Creative work can be extremely fulfilling, but it also takes a lot of time and dedicated focus. The right music can inspire you, facilitate the momentum of your work, and even help keep you on task.
Since I began working with ICG, Jim Knight and I have had an ongoing conversation about the music we listen to most while doing our own creative work. “When I’m writing, I need music without any words. Usually ambient, classical, or jazz are best,” Jim explained. Lyrics and vocals are also distracting for me when I’m writing, so having that in common is what started our sharing of favorite albums.
In no particular order, here are 10 records that stand out most to Jim.
[Emanuel Ax] Haydn: Piano Sonatas Nos. 29, 31, 34, 35, 49
“There is something about [Emanuel Ax] Haydn’s Piano Sonatas that really get me writing. If I’m stuck, that’s always what I go to. Sometimes, other music I love requires too much mental attention and concentration. For instance, Bach: The Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould might be my favorite classical album of all time, but it doesn’t really work for writing. The same goes for Beethoven.”
Aside from this album, Emmanuel Ax also has a few different recordings of other Haydn piano sonatas, and they are all great options for a work soundtrack.
Bill Evans Trio, Sunday at the Village Vanguard
“The is one of my top five classic albums. The Village Vanguard has an amazing sound, almost like a church or cathedral. There is an extended six-album version of the complete concert, which is great to just let roll in the background for several hours if you’re not listening on vinyl. However, the great thing about listening to vinyl is that twenty minutes is a nice amount of time to be working, then you can get up for a couple minutes, flip the record, and get back to work. So, I like to go with vinyl if possible.”
This was early in Evans’ career, and he and Scott LaFaro, the bassist, interact beautifully on this album. Tragically, LaFaro died shortly after the recording of this album. This is truly one of the most quintessential jazz records of its time.
Moby, Hotel: Ambient
“Sometimes, ambient music can be depressing, but this one is not. It’s just great background music. Moby actually created several other ambient pieces to listen to himself, and they’re available for free. Some are several hours long and almost non-musical, more like extended notes.”
Moby’s Hotel was released in 2005, and the initial release included Hotel: Ambient as a companion disc. However, this ambient bonus disc has garnered its own following since then and was recently re-released on vinyl on its own. Like Jim, I’m also a big fan of Moby, and his ambient music especially compliments a good creative streak without being distracting.
Ludovico Einaudi, Seven Days Walking
“Peter DeWitt introduced me to Ludovico Einaudi. He does a kind of modern classical, easy-going style. In Seven Days Walking, he repeats themes throughout seven different albums. I like it because the idea of walking is sort of parallel to the idea of creative work and the pacing of it. If I want to just let something play for a long time, this is it.”
This is one of the newest entries of the list. Each of the seven volumes is a presented as a “Day.” The final volume was just released in September 2019, and they will all be compiled in a vinyl box set in November 2019.
Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Signs of Life
“Penguin Cafe Orchestra are one of my all-time favorite groups, and this is just one of many great albums. They are kind of a combination of bluegrass and chamber music. Sometimes ambient music can be depressing, but the Penguin Cafe Orchestra can just spice things up a little and make it fun. Their concerts on YouTube are a pleasure to watch too.”
Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s “Music for a Found Harmonium” and “Telephone and Rubber Band” have been used in several films and other popular media. The band leader, Simon Jeffes, passed away in 1997, and his son, Arthur Jeffes, formed a group called Penguin Cafe that still plays many of the original group’s compositions along with newer originals.
Expolosions in the Sky, The Earth Is Not a Cold, Dead Place
“There are a lot of post rock albums that people could listen to for creative work, but I like Explosions in the Sky. Their music is a bit guitar heavy, even coming close to rock n roll in some parts, so it can be fairly intense, so it may not work for everyone or for every project.”
Explosions in the Sky is a great option for those who aren’t into classical, jazz, or ambient music. Their sound is closer to popular guitar-driven music than others on this list, but still isn’t too distracting and doesn’t require a lot of focused attention.
