8 Sep 2019
I can’t work in silence. And if I’m working with words—which is most of the time—I can’t work while playing typical pop, rock, or hip-hop. So I collect instrumental and foreign-language music on a scale better measured by weeks than by hours. Here are some of my greatest sources of background music for work, studying, and creativity.
- Flow State: This is my very favorite way to get new background music. Daily newsletter recommending instrumental albums and DJ mixes, with focuses on contemporary classical, ambient, and electronic music. Excellent curation with descriptions of each album. Most recommendations are available on Spotify and YouTube. Personally, I load all their recommendations into a gigantic playlist and hit shuffle.
- 40 Cosmic Rock Albums: Music lovers have posted over 47,000 lists on Rate Your Music, and this is the list that helped me discover prog rock and its offshoots. This soaring, often instrumental genre is a great backdrop for reading sci-fi and fantasy. I personally believe Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother” suite fits Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy as much as Dark Side of the Moon fits The Wizard of Oz.
Spotify and Apple Music Playlists
- The Lifehacker Boléro Effect Productivity Playlist: Songs that (like Ravel’s “Boléro”) repeat a musical phrase over and over, building to a climax, to drive you forward to your goal.
- Instrumental Study: This official Spotify playlist includes dozens of artists with only a couple of tracks to their name, but all 146 songs sound like they could be on the same album. Every track is a soft, gentle piano piece, like something a character in The English Patient would play in an empty manor house on a rainy day in a flashback. This music will not distract you. It might make you feel like a page of Chicken Soup for the Soul.
- Focus and Study: Search either of these two terms on Spotify and click the top result. You’ll get full genre pages full of Spotify-curated playlists. Browse around to find the right mood.
- Pure Focus: This official Apple Music playlist has 100 rotating tracks of mostly beat-driven electronica. For a more free-flowing sound, try Pure Ambient.
- If you use Apple Music, you can follow my giant playlist of instrumental and non-English-vocals music. You’ll run into some stuff that’s not at all conducive to work. But it’s 6.5 solid days of music (and counting), so you can keep hitting “skip” and never run out.
- Poolside FM: Chill beats and silent 80s ads inside a retro Mac interface. The site currently features four channels: Poolside FM, Friday Nite Heat, Hangover Club, and Tokyo Disco. You can also subscribe to weekly emails with new tunes.
- Headphone Commute: Music news and review site covering new instrumental music, leaning toward electronica and ambient. A lot of the music here is melancholy, fit for a late-night drive. If our other recommendations feel too chipper, this is your groove. Follow Headphone Commute’s frequently updated Spotify playlist, which is archived into a new playlist each month.
- Chill But Lit: The web app JQBX lets you sync with other Spotify users in a virtual room, and DJ for each other over the internet. This popular JQBX room plays only chill lounge beats with minimal vocals. You can export the room’s song history into a Spotify playlist for solo listening.
- My Analog Journal: This stuff is what every café should be playing in the background. A YouTube channel full of vintage instrumental and foreign-language DJ mixes. Each mix is an hour or more, and you can string them together with this YouTube playlist. (Their videos get taken down sometimes, so you might have to skip forward in the playlist.)
- Magical Mystery Mix: YouTube channel with international hip-hop, jazz, and vintage Japanese pop.
- The Lifehacker Lonely Nostalgia Collection: YouTubers like to run classic songs through dampeners and other filters to make them sound far-off, like they’re drifting through an empty mall. With everything muffled and softened, you can bathe in nostalgia for the music without being distracted by the lyrics.
- lofi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to: If it’s possible to revolutionize unobtrusive background music, the lo-fi hip-hop “study beats” genre has done it. This YouTube stream is the most famous clearinghouse for that music. The creator also manages three popular Spotify playlists.
- Marcel the Drunkard: This sketch and watercolor artist draws on-camera under the sounds of jazz, fusion, prog rock, and Japanese pop. My favorite video is set to Doctor Pizza’s Late Night Delivery.
- The SloMusic YouTube Playlist: YouTubers (and SoundClouders) also like to slow pop songs beyond recognition, so they all sound like Sigur Ros.
Artists and Albums
- Sigur Ros: Speaking of Sigur Ros, their slow-building, dreamlike ambient indie pop is like jock jams for creative work.
- Bach: Classical music is perfect study music, when it behaves itself. The album Bach to Work features his most studious piano pieces. Yo-Yo Ma recently released a new performance of Bach’s cello suites.
