Music for working

Today1 the office conversation turned to blocking out background noise. (No, the irony is not lost on me.) Like many people I work in a large, open-plan office, and I’m not alone amongst my colleagues in sometimes needing to find a way to boost concentration by blocking out distractions. Not everyone is like this, but I find music does the trick for me. I also find that different types of music are better for different types of work, and I use this to try and manage my energy better.

There are more distractions than auditory noise, and at times I really struggle with visual noise. Rather than have this post turn into a rant about the evils of open-plan offices, I’ll just mention that the scientific evidence doesn’t paint them in a good light2, or at least suggests that the benefits are more limited in scope than is commonly thought3, and move on to what I actually wanted to share: good music for working to.

There are a number of genres that I find useful for working. Generally, these have in common a consistent tempo, a lack of lyrics, and enough variation to prevent boredom without distracting. Familiarity helps my concentration too so I’ll often listen to a restricted set of albums for a while, gradually moving on by dropping one out and bringing in another. In my case this includes:

  • Traditional dance music, generally from northern and western European traditions for me. This music has to be rhythmically consistent to allow social dancing, and while the melodies are typically simple repeated phrases, skilled musicians improvise around that to make something beautiful. I tend to go through phases of listening to particular traditions; I’m currently listening to a lot of French, Belgian and Scandinavian.
  • Computer game soundtracks, which are specifically designed to enhance gameplay without distracting, making them perfect for other activities requiring a similar level of concentration.
  • Chiptunes and other music incorporating it; partly overlapping with the previous category, chiptunes is music made by hacking the audio chips from (usually) old computers and games machines to become an instrument for new music. Because of the nature of the instrument, this will have millisecond-perfect rhythm and again makes for undistracting noise blocking with an extra helping of nostalgia! Purists would disagree with me, but I like artists that combine chiptunes with other instruments and effects to make something more complete-sounding.
  • Retrowave/synthwave/outrun, synth-driven music that’s instantly familiar as the soundtrack to many 90s sci-fi and thriller movies. Atmospheric, almost dreamy, but rhythmic with a driving beat, it’s another genre that fits into the “pleasing but not too surprising” category for me.

So where to find this stuff?

One of the best resources I’ve found is Music for Programming which provides carefully curated playlists of mostly electronic music designed to energise without distracting. They’re so well done that the tracks move seamlessly, one to the next, without ever getting boring.

Spotify is an obvious option, and I do use it quite a lot. However, I’ve started trying to find ways to support artists more directly, and Bandcamp seems to be a good way of doing that. It’s really easy to browse by genre, or discover artists similar to what you’re currently hearing. You can listen for free as long as you don’t mind occasional nags to buy the music you’re hearing, but you can also buy tracks or albums. Music you’ve paid for is downloadable in several open, DRM-free formats for you to keep, and you know that a decent chunk of that cash is going directly to that artist.

I also love noise generators; not exactly music, but a variety of pleasant background noises, some of which nicely obscure typical office noise. I particularly like, which has a cornucopia of different natural and synthetic noises. Each generator comes with a range of sliders allowing you to tweak the composition and frequency range, and will even animate them randomly for you to create a gently shifting soundscape. A much simpler, but still great, option is Noisli with it’s nice clean interface. Both offer apps for iOS and Android.

For bonus points, you can always try combining one or more of the above. Adding in a noise generator allows me to listen to quieter music while still getting good environmental isolation when I need concentration. Another favourite combo is to open both the cafe and rainfall generators from myNoise, made easier by the ability to pop out a mini-player then open up a second generator.

I must be missing stuff though. What other musical genres should I try? What background sounds are nice to work to?

  1. Well, you know. The other day. Whatever. ↩︎

  2. See e.g.: Lee, So Young, and Jay L. Brand. โ€˜Effects of Control over Office Workspace on Perceptions of the Work Environment and Work Outcomesโ€™. Journal of Environmental Psychology 25, no. 3 (1 September 2005): 323โ€“33.↩︎

  3. Open plan offices can actually work under certain conditions, The Conversation ↩︎


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