting into work. I’ve noticed that there are exception to this: when particularly urgent work comes in, it’s much easier to focus. There’s no need to signal to myself that work is going to start because I’m already deep into it.
Work music is also about trying to control my work environment, and in particular provide a barrier against distractions. By creating my own little world, I can screen out what might be going on around me.
The choice of music is also an important element. It’s a chance to reflect on how I’m feeling and the task ahead. For instance, if I need some motivation to get on with something, the right kind of music can give me the extra nudge I need. I find music with beats particularly helpful if I need this additional push.
I also accept that work music can be about procrastination. It lets me put off work just that little bit longer and gives me something else to think about. I’m pretty confident that my kind of procrastination is linked to a fear of failing at the task I’m presented with. It can feel overwhelming and impossible. But choosing music is something it’s difficult to fail at — it provides a reassurance when my work might otherwise be pushing me outside my comfort zone. And once I’ve chosen something to listen to, I’ve achieved something so maybe my main task won’t seem that hard after all.
Perhaps the most interesting lesson is that sometimes the best music is no music. I’ve been struck by how well I’ve responded to using ear plugs lately. It cuts out the need to choose any music and provides a more immediate signal that work is starting. They require no batteries and there’s no trailing wires so I’ve found them particularly useful on trains and other public transport where I need some headspace but without the interference of any particular sounds.
I actually find it quite reassuring that I might be arriving at a place where I may not need work music at all. If it’s no longer necessary, perhaps I’m getting to a point where my procrastination and fears of work may be subsiding. We’ll see.
This might also provide an opportunity for me to rethink my relationship with my work music. It’s implicit in the foregoing that I have viewed this music in terms of its usefulness rather than whether I enjoy it. Perhaps now I can listen to this music and appreciate it in its own right, rather than reducing it to a background to the working day. Listening to The Coldest Season for enjoyment there are layers and layers of sounds that reward repeat listens. I’m excited to delve deeper into this library of sounds I’ve amassed to see what gems have been hiding on my hard drive.