group of employees

What do we listen to when we listen to ___________?

Gone (for now) are the days when we could choose to study in a variety of public spaces, amidst the buzz and chatter in a neighbourhood café or the silence of a university library (less the whispers and loud typing). While there is no genuine substitute for the small social interactions that naturally punctuate long periods of work, the right music and sounds can still help to alleviate stress, and studying/working from home can be an opportunity to discover what the right music or sounds are for you whether you're trying to focus or relax, take a coffee break or call it a day.

At the outset, I recognise that many people might, from experience, find it always distracting to listen to music while studying/working. If that's the case for you, I hope you might also reconsider that perhaps this has less to do with the types of music you're listening to, than with certain listening habits that are prone to take your attention away.

Shuffle playlists

Turn on Spotify, pick a genre or mood and you have dozens of well-curated playlists that fit the description. But with each playlist, chances are you're probably listening to most of these songs for the first time, have no idea which ones are coming up next and would find it difficult (even if it's one of your go-to playlists) to name or remember the artist of each song.

This means that each song you're listening to would be a new and unexpected experience, which naturally demands your attention to some degree or another (on a scale of (1) mentally following the melody or lyrics to (10) checking for parallel fifths). But on the flip side, if you aren't terribly distracted by a new song, it's also unlikely to have much of an effect on your mood either, especially compared to songs that you've listened to for many times and naturally associated with certain memories or emotions.

This might also explain why that "smooth jazz" playlist you're listening to for the first time isn't helping you focus or relieve stress as you'd expected, even though each song is as mellow as any music you could find.

The alternative recipe

Instead, try leaving shuffle/mood playlists to your days off, and use them to discover new songs and artists that you like best or find soothing. Find out who these artists are and listen up on their other albums (and perhaps also do the same for a few "similar" artists). Pick a handful of albums that you like best, and play through each one of them a few more times as background music during your breaks or days off without shuffling the songs. Then whenever you feel like some music to relieve stress while studying/working, stick to these same albums and keep the shuffle off. That way you'll register the positive effects of the music on your mood without having to divert your attention to anything new or unexpected. Instead of albums, you could also create your own playlists and try the above approach.

Bottom line is that it'll be worth your time and effort to find out what works best for you personally, make a deliberate choice and take ownership of what you listen to.

Here are some more starting-point suggestions in discovering your own music and sounds.

  1. All that jazz - Smooth or cool jazz with saxophone/trumpet and piano are often what many have in mind, but there are plenty of subgenres and instrument combo variations that are worth exploring to discover what fits you the best. Drums, no drums? Guitar? Marimba? Orchestra?
  2. "Neo-classical" - Not Stravinsky, but the broad range of music that blends classical music or instruments with modern (and often electronic) elements. Try Max Richter, Nils Frahm, or Max Richter again.
  3. Words, no words - If you've ever tried texting and speaking at the same time, and said aloud what you meant to text, you'll realise it might not be the best idea to listen to music with lyrics when you're processing texts during study/work. That said, something upbeat with lyrics can go a long way in getting you through the more "admin" tasks on your to-do list - let your inspiration roam free.
  4. Ambient sounds - Rain, cafe chatter, fireplace crackling and other ambient sounds (or any combination of the above) can help to maintain focus by masking out small but unexpected sounds in your surroundings that might break your concentration (think a sudden pen drop in a quiet library). They can also help to alleviate stress by being associated with certain positive memories or by being a close substitute for the ambience of public/social spaces. Try playing these on their own or as background sounds to your music.
  5. Silence - Despite all the above suggestions, you shouldn't have to feel the urge to play some form of music or sounds whenever you're studying/working. If the music finishes and you're getting on just fine, why not just carry on and play nothing?