Studyin’ Tunes

In theory, it’s great to listen to music while reading dry modernist criticism, but it rarely works so well in practice. It’s too easy to get distracted or fall asleep. Premier musicologist Nick Martens applies state-of-the-science research methods to combat this problem, and locates four albums that make studying a breeze.

Most people who blast loud music while studying are deluding themselves. Sadly, the brain does not work better when barraged with threatening information. Does rocking out make studying more enjoyable? Perhaps. More efficient? Unless you’re a psychological anomaly, probably not. There may be a way, though, to have your cake and, err… listen to it, too. But not, like, the band Cake. They’re right out.

The answer is to find study-friendly music. This category can be filled by a surprisingly diverse array of genres. To pin down the best examples from my iTunes library, I ran a simple test with four parameters.

  • I would read the driest book that I’m currently assigned. That happens to be A Biography of the English Language by C.M. Millward. It’s exactly as dense and excruciating as it sounds, and it proved a perfect test subject.
  • I would consider whole albums only. Some people like to make studyable playlists, but I usually find myself throwing a record on repeat for a couple of hours. I would judge the albums based on an set of extraordinarily scientific measurements: How they affected my focus and whether they annoyed me.
  • I would select the best album in my library from each of four promising categories: electronic, classical, post-rock, and everything else.
  • I would consider only albums with very few, if any, vocals. This condition is in place because I remember reading a possibly bogus article on the web a few years back that claimed that familiar lyrics encourage your brain to subconciously sing along with the song. Despite having no evidence to back up this claim, it kind of makes sense, so it stays.
  • “But Nick,” I hear you say, “music and psychology are two subjects with massive variability between different people. Music that helps you focus won’t necessarily have the same effect on another person. This test relies entirely on subjectivity!” Well, that’s an excellent point.

    Electronic

    Richard D. James Album by Aphex Twin
    This category had both the most candidates and the most disappointments. I quickly learned that the sweeping epicness of M83 was disruptive and the steady calmness of the Books was soporific. I needed something less frantic than the Field but more energetic than Brian Eno’s ambient work. And, though it seemed like a fantastic idea at the time, listening to “Around the World” on repeat eventually came to feel like staring into the chaotic abyss of the human psyche. It was weird.

    Boards of Canada appeared, at first, to be my answer, but I slowly realized that the stark contrast between their beat and their melody was jarring my concentration. I thought that I might be overanalyzing the situation until I turned to Aphex Twin’s classic Richard D. James Album and became absorbed in my reading. The music ran through my thoughts at first, but quickly faded and actually facilitated my trudge through the world of phonemes.

    I have a few hypotheses as to why Mr. Twin’s music is such an effective concentration aid. First, the beat pushes the music forward without announcing its presence too strongly. I found that a heavy beat was too noisy and abrupt to completely fade from attention. Second, the music is eclectic. Some tracks, namely “Fingerbib,” are simply perfect. Others, notably “To Cure a Weakling Child” and “Logon Rock Witch,” are actively distracting and annoying. It seems counterintuitive, but having my focus subtly disrupted every 15 minutes actually made reading for long stretches easier.

    Most importantly, though, Aphex Twin’s music has a strangely vitalizing quality to it. It’s difficult to put a finger on, especially after dismissing the Field and Boards of Canada, who should have similar traits, but I simply felt better while listening to Richard D. James. Maybe my spirits were lifted just because the music is so good. I can’t think of any other reason why, given a test outside the usual scope of music, a great album would succeed where good albums failed. These might seem like the arbitrary traits of one record that happens to lend itself to studying, but I found that many of them appeared in my other picks.

    Classical

    String Quartet No. 8 by Dmitri Shostakovich
    Classical music is another obvious source of background music, with many acceptable candidates but few that truly excel. The problem I find with most pre-20th century classical is that it’s too harmonious to encourage alertness. Even the grandest Beethoven symphony oscillates between bombastically distracting and melodically sedative. I had high hopes for Debussy, but I couldn’t find the right mix of energy and unobtrusiveness.

