Some people doubt the intertwined human connection to music, but those people are generally idiots. While music clearly means different things to different people, ignoring that a connection exists is naive. The proper music sets the mood, triggers memories, and can boost your brainpower if managed correctly. Connecting two highly variable concepts like music and learning may seem tricky to connect, but if we break it down it's fairly scientific. The best place to start in this case would be with the toughest aspect to prove, is their a definitive scientific link between music and productivity.
Establishing a Scientific Link Between Your Brain & Music
For me, several often overlooked tangential connections began to hint towards the connection between humans and their music. Drums appearing independently and early in civilizations across the world, might start you down this line of thinking. Especially considering that notoriously left minded military leaders have embraced syncopated marching bands to keep soldiers on task for thousands of years. Slave hymns existed amongst the deep south, the Egyptian pyramids, and at the foot of the wall of China. In the modern era it's worth citing the odd similarity between DJ's commonly whispered Magic 128 BPM and the speed of an elevated human heart rate. Relaxing music also tends to fall just below a resting heart rate. While I personally find these coincidences telling, they certainly aren't scientific in nature. Thankfully this topic has been addressed by Georgi Lozanov's Accelerated Learning Studies, a 2013 study well summarized in this interesting Inquiries Journal article. There's also a slightly lesser known study by Brewer in this Johns Hopkins summation. Personally, my favorite white-paper on the subject is Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition by Ravi Mehta, Rui Zhu, and Amar Cheema. Since these studies were somewhat varied you'd need to stretch to find a hard conclusion, but they (and others) clearly correlate "non-distracting" music as a beneficial factor for improved cognitive performance. Additionally, some highly respected studies have found that music can drastically improve creativity (aka "Abstract Processing"). I believe this quality is so commonly known that a simple messaging to an artist friend will reinforce that belief. When you set all the fancy psychoanalytical words aside, these studies state that the proper music can help concentration, cognitive endurance, and allow you to think more creatively. If you're willing to accept this theory, you may already be familiar with the buzzword commonly used to convey it... "Flow". This concept has been highly advocated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and is well encapsulated by a simple diagram, the Csikszentmihalyi Flow Model. This is a concept that has been heavily known in the creative community for years, but like many creative theories it took a TED Talk to achieve mass acceptance.
After digesting this info, you may notice the one caveat that underlies it all. There is a significant difference between music and "non-distracting" music. Many people like attention grabbing music, but if we're looking for the best albums to listen to while working this clearly defeats the goal. Luckily a cursory understanding of music theory allows you to decouple the two. This bring us to our next step, what qualitative elements should we be looking for in music for working?
What Elements Should We Look For in Good Working Music?
The Bad: A few genres need to be crossed off immediately... reggae, hip-hop, pop, country, funk, jazz, and rock. While I have an appreciation for all and there are always exceptions, they each have qualities that directly conflict with the ability to concentrate. Lyrics distract. Beat variations distract. Hard beginning and ends distract. Power guitars distract. Many of the things that grab your attention simply refuse to give it back. While the totality of these elements have been a formula for creating pop music the last 20 years, these are the exact elements we need to avoid to ensure deep, prolonged, and creative thinking. So.... Now that we've crossed 90% of all music off the list, let's try to ID qualities and genres that are awesome for working.
"Music is the soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents."
Ludwig van Beethoven
The Good: It's classically understood that classical music is optimal for deep thought and while that may be impressive wordplay (self high-five), it's meant to evoke emotion that's too distracting for prolonged work. Classical music slays both firework displays and long terms of deep introspection, but we want to level out that depth and just do work. From what I've found, the key qualities for prolonged work are a stable beat, smooth tonal transitions, and music that's towards the lower end of the wavelength. Now we're getting niche, so what's left? Light Jazz can be great for working and I think Muzack has capitalized on that reality, but let's assume you're not ready to shop retirement homes just yet. Lo-fi and Ambient are practically built for productivity. While there is a bit of variation in these genres, the general concept is - High repetition, a steady bass driven beat, sparing use of vocals, and extended track length. The holy grail of working music are albums constructed to play as a whole - which generally means DJ mixes. We're not talking about heavy drops or Tiesto though, we want steady lounge mixes - niche genres like Mushroom Jazz or Downtempo embody these qualities to perfection.
Which Albums Best Convey Those Traits?
So we're obviously getting into personal taste here, but I honestly believe many of these suggestions are universal. They're kid friendly, have received a wide span of appreciation from my friends, and are still trendy enough that I'm fairly sure you won't know all of them. With quite a bit of thought, this is my Favorite Albums for Working List... and if you need some background music to thumb through them, I've included a few of their tracks on this SoundCloud playlist.
Favorite Albums for Working List...
Little People - Micky Mouse Operation
Producer Laurent Clerc grew up the Swiss alps with a deep love for hip-hop and this origin story perfectly explains his creations. Mickey Mouse Operation has been one of my undercover favorites for years and 20 seconds into the first track you'll completely understand why that is. Take a simple boom-bap, interlace it with classical instrumentation, and the result is unlike anything you've heard. Besides being great baby-making music ;), this is one of my favorites when you need a full hour of uninterrupted focus. Why this album isn't HUGE is beyond me, but it certainly is in my house.