- Mozart: The “Mozart Effect” is way overblown, but listening to Mozart makes you feel intelligent, and the composer likes to color within the lines. Mozart: Night Music collects some of his sprightly work (skip over the “Adagio & Fugue” and “Menuet”). Mozart in the Morning is a more cheeky wake-up call.
- Laurie Spiegel: The venerable composer and music software programmer only has a few albums available on Spotify, but luckily this includes the sometimes brisk, sometimes haunting synth-as-synth-gets album The Expanding Universe.
- Suzanne Ciani: The famous synth composer’s work ranges from syrupy new age to challenging quadraphonic experiments. I personally like her compilation of two freaky live sets, Buchla Concerts 1975.
- Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: Smith’s music is trippy and complex, best if you’re working visually or need creative inspiration. Besides her collaboration with Ciani for the FRKWYS series, you should try her albums Euclid and Tides: Music for Meditation and Yoga.
- Fela Kuti: The Afropop star specialized in 13-minute tracks with an energetic, but not frantic, groove. The few English lyrics won’t get in the way.
- Brian Eno: A lot of Eno’s experimental music is too distracting to work by, but his ambient work is essential. Eno coined the term “ambient music” for his album Ambient 1: Music for Airports. See 15 of his ambient albums listed at Ambient Music Guide.
- Long Ambients: Natalie Portman’s great-uncle Moby has released two free ambient albums.
- Áine O’Dwyer: Spotify and Apple Music only carry her album Gallarais, but you should pick up her Bandcamp album, Music for Church Cleaners. I love to pretend I’m quietly scribbling in a notebook in the back pew while the organ player rehearses. The track “The Little Lord of Misrule” does contain some vocals by a distant and presumably naughty child.
- Floex: Dreamy electronic/acoustic fusion; my favorites are A Portrait of John Doe (a dramatic collaboration with Tom Hodge and the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra) and the soundtrack to the mystical point-and-click adventure Samorost 3.
- Bonobo: For when you run out of Floex.
- Béla Fleck: For the opposite of electronica, try his banjo duet album Double Time, or his international collaboration with Jie-Bing Chen and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Tabula Rasa.
- Philip Glass: This contemporary composer’s music feels mathematical, energetically repetitive, fractal. You might recognize it from Battlestar Galactica, Notes on a Scandal, The Hours, or The Truman Show, but his work is primarily standalone, or played over dialog-free films like Koyaanisqatsi. My current favorite is Lavinia Meijer’s spare arrangements for harp on The Glass Effect. I also recommend Glass Piano and the more exciting but distracting Powaqqatsi.
- Tito Puente: As long as you don’t speak Spanish, you can get stuff done to his latin jazz collections like Mambo With Me and Para los Rumberos. If the lyrics are too distracting, try the swinging instrumental collection Jazzify.
- Anna Meredith’s Glass-esque soundtrack to Eighth Grade might drive you mad with its portrayal of tween anxiety, but it might push you to wrap up on a tight deadline.
- The Sims soundtracks are chill, jazzy backgrounds to build by. Spotify has The Sims, The Sims 2 (by Mark Mothersbaugh!), The Sims 3 (by Steve Jablonsky!), and The Sims 4 (an orchestrated collection by Ilan Eshkeri!), plus soundtracks for add-ons like The Sims Medieval and The Sims 2: University.
- Lena Raine’s soundtrack for the platformer Celeste combines electronic and analog instruments, and builds toward climaxes without overpowering your other thoughts.
- Age of Empires was most of my childhood. Last year’s remaster, Age of Empires: Definitive Edition, came with a fully orchestrated soundtrack. I prefer the old-school sounds of Age of Empires II (unavailable on Spotify, but free on YouTube).
- Stranger Things 2’s soundtrack feels more like a churning ENIAC than a creeping horror. It pays homage to 80s soundtracks by Vangelis and John Carpenter.
- The quirky soundtracks of Jon Brion brought sweetness and light to Lady Bird, I Heart Huckabees, Punch-Drunk Love, Synecdoche, New York, Le grand bain, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. There are occasional vocals, and the tracks are very short, but if you’re a fan of these films, you’ll quickly wear each track into a smooth pebble.
There’s enough world-class “productivity music” to soundtrack an entire career. Which ironically means that you can waste hours on end finding what’s juuust right for the current task—even if you’re leafing through your own hand-picked catalog. It’s a good problem to have. So please, give me more to try!
About the author
Staff Writer, Lifehacker | Nick has written for Gawker, the Awl, the Toast, the Daily Dot, Urlesque, and the web series “Jaywalk Cop.” He currently runs the horror-comedy podcast “Roommate From Hell.”