The Best Music to Write By, Part II: Your Favorites Brought Together in a Special Playlist

Last Friday, we raised the topic of writing to music, and we asked all of you out there what music you write to, if you write to music at all. The number and variety of your suggestions was a little overwhelming, and very welcome, and provided a wealth of recommendations to put together into a playlist. There was quite a lot of agreement among you and a near-consensus on instrumental music over vocal. But it also came as no surprise that Open Culture readers’ tastes span a range of genres, cultures, and periods and that everyone who wrote in seemed to raise the bar a little higher for drop-dead gorgeous, meditative compositions.

Out of all of your recommendations, I have made a selection of sixteen artists that I believe is representative. (Apologies if your suggestions didn’t make the cut—there’s bound to be some bias here). Whatever your posture and preference for volume levels, lighting arrangements, or time of day or night, you might try on each of these while you tap away at your latest piece of work. Who knows? You could strike a new rhythm, hit an unfamiliar groove and shake out of a too-familiar rut, or shift the tempo just so, change perspective, temper an unruly mood….

Or maybe just find some cool new music to dig while you cook dinner.

Last week’s post began with Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way, which I believe inspired some jazz lovers to comment. Komiska suggested the top-notch Modern Jazz Quartet’s rendition of “Lonely Woman” (above).

Bill Evans’ name also came up quite a bit in your suggestions. Below is his “You Must Believe in Spring.”

Minimalist composer Steve Reich, and other contemporaries of his like Philip Glass, got many a mention. Below is a live performance of the first two sections of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians.

Ambient synthesizer music by the likes of the Scottish duo Boards of Canada, Tangerine Dream, former Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie, and Brian Eno came up quite a bit as well. Commenter Emma Gray Munthe mentioned the work of less famous but very influential electronic composer Jean Michel Jarre. Listen to his groundbreaking album Equinoxe below:

A few of you pointed out that any kind of music serves to distract from your process. Cheeky Michael West said as much and more however with his laconic reference to John Cage’s 4’33″, the ultimate minimalist composition. Below, listen to (or observe, rather) an orchestral interpretation of Cage’s concept:

There were quite a few traditionalists among you. Bach topped the list of composers and among classical musicians, Glenn Gould’s name popped up several times. Take them together in a rendition of Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 4, performed by Gould and violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

The work of modern Estonian composer Arvo Pärt came up quite a bit as well. Below, listen to his 1977 Tabula Rasa.

Commenter Luke wrote that he likes to work to “a blast of noise” and recommended Charles Mingus’s 1963 The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady as an example:

Miko suggests classical Indian ragas of Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. Below is a wonderful recording of Shankar’s sitar work.

Part of the fun of compiling this list is rediscovering old favorites, like Shankar, and also discovering new ones. Enzo recommends the work of Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla, which I immediately fell in love with.  Below is “Spring” from his Seasons:

A number of you mentioned the mostly-instrumental “krautrock” of bands like Neu! and Faust. Listen to a personal favorite of mine, Neu!’s “Hallogallo”:

Without bands like Neu!, there would doubtless be no instrumental “postrock” like that of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Earth. Katja wrote in with a late recommendation for Japanese instrumental rock band MONO.

In darker moods, the droning ambient sound collages of Demdike Stare might suit you. Alban Elfed suggests them to “help saturate the air” with an “occult vibe.”

South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo provides what Paul says is good music for him to write to since it’s in a language he doesn’t understand and thus he “does not have to imagine what’s happening in [the] song’s plot.”

Joan recommends the dub reggae of King Tubby. Take a listen to his “Badness Dub” below.

Last but not least comes Mark Knopfler’s “Privateering,” from Open Culture editor Dan Colman.

Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.



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  1. Kiki says . . . | November 19, 2012 / 9:14 am

    Funny, all of these drive me nuts in a way; I could never write or draw/paint while listening to these. They are too intense; my creative mind follows their sounds and notes and I can’t concentrate. I’d hoped to finally find some music to write by, but I guess plain ol’ silence just works best for me.

  2. Joel Allyn (@Th3Scribbl3r) says . . . | November 19, 2012 / 9:24 am

    I am way behind on my NaNoWriMo word count and have today off, so will be dedicating the entire day to writing. Thank you for solving one of the biggest problems I have…what to write to. This site is a daily pleasant surprise and one of the few in my google reader I make sure to peruse each morning.

  3. StuartW says . . . | November 19, 2012 / 9:45 am

    Here’s a playlist I made which I listen to when I need to get stuff done, in case it’s of use to anyone. Mostly lyric-free:

    http://grooveshark.com/playlist/Work/54333969

  4. wm goldstein says . . . | November 20, 2012 / 7:50 pm

    Carmina Burana!

  5. Jonas says . . . | November 25, 2012 / 5:57 pm

    Hmm it appears like your site ate my first comment (it was extremely long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I wrote and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying
    your blog. I too am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to everything. Do you have any tips for inexperienced blog writers? I’d certainly appreciate it.

  6. cwrigh13 says . . . | November 29, 2012 / 9:03 am
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