Any one of Mark Farina's Mushroom Jazz compilations deserve to be on my tops list, but I figured I'd just include the latest and let you go from there. Mushroom Jazz is a unique genre that has remained bubbling under the mainstream for years (starting in '92), but you really can't mention it without including Mark in the convo. It's basically a melange of downtempo, hip-hop, jazz, R&B, & Latin beautifully mixed into an uninterrupted hour-long set. These used to be obscure releases passed between friends (thanks again Mike!), but with the internet you too can have awesome music... no prereq required.
I'd like to begin this summary with a legally binding recommendation - If my life is ever made into a bio pic, I want this to be the score. B. Fleischmann is an obscure German producer and his mastery of composition will literally bring tears to your eyes. The Humbucking Coil will drift your mind to a wonderful place and it still demands very little of your explicit attention. This 2006 gem has garnered both a special place in my heart and also prominence in my "Best Albums for Working" list. I'm very confident that it'll the same for you.
Producers this young should really not be this good. Marcel Everett is barely of drinking age, originates from Orlando, and performs under the name XXYYXX. His spacey, ambient style is very reminiscent of Lapalux or Star Slinger, but his composition structure is quite a bit stronger in my opinion. Unlike the previous recommendations this album is built of independent tracks, but the tone is so consistent that you'll hardly notice. Great work music and hands down the number one "Damn, Who is this?" response in my car.
EVERYBODY loves Diplo... Now. But some of us have been fans since before Florida.... before Hollertronix even. AEIOU was an early collab from Wes highlighting rare funk 45's into a gorgeous mix. While this album is only solid work music for the true ADD crowd, it's notable for the way it breaks some of my previously mentioned rules and still manages to work for work. There are words, there are high pitched string instruments, but the transitions are so damn fluid that the album itself becomes solid for creative focus. The added bonus here is the left field track selection, but fair warning - It can be tricky to get your hands on a copy.
While "Chet Faker" has hopped into my vernacular as a preferred way of identifying bearded hipsters, there's no denying the beauty of this album. This Aussie might be best known for his contextualization of "No Diggity", but Built on Glass has remained t the top of both my "Albums for Working" and "Baby Making Music" lists for quite a few years Again this is a tracked album with words on most every track, but the mellow vibe and horn heavy treble allow you to focus on any project. This album does top out closer to 45 mins, but is mandatory listening as far as I'm concerned.
DJ Kicks is a widely celebrated series with 10+ releases from !K7. While they're all quality listens, this mix in particular conveys what well textured mixes can do in preserving a mood and feel. If you like Mark Farina's Mushroom Jazz series, DJ Kick's Nightmares on Wax will make a great stepping stone due to it's similar trip-hop feel.
Bonobo is an English DJ that has recently gained some fame, mostly from his insanely well produced remixes. His fourth studio album Black Sands has hits every mark listed above for great albums for concentrating. This string heavy masterpiece plays well front to back and belongs in any music library.
Boards of Canada - Music Has the Right to Children
Boards of Canada live in an ambient world. This Scotland based, England born duo have been pushing the edges of ambient music for more then a decade. There is no supergroup I'd rather have bleeding through my headphones during a long trek in the snow and that also makes them ideal for enduring long projects. Any of their albums make for great work music, but Music has the Right to Children may be thier most celebrated release. If you like what you hear, dig further and you'll remain happy.
Just one of several monikers, Scott Herren is one of my favorite under-celebrated west coast producers. While his tracks can exhibit abrupt cord changes, the stability of his loops make well suited for concentration.His 2003 release One Word Extinguisher is my second favorite offering, but as a conceptual "break up album" it relies more on melody then words - making it ideal for chasing that flow state discussed earlier. Even the vocals are chopped and looped so they become more of an instrument then point of focus.
* Album links include a tracking code for credit, but had zero effect on my choices.
Running With The Music Aids Focus Concept...
There are now entire industries built on the previous theory. One example Brain.fm, offers a streaming service with a homepage quote stating "It feels like your headphones are giving you a mild dose of Ritalin". Spotify and Pandora have ever growing playlists of "Productivity Music" and "Albums to Listen to While Working". Like everything else mainstream, these remove your individual preferences though. It's much better to just realize that you need to reinterpret and contextualize your music for any given situation. This might seem like common sense to some folks, but there's also a kid trying to study to a top-ten hip-hop album right now that just doesn't understand why he can't concentrate like the rest of his class seems to. It just takes a small tweak of perspective and anyone can turn a subtle distraction into a tool that allows you to think more efficiently. Collecting and curating your own deep thought sounds will help you concentrate, focus, and work more effectively - Which is a universally helpful addition to everyone's tool-belt.
I hope you've found my post on Deep Thought Sounds helpful, but if you have any constructive feedback or tips on your own favorite productivity albums feel free to comment below. If you've found this article helpful or know someone that would, share it on your favorite social site and as always - Thanks for stopping by.