Friday, January 28, 2011

A Little Reading Music

This is going to be one of those posts where I pretend like I am offering something useful but really am just fishing for good ideas to steal.

I don't know how the habit formed, but sometime in my early readerhood, listening to music while reading became an absolute necessity. I don't know why really, but like macaroni and cheese, coffee and doughnuts, Charlie Sheen and stomach pumps, cracking open a book and turning on some music are, for better or worse, bound together.

Finding suitable music, though, has turned out to be a bit of a chore.  For when it comes to picking out something to listen to while reading, I am pickier than Goldilocks, if Goldilocks were also Cher and had OCD. I need something quiet but not soporific. Something ignorable yet not boring. Something stimulating yet not diverting. Something I like, but not something I'll notice. You get the idea.

Anyway, here are my three go-to reading soundtracks:

Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool (1957)
This the spriteliest of my sonic arsenal, best suited for springtime and pleasure reading. Davis is reacting to the hard-bop of the day with mellower, more melodic tracks that are inspired as much by classical music as jazz. Well, not as much, but a lot. I always start with "Boplicity"--to the point that if I hear it out and about I get a junkie-like hankering for a hardback.

Bach, The Goldberg Variations
Generally, there is too much going in classical music for me to be able to focus on what I'm reading, so solos and concertos tend to work the best. For a long time, Bach's cello concertos were my favorite classical option, but a recentish recording of The Goldberg Variations by Simone Dinnerstein has turned out to be even better. I used to play the cello (very badly. Really, I might have been the worst cello player of all time. Actually there was this one kid who tried to play the cello who only had four fingers on his left hand and he was tone deaf. So I was tied with him for the worst cello player of all time) so every now and again I would have a flashback, just enough to take me out of whatever I was reading. I also used to play the piano, but with not near the trauma associated with my cello days. So this works better for me.

The National, Boxer
I wouldn't be a 30-something Brooklynite if I didn't listen to The National, but little does your run-of-the-mill indie rock fan know, this is a great record to read to. Three central virtues: virtually indecipherable lyrics, soothing baritone lead-singer, and enough rhythm to cover any ambient noise you might be fighting. Ideal use case: subway reading.

So there are three recommendations from me. Now to what I am really interested in---what do you read to? And more importantly, do you think it would work for me?


  1. I'm partial to the symphonies of Philip Glass, find it really opens up the neural pathways - conducive to losing yourself in a book, forming a nice - non-narrative - soundscape for whatever you're listening to. Will have to check out the classical-influenced Miles Davis...

  2. I might also tie with you for worst cellist of all time - and one of my most awful teenage memories is when I awkwardly tripped over the very talented girl who sat next to me in orchestra and broke her bridge. So I was not only terrible, I actually murdered a cello.
    I listen to BBC radio 3 when reading because I can sort of ignore any classical music, but I find it comforting.

  3. I used to be able to read to any music, but now, at the ripe old age of 27-going-on-40, I find I am distracted a lot by extraneous noises when trying to focus on texts (this can also happen when I'm writing, though to a lesser extent). But I can listen to Broken Social Scene (yay for indie hipster cred!) because I find their music is very atmospheric and more like something that enhances ambiance. If you like the National, then you may very well like them too.

  4. Bach's Cello Suites (Pablo Casals, not Rostropovich)

  5. Hmmm ... I rarely listen to music when I read because I tend to become distracted and go off into reveries. But, when I try, it's often something like Debussy or Satie or some gentle jazz. Oh, and definitely no lyrics!

  6. As one of the worst violists in the world - I empathize. And in my next life I will be a cellist - love the cello.

    I would add to the list The Four Seasons and anything by Yo Yo Ma.


  7. I can pretty much read to anything, but my partner is partial to reading to world music in languages other than English. Ladysmith Black Mombazo is a favorite, but really it just needs to be decent musically with no words she can understand.

  8. There nothing like it. It's a unique style of approach.

    meditative music