    Granted, those familiar with my pick would certainly not consider it to be unobtrusive. I mean to use “unobtrusive” in the context of the 12-tone, purely dissonant music of the early 20th century. Next to that junk, Shostakovich seems like a shrinking violet. This string quartet works for my studying, I think, for many of the same reasons Aphex Twin was so effective.

    This is an extremely dark piece of music, with heavy undertones of violence. It would probably be frightening if played too loudly, but when turned appropriately low the shrieks and crashes instead become a steady supply of subtle variation that keeps the music lively. While lighter classical pieces tend to have wearying effects, this disturbing quartet is designed to capture emotion and attention. As such, it never grows stale, repetitive, or predicable, and so your mind can’t become complacent.

    However, the piece is also just melodic enough to avoid annoyance. I admit that the startling aspects of some of the heavily percussive sections make this a choice most suited to reading while drowsy, but it rarely fails me in such situations. It’s hard to beat the heavy pounding of violins to snap you back to attention.

    Post-rock

    Young Team by Mogwai
    This is a category that, for the most part, you can’t really go wrong with. It’s almost all instrumental, and most of it hits the sweet spot between sleepy and angry. So, my job is to point out the best of the litter. Young Team gets the pick mostly because of its modesty. If I was reading about morphemes and high-front unrounded vowels on a starship hurtling into the sun, I might feel epic enough to put on Explosions in the Sky, but I’m actually in front of an Ikea desk in the suburbs. If my room was lit only by candles that burned ice-blue, I could listen to Mogwai’s Mr. Beast, but I’ve just got a 60 watt lamp from Target.

    Not that Young Team is boring, it’s just not quite as moody as a lot of post-rock tends to be. This is my go-to study album, probably because of it’s contrast between the eerily calm and the crazily noisy. It doesn’t change so much that it becomes a nuisance, but there’s enough variation that I don’t become listless. The repetition within the album also allows you to get into a groove without being as soul-bending as a looped Daft Punk track. Besides, the record is simply amazing, and any excuse to listen to it is a good one.

    Everything else

    Instrumentals by the Nels Cline Singers
    I included this category specifically to talk about this album. Jazz has never really done it for me, studying or not. I think I’m just not cool enough to really get it. After seeing Nels Cline play with Wilco, though, I had to check out some of his solo work. I grabbed this record from the iTunes store on a whim, and it charmed me completely. Maybe it’s the genius comedy of calling an instrumental band “The Nels Cline Singers,” but the music on this record is effortlessly fun and, of course, very cool.

    It also might be the perfect study record. Melodies are present, but only in a loose sense of the word. Some parts become recognizable after a few listens, but the seemingly patternless manner in which they appear keeps the mind detached from musical analysis. I believe that most of the album was improvised, which translates into an infectious energy that is easily absorbed by the listener. However, the instruments seem almost muted throughout, which prevents the drums from sounding too aggressive and keeps the music in the background.

    The key to the success of this record, though, is its 8th track, “Blood Drawing.” This fifteen-minute song serves as the centerpiece of the recording, containing one incredible melodic section that elevates the entire album. It comes after seven minutes of distorted, structureless noise that acts as a contrasting introduction for the most contructed portion of Instrumentals. The melody is a quick, otherworldly riff that builds over a galloping maraca. It gradually becomes a full-on, noodly rock song completely unlike anything else on the album.

    I enjoy this little section so much because it serves as an automatic thought break. Since it’s so different, you can’t help but pay attention to it. So, as the reading gets you down, you can just sit back and listen to Cline rock out for a few minutes instead of growing restless and jumping on the Internet to “check email.” It’s an excellent facility for the studying music fan, and it makes Instrumentals the unintended king of academia-enhancing albums.

    Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.