Last semester we Koalas wrote a series of posts about our work and study playlists. At the time we had a conversation about listening to instrumental music and how it was particularly helpful for my fellow Koalas when studying to quiet the mind or get the juices flowing or inhibit the jitter juices or…something. Maybe it’s because I fall asleep to the sweet sounds of a James Newton Howard mashup playlist—and have for two years—but the very idea put me right to sleep. I prefer lyrics and beats and catchy music from the radio.
But three quarters of the way through my first semester of grad school, something happened. I’m used to being surrounded by noise, but noise of a particular variety (namely those of children at all decibels). Suddenly, come November, all of the new noises in my life felt like they were culminating in Just. Too. Much. Even the commute I take up to MSU felt way too loud.
Classical music, although awesomesauce, still doesn’t work for me when studying. I needed something that contains drama and sound but without human voices. Recently, I’ve found myself listening to the Hunger Games musical scores (yet again, James Newton Howard saves the day). I like these soundtracks because there are four of them so I get some variety, they are familiar enough that I can tune in and out of particular songs at will, and they can be, when I need them to be, unobtrusive. I am familiar enough with the movies that they keep me engaged in a low stakes kind of way. So while these particular scores might not work for you, I would recommend digging up the musical score of a favorite movie or two and giving them a test drive while studying.
Continuing with my use of Pandora streaming as a way to help one focus during studying, when I’m bored of “classical” (classical to whom? But that’s another story) music (which definitely happens), I move on to different jazz stations I have in my Pandora stations list. I keep to jazz that still falls under the no lyrics category when studying (which is most of the time).
For this post, I want to focus on two specific Pandora jazz stations: Bebop Radio and Cool Jazz Radio. I write about both of these in one post because they are obviously related (although you could argue about where the boundaries of these styles exists). But they serve different purposes as a study aid.
Both stations are great aids in helping me hone in my focus and assist in creating a study/work space. They keep me on task, even if that means listening to a track for a moment while I collect my thoughts. There are two deciding factors that lead me to decide which station to use: current energy level and where I want that energy level to be while studying.
Bebop is great when I’m at a low energy level and need some more up-tempo music to keep me going. Bebop has been especially helpful when I just need to draft pages of an essay or personal work. It really helps me with the generative process—I get lost in drafting/writing with a great Bebop classic in my ear. I’m thinking anything by Dizzy or Horace Silver (when the station melds with Hard Bop). The Bebop Radio station can sometimes be unhelpful when I’m reading, as I’ll start reading (or skimming) too quickly and be more caught up in the tempo. So when I need a more chill energy level while doing some studying, I turn to Cool Jazz.
The Cool Jazz Radio station is very useful when I need to calm down (especially when related to stress) a little to focus. It is a great study aid when reading, as the music makes time feel like it’s moving in song time (not pages, nor minutes); a couple of chill songs pass by and I realize I’ve read 40 something pages or finished a blog post (which is happening as I write this). Paul Desmond’s “A Taste of Honey” is a welcome study companion any time during reading or more relaxed drafting/creating.
It’s interesting to be juxtaposing these styles (Cool and Bebop) in regards to my studying, as they have always been juxtaposed since their post WWII fame (for the same reasons too, tempo and feel). In this microcosm of personal choices influenced by historical tensions, I keep trying to make choices, to study, to create (lol, ending with typical academic theorizing).
Writing is hard. We all have different processes on how we do it. It’s almost impossible for me to write in silence (but maybe you do). In order to begin the process of writing, I like to choose a good playlist. There are tons of free ways we can access music, and personally I like using Spotify. The cartoon above illustrates the importance of finding the right playlist or music station. Likewise, I have to pick the right sound for the kind of writing mood that I’m in.
There are some pitfalls to listening to music while writing. For example, I occasionally chose a station that includes some of my favorite artists. It’s important to avoid these Spotify playlists because it furthers procrastination as I get caught up in the melodies, rather than focusing on writing. I sometimes pick a playlist with a sluggish beat and it negatively affects my writing pace. If I’m trying to make myself excited for a writing assignment, I frequently choose a loud, upbeat Spotify station.
However, what works for me won’t work for everyone. And what works for me today may not work for me tomorrow. Sometimes I need to try out a couple of stations before I find something that’s just right. The space that we place ourselves in is very important, and sound is a vital spatial element. Sound influences us in ways that we may not recognize, but I think that we can all agree that music plays a major role in how we think and feel. I need an enjoyable sonic space so that I can produce a piece of writing that I’m proud of. I consider music a tool to use during the writing process, as it is something that inspires and helps me make meaning.
I first heard this album in a terrarium store in Portland, OR, the kind with overpriced airplants and ephemeral glass ornament-like bulbs meant to hang from the ceiling with no holiday in sight. Probably a one-word store name like “Stone” or “Amour,” though I don’t remember it now. Lovely store, anyhow. Multicolored rocks, feathers, little clay mushrooms and beautiful, vibrating violin coming from the boombox. (Yep, boombox.) I asked the store clerk what the album playing was. “Andrew Bird,” he said, as though I should’ve already known. I didn’t recognize the sharp, vibrating violin as him, since his easily identifiable voice is completely missing from this entire album, beyond a few lyric-less lines of whistling. I usually love lyrics, but for distraction-less writing, this album is absolutely perfect.
When I study, I definitely need music that keeps me on track, and honestly, awake. I am a serial playlist hopper—perhaps it is symptomatic of my incredibly short attention span. My playlists tend to be a mix of recent songs I’ve heard on the radio and some old favorites. I like music with strong, heavy beats or with some sort of majestic upswell (what can I say, I’m a majestic creature). I get tired of things pretty quickly so these things are ever-rotating. Which is why I love being able to follow other people’s playlists on Spotify. Spotify is the bomb!
The classical for studying radio station on Pandora satisfies my musical needs while studying. The station offers all instrumental music, which is important because lyrics distract me. What I like most about the station is that while it includes classics like “Suite for Solo Cello No. 3 in C Major” by Bach, it also includes modern composers, movie scores instrumental versions of pop songs and video game soundtracks. I have learned that I really love the modern composer Rachel Currea (“Announcement of War” is a dope piece). Realizing halfway through the song that I am jamming out to the Skyrim soundtrack is always fun. After using this station for years now, I’ve found that if I put on the station, I am more prone to just work. And even when I zone out or get off task, the music’s presence as “work music” pulls me back in without pulling me into singing along (which can be a distraction).
Overall, the lack of lyrics, chill mix of music, and repetition of my usage of the station have led this station of be a successful study tool/trick for me.
I’m constantly listening to music—in my earbuds on the way to class, from my bluetooth speaker in whatever room of my apartment I’m in, in my friend’s car through an aux cord. That doesn’t stop when I’m writing. I need upbeat music to match the apex of my caffeine intake, as well as a repetitive beat and lyrics so they won’t distract me from all the words I’m trying to grasp onto as they mosh around in my head. Caribou’s Swim (2010) hits the mark.