Mitsuko Uchida, Mozart 2 Sonatas KV331 & KVZ332
“I play the Mozart sonatas all the time because they don’t consume my attention like Beethoven and Bach do. Mitsuko Uchida is a classical music rock star, and I’d like to see her in concert someday. She has a lyrical touch that is really beautiful.”
It can be very soothing to let expertly played music by classic composers wash over you while working. Uchida is a master performer and has played with the world’s most respected orchestras. She has also released the complete sonatas of both Mozart and Schubert, amongst other composers.
Zoë Keating, One Cello x 16: Natoma
“I’m not sure how she does it, but Zoë Keating plays layered music with one cello. She uses a foot-controlled computer to layer one piece of music on top of another, on top of another, and so on as she plays. It’s modern classical music made possible by digital recording techniques, and the result is amazing.”
The use of electronic loops of pre- and live- recorded cello parts make this album a unique listen compared to the other classical artists listed here. Keating has also been featured on albums by other popular musicians, including Amanda Palmer, Pomplamoose, and John Vanderslice, and she has a more modern energy for anyone who might not like other classical music.
Brian Eno (with Daniel Lanois), Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks
“Daniel Lanois is by far my favorite producer, and Brian Eno is probably the father of ambient music, so this is kind of a super ambient group.”
As the title of the album suggests, this music is all about atmosphere and background tone. Eno and Lanois’ influence on popular music has been enormous as they have produced – together and individually – key albums and songs for a wide variety of artists, such as Taking Heads, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, U2, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, and many more.
Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
“I can’t talk about music to write to without mentioning Kind of Blue. I could just put that album on repeat and listen to it over and over. It is the most popular jazz album of all time for good reason. It’s beautiful without being in the way.”
This album was recorded with a truly incredible group of musicians. John Coltrane was starting to find his legs on this record, and Bill Evans plays the piano. The music is perfect to inspire thoughts and emotions without dictating them. Jim and I are very much on the same page about this one. It’s also my number one, go-to record to put on while writing. It’s the first jazz album I ever got into, and it never gets old.
Beyond these ten albums Jim mentioned as his favorite, there are countless other great albums that can help drive your creative process. Here are a few more of our other recently played favorites:
|Brian Eno, Ambient 1: Music for Airports||
He has many ambient albums, but Jim likes his airport music album, which is sometimes actually played at airports. While his solo albums aren’t always like this, his ambient music can sound a little sad, so it’s not for everyone’s taste.
|Sigur Rós, Ágætis byrjun||Because Sigur Rós created their own language – called Volenska or “Hopelandic” – for their vocal parts, they are not very distracting to listen to because only the lead singer, Jónsi, and the rest of the band know what they’re actually saying. All of their music is very emotive, and any album would be a perfect creative soundtrack.|
|Yann Tiersen, Amélie||Though this is a soundtrack for the movie, Amélie, Tiersen has several other albums that could make a very great playlist for working on creative projects.|
|Rachel’s, Music for Egon Schiele||They have many modern, alternative chamber music albums. There are also post-rock and minimalist elements in their style, but they are heavily influenced by classical music.|
|Kid Koala, Music to Draw To: Satellite||This is an album specifically designed for drawing to. However, the album does include singing and vocals, so it works better for drawing than writing.|
|The Bad Plus, Suspicious Activity?||
The Bad Plus play a unique kind of instrumental jazz and sometimes cover popular songs in their own style. It ebbs and flows in intensity more than most classic jazz albums do, so it could help or distract, depending on your creative process.
||This album does contain more conventional vocals and lyrics than others on this list, but they are very low in the mix. Instead, the focus of this album is on the sound texture of the layered, distorted guitars, and it becomes almost hypnotic or meditative. It’s a lot louder than others on this list, but it’s another great option for those without a taste for classical or jazz.|
What are some of your favorite artists, albums, or songs to write, read, draw, or otherwise create to?