Whether you’re writing an essay, a blog post, or a novel, it can be tricky to keep focused. Sitting at your computer (or typewriter if you prefer a retro writing experience) for hours on end can lead to frustration, burnout, and the dreaded writer’s block.
You’ve probably heard how a coffee break or a walk outsde can give you the motivation to finish writing, or even sudden fresh-air-induced flashes of creative inspiration. However, there isn’t always time to leave your desk, especially if you have a deadline fast approaching. If you need to get a lot of words down quickly, you may need another approach.
I learned in my school days battling through essays how music can not only make long writing sessions more enjoyable, but can also make me write faster and better.
As a music writer, I’m passionate (read: obsessed) about both music and writing — although not all of the music I love is conducive to getting work done. As thrilling as it is to see a punk band thrash out a sweaty set, or to set the mood for a summer evening barbecue with some classic hip-hop, when it comes to choosing a soundtrack for a productive session of article pitching or a late-night rush to get those last few hundred words down before deadline, something else is probably in order.
There are only so many times you can put on Spotify’s Work From Home playlists, or “lofi beats to relax/study to”, before you crave something new. Why not experience an artist’s work in the perfect format — the LP album — while you work?
So, what records are best to soundtrack your working day? Here, I’ll delve into ten of my favorites, in no particular order. This isn’t a list of the best albums of their genres — although you could make a case for some — more a personally curated selection of my go-to choices for writing to.
As vocals can confuse the writing process (hearing someone speak/sing words while trying to write your own is like having two conversations at once!), these picks are primarily instrumental. In terms of style, moderate tempos, plenty of repetition, and pretty textures make up my preferred recipe for a great writing soundtrack. I’ve omitted anything too minimal and discreet (sorry Brian Eno), as well as anything too frenetic or erratic (that means no intricate free jazz, pounding hardstyle, or extreme mathcore).
Mort Garson — Mother Earth’s Plantasia (1976)
This lost gem from composer Mort Garson has experienced a bit of a revival in the last couple of years due to a helpful boost from YouTube’s “Recommended For You” algorithm. On its initial release, it was only available to purchasers of either a houseplant from LA store Mother Earth or a particular mattress from department store Sears! An early work of experimental electronic composition, the album was designed to be played to plants to help them grow. While the efficacy of this is up for debate, the record’s soothing, warm analog synths certainly help nourish my creativity and allow ideas to grow. It also reminds me to water the peace lily on my writing desk, which is always a bonus.
Ryo Fukui — Scenery (1976)
Another initially obscure release that now has a cult following from YouTube, Scenery by Japanese jazz pianist and composer Ryo Fukui gives a similar vibe to the previous album on the list; comforting yet sprightly. Fukui’s warm, melodic playing is distinctive without being distracting, and the steady rhythm section provides a gently urgent momentum.
Aphex Twin — Selected Ambient Works 85–92 (1992)
Richard D. James, better known by his monikers Aphex Twin and AFX, has explored — and arguably invented — many diverse styles of electronica over his long career, from beatless soundscapes to punishing, glitchy drum and bass. Although later iconic cuts like “Windowlicker” and “Come to Daddy” are far from suitable background music, James’ 1992 debut album is another story. Although ranging from ambient to full-on acid techno, the transitions are so smooth that it is never intrusive or jarring. You might notice your head nodding during the faster tracks, but you’ll be focused and engaged enough to reach your word count before too long.
Julianna Barwick — Nepenthe (2013)
Composer Julianna Barwick’s music can’t exactly be described as “instrumental”, as it is heavily centered around vocal recordings. However, these vocalizations are designed to swirl around and create an ethereal atmosphere rather than to communicate anything approaching words. Recorded in an abandoned swimming pool with contributions from Icelandic musicians Alex Somers and Amiina, Barwick’s Nepenthe uses layers of hymnal vocals — alongside sparingly-used piano and strings — to create a gorgeous wash of sound.
Thelonious Monk — Monk’s Dream (1963)
Most of the classic 1950s and 1960s releases from jazz heavyweights like Miles Davis and John Coltrane are just too fast-paced and melodically and rhythmically irregular and unpredictable for me to write to; taking in the music just demands too much of my attention to make it helpful writing music! However, pianist and composer Thelonious Monk’s 1963 album Monk’s Dream is full of twinkling piano lines and is melodic and upbeat without being intrusive.
Jon Hopkins — Immunity (2013)
Like Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works…, Jon Hopkins’ Immunity works just as well in a club as it does in the office. Jon Hopkins’ background in classical and soundtrack composition and his work with Brian Eno is evident, and his albums are every bit as enjoyable as “background” music as they are to dance to. Alongside his later album Singularity, 2013’s Immunity is perhaps the best example, with sounds that subtly shift and transform over driving grooves.
Boards of Canada — Music Has the Right to Children (1998)
British label Warp Records is well-known for releasing off-kilter, experimental electronica geared more towards home listening than clubs or festivals. The debut album by Scottish duo Boards of Canada sits alongside releases by Aphex Twin, Autechre, Flying Lotus, and others as essential Warp releases. Music Has the Right to Children is a masterpiece of eerie vocal samples, ethereal synth washes, and glitchy beats. This is no run-of-the-mill ambient backdrop — the sounds here are unconventional and often unnerving. If you want to explore the darker side of your creativity, you can’t go wrong with this collection.
Sigur Ros — () (2002)
I’m a huge fan of Icelandic band Sigur Ros, whose repertoire ranges from pure ambient to sprightly folk-pop and back. The band is best when delivering slow-build, atmospheric post-rock, best displayed on albums like () (usually referred to as The Untitled Album). While not technically instrumental — every track uses the same repeated vocal phrase in Vonlenska, defined by the band as “a form of gibberish vocals that fits to the music” — it’s the perfect soundscape to stimulate creativity, moving from twinkling piano motifs to punishing rock crescendos in a way that is emotionally turbulent yet never jarring or distracting.
Bicep — Isles (2021)
Belfast-born electronic duo Bicep is best known for their rave-ready breakbeat anthem “Glue”, a highlight of their 2017 self-titled debut album. Like the other electronic acts on this list, their music leans towards ambient soundscapes as much as festival bangers, and 2021’s follow-up LP Isles refined this blend with a collection of looped beats and synths that is as measured and introspective as urgent and propulsive — the ideal combination to power long writing sessions!
NEU! — Neu! 75 (1975)
Although not as world-conquering as fellow contemporary German experimental rock/electronic band Kraftwerk, Dusseldorf band NEU! developed a sound that was no less influential on the trajectory of popular music. Their third album, released in 1975, is a highlight of the so-called “krautrock” scene, spanning from proto-synth-pop to gorgeous piano interludes to driving guitar rock, all held together by urgent, insistent rhythms. Let the retro-futurist soundscapes of Neu! 75 get your creative juices flowing — the searing guitars and twinkling synth tones will expand your mind as the chugging rhythm section keeps you on track to get words down on paper (or screen).
These albums are far from the only ones that have helped me as a writer — most of the artists on this list have other material worth exploring. Many writers also swear by film soundtracks and classical music, although my knowledge of these is too limited to include them here! What works for one writer may be drastically different from what works for the next, so it’s worth trying out different styles of music to see what suits you best.