Study sounds: ambient music and the rise of productivity playlists

“Background music” has a bad reputation – but the right kind of noise can improve cognition, increase focus, and block out distraction… by Dr David Richardson (with headphones in)


Several years of postgraduate research study revealed a lot of things to me about myself, but one of them remains pervasive in regard to how I work – I hate noise when I’m trying to concentrate. Or rather, I hate noise that I can’t control – the coughs and sneezes that do the rounds during autumn and winter, background chatter, mobile phones going off…

Because of this, I ended up as one of the countless people you’ll find in the library with headphones seemingly welded to their ears while they study, drowning out any background noise and allowing them to focus on study. And more often than not, it was a particular type of music being played through my headphones that could clear the mind and not be a distraction in itself. As the New Yorker put it in an article about ambient music in 2014: “with… the rise of earbuds, MP3s, and the mobile, around-the-clock work cycle, music is now used, more often than not, as background music.”

That said, the label “background music” has a reputation for being bland, insipid and uninspiring. It conjures up images of cheap “relaxation mood” CDs, the tackier extremes of new age philosophy, and the dreaded Muzak, the ubiquitous variant of background music leased for use in office elevators and shopping centres. Plus, music for relaxation or concentration seems like a trite and unhip concept, as listening to music has always been about being lost in the moment, or being lifted or transported… should music be something that should so easily be dismissed and pushed into the background?

However, the concept of using background music for function or atmosphere is far from new. The minimalist French composer Erik Satie coined the term “furniture music” for some of his compositions, music specifically designed to blend into the background and “mingle with the sound of the knives and forks at dinner ” rather than being expressive. Brian Eno revived this concept with his ambient works made in the mid-1970s, theorising that ambient music “must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” And increasingly, studies are showing that this kind of background ambience can improve cognition and be beneficial to productivity.

This kind of ambient, minimalist music became the soundtrack to all my work over the course of several years – whether it was delicate solo piano, or elongated synthesiser drones that swell and fade into each other, or the quieter end of the spectrum of techno with a persistent rhythm that provides clarity and stimulation. Usually these would be without vocals, which I would sometimes find a bit obtrusive or distracting, and would be repetitive in nature without being boring – ignorable, but interesting. Increasingly, the idea of having particular “study music” is becoming more commonplace with the likes of Spotify publishing curated playlists for this very purpose – “Music for concentration” to “declutter your mind and let the creativity flow,” and “electronic concentration” and “deep focus” to allow you to “get centred and stay focused” and remain in the zone. After all, I have running and exercise playlists full of dynamic fast-paced tracks to motivate and push forward – why not study ones, to clear the mind and harness attention to the task in hand?

For those who find studying to music a bit too distracting, or who just prefer a gentle hum of background noise while studying in the library or at home, a number of different “ambient noise” sites have also sprung up to help eliminate distractions and improve productivity. Sites like Noisli, Soundrown, Coffitivity and Rainy Café allow you to fade in and out the natural sounds of rain, birds, forests and waves, or the backgrounds noises of coffee shops or trains on the tracks. More ignorable than interesting, but useful for when you need to delve into something complex that requires deep focus, and also for when you need to switch off when your brain is fried from too many hours of writing. One of my favourites to have on in the background, albeit one of the more bizarre ones, is a combination of minimalist music and background sounds –, which overlays ambient music with police radio feeds to create a (usually) relaxing background chatter familiar to anyone who’s ever fallen asleep to the coded murmuring of the shipping forecast.

This kind of aural palate cleansing, eliminating all distractions and anxieties, goes hand-in-hand with Warwick’s Study Happy programme which focuses on the increase of meditation,  and mindfulness and focusing on the present moment. So, let us know which playlists or apps you have found most useful to study to by tweeting us at @warwicklibrary

Don’t forget to share this post! #studyblog

Image: phone-phones-headphone-headset-2056487 / Goumbik / CC0 1.0

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