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Finding the right music to study or work to is a delicate art.
It’s easy to get distracted by songs with lyrics, especially those you know the words to. In fact, a 2008 study by Cambridge Sound Management found that speech distracts nearly half of all office workers. And while songs with sentimental appeal can help alleviate stress, they’re also more likely to disturb your concentration, according to researchers.
What you want is ideally something lighter and at least vaguely classical but with enough of a pulse to keep you alert for hours on end.
If you’re in a bind, just create a Pandora station for Explosions in the Sky and be done with it. But if you’re looking to dive a little deeper and discover some new artists in the process, here are a few recommendations for the best music to study to.
I wouldn’t recommend trying to study to this live rendition of “Hammers”—it’s unnerving in its focus and intensity—but if it doesn’t perk your interest into Nils Frahm’s pianism, you might as well move along.The German composer is not one for convention. He creates and performs using both grand and upright pianos, along with a drum machine, Rhodes piano, and a Moog—and he recorded a live album on the world’s biggest piano, a piece he actually helped build.
Canadian electronic musician Tim Hecker’s records are often defined by their concept and process. Take, for instance, 2011’s Ravedeath, 1972, which uses recordings made from a pipe organ in a church in Reykjavik, Iceland, as the linchpin for a suite of hazy, circular synth pieces that are oddly comforting. The feeling it leaves you with is that of having nodded off in the pews on a too-early Sunday morning, the gentle beams of light pouring through stained-glass windows.
Brooklyn, New York, composer and filmmaker Sarah Lipstate has been making noise in various forms for well over a decade. As Noveller, she pushes the boundaries of modern electric guitar, layering her Fender Jaguar to create complex landscapes that take a little time to absorb. Her 2015 breakthrough, Fantastic Planet, has an eeriness and sweeping beauty to it that will appeal to fans of the Stranger Things soundtrack.
You might recognize Balmorhea from the theme song to the Sundance drama Rectify. The Austin, Texas-based instrumentalists specialize in sweeping landscapes that capture the pioneering spirit and rustic scenery imbued in the Texas Hill Country. Co-founders Michael Muller and Rob Lowe played my wedding, but that’s less a conflict of interest and more of an endorsement. I’ve closely followed their career since their 2007 self-titled debut, which was re-released in 2014, and I’d suggest you do the same.
Composer Peter Broderick has a laundry list of collaborations and guest appearances. He spent a few years in Copenhagen touring with the Efterklang and has recorded with everyone from M. Ward and Blitzen Trapper to the Album Leaf. His solo records often feel like scores for films you haven’t seen, with delicate pacing and sparse piano. That’s especially true of Float 2003, which was originally released in 1998 but reissued five years later.
This is the side project of Brian Sampson, the owner of the indie label Western Vinyl, which issued great records from the Dirty Projectors, J. Tillman (Father John Misty), and Here We Go Magic years before most caught on—along with all of Balmorhea’s catalog. His own work under the alias Bexar Bexar (pronounced, like the Texas county, “Bear Bear”) fuses acoustic guitar vignettes with shimmering bits of found sound and white noise.
German composer Hauschka (born Volker Bertelmann) is renowned for his compositions for prepared piano—a style pioneered by John Cage where objects—foil, cutlery, screws—are applied to piano strings to add an element of randomness in performances. It’s truly a sight to see live—when he used Ping-Pong balls in a performance at SXSW, it looked like a lottery being drawn—but it also keeps your attention on record, too.
If you need something with a little more bass to keep you alert, try Kiasmos. The Icelandic duo’s minimalist techno has a way of slowly revving you up without you even realizing it. If that hits a nerve, Kiasmos is frequently featured on the Erased Tapes Collections, which are great beginner’s guides to modern composers.
Experimental artist Jeffrey Cantu-Ledesma said 2016’s In Summer “can be thought of as a catalogue of photographs,” as snapshots of the people and places that inspired the hazy five-track collection, recorded at home at various points in 2015. But the album invites the listener to fill in the blanks with their own memories. “Love’s Refrain” opens with a half-remembered day at the beach, with blurry chillwave vibes fossilizing into ambient noise, and it only gets better from there. Originally limited to just 100 copies on cassette, In Summer is now streaming on Bandcamp and Spotify.
It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Alex Backman, the Gothenburg-based artist behind 1991. He quietly returned to form last year with No More Dreams, a deeply hypnotic, ambient house record that stretches out into deep orbit via seven self-contained movements. The oscillating synths are ideal for meditation, focused work, or just trying to clear out the clutter in your thoughts.
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.