Songs without words: The perfect sounds for study

Music and Art

I’d like to start off this article by saying that I spend a lot of time studying, and that it’s important to make the things you spend a lot of time doing as comfortable and pleasing to do as possible (hence the advice to buy a good bed, because you spend more of your time there than anywhere else – unless you’re a student, of course), but what’s closer to the truth is that I spend a lot of time thinking of ways to study better and then not actually doing said studying. The perfect spot (somewhere where people can’t look over my shoulder, because I’m paranoid and because my degree involves looking at a lot of Roman pornography); the all-important water-bottle, which gives me an excuse to stop working and go and fill it at regular intervals; and, perhaps most crucially, the best bangin’ choonz with which to shut out those around me.

In the far-distant dark ages when I did subjects (like maths or physics) that didn’t require the stringing together of sentences, I used to be able to listen to music with words; I remember Arcade Fire’s Funeral being a particular favourite. However, when I’m writing an essay the last thing I need is someone else’s verbalisations in my head, and the curse of studying Latin means that even with choral music, I find myself trying to translate what I’m listening to instead of what I’m reading. I have fallen back on those genres of music without words, therefore – here are some of my favourites…(note that these are all albums – I generally find switching between artists and genres on a song-by-song basis messes with my head too much to be relaxing.)

Bill Evans Trio – Sunday at the Village Vanguard: Evans played piano with Miles Davis on the latter’s ground-breaking record Kind of Blue, the first real foray into modal jazz. (Incidentally, if you’ve not heard it before Kind of Blue is completely fantastic study music; unfortunately, I’ve listened to it so much that I tend to sing along with the solos now, and so it’s lost its efficacy somewhat.) Evans’ sessions with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian are generally regarded as some of the best trio records ever cut – and crucially, while each player is masterful, none of them are flashy. There’s no wild saxophone shrieks or ten-minute drum solos to break your concentration, and the clatter of plates and coughs from the patrons of the Vanguard only add to the atmosphere. If you’re after something faster-paced, however (perhaps to keep awake during a late-night essay crisis), I’d recommend Art Blakey’s Moanin’ – Blakey was a virtuosic drummer, and if his driving rhythms won’t keep you awake, nothing will.

Brian Eno – Ambient 1: Music For Airports: This was the first album ever released under the name ‘ambient music’, and it’s extraordinarily pleasing as well as being innovative (it’s pre-digital loops, so everything that repeats on the album was achieved by tape looping). The piano, synthesizer and wordless vocals that make up the album’s four long tracks are incredibly soothing, and the album is perhaps best enjoyed when you would rather listen to silence but need to have something in your brain – it’s the closest that noise comes to no-noise. Eno has made a whole series of other ambient albums, which I have yet to explore – this one has always been enough for me.

Kuniko Kato – Cantus: This series of 6 pieces by acclaimed composers Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich and Hywel Davies, arranged by Kato herself for vibraphone, are all incredibly powerful and almost hypnotic in their use of subtly changing, repeating patterns. Another proponent of such repetition is Phillip Glass, whose album Glass: Solo Piano would probably send you mad if you listened to it too much, but in small quantities helps to disconnect one’s brain just enough. If you’re after something with a similar classical feeling but a bit more musical interest, one can never go wrong with the Bach cello suites – Rostropovich’s recordings are fantastic.

Explosions in the Sky – The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place: Explosions in the Sky are perhaps most famous for scoring the American football film and TV show Friday Night Lights, as well as various other bits and bobs in need of inspirational use of quiet/loud dynamics and washes of guitar that feel like landscapes in and of themselves. They are, however, also excellent to work to if you’re down to the wire on a deadline and you’ve imbibed all the caffeine you can without feeling like you’re going to quiver right out of your skin; they will pick you up and carry you into the proverbial endzone to score a proverbial touchdown with you and this metaphor has gotten away from me a little bit. (In terms of actual musicality, I actually prefer Scottish post-rockers Mogwai, especially their debut Mogwai Young Team, but their songs often have spoken word in them, which throws me right off my game.)
So there you have it: hopefully at least one of these works for you! Good luck, and try not to spend too much time curating the perfect study playlist; sometimes it’s better just to take the headphones off and brave the world outside.