Music to think to.
March 25, 2006 6:55 PM   Subscribe

Please suggest instrumental music we can listen to while we study. This music must mask the noise coming from the apartment above us and remain relatively unobtrusive (without being lame).

We do a lot of reading and writing at home while our upstairs neighbors prefer to run laps around their apartment wearing clogs while having a full-on rock concert and party.

We're pursuing other means of working through the noise issue with them, but in the meantime we'd like some relaxing music that we can put on to help their loud stomping seem less intrusive.

-- preferably instrumental as vocals tend to distract us when we're reading
-- less bombastic than Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Igor Stravinsky
-- more upbeat than Eno soundscapes
-- relatively consistent dynamic range (large shifts in volume are what we're trying to overcome)
-- similarly, a steady beat is preferable to complex rhythms in this context
-- nothing too happy and/or treacly

If it matters, when we're not trying to study, we listen to punk and rock mostly. Thanks in advance for the help.
posted by safetyfork to Media & Arts (71 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Aside from being excellent music to listen to while not studying, bossa nova music is nice to put on as background. Saxophonist Stan Getz did a couple of albums with Antonio Carlos Jobim that would fit the bill nicely. They maintain a consistent dynamic range and have a great simple steady beat.

It's not going to be Kenny G, either -- it's really high quality, imaginative music.
posted by rossination at 7:09 PM on March 25, 2006

Environmental sound? kind of 'new agey' I guess...but not really since it's just landscape noise (ie: no groovy synth). I swear by this stuff when I'm studying. They've got it for download @ e-music.
posted by prettyboyfloyd at 7:09 PM on March 25, 2006

Maybe white noise? Tune your TV or radio to a dead channel.
posted by logicpunk at 7:09 PM on March 25, 2006

My college roommate always had good luck with instrumental movie soundtracks. I don't have specific suggestions, but since a lot of movie music was pretty much written to be exactly what you're looking for, it may be another avenue to check out.
posted by occhiblu at 7:11 PM on March 25, 2006

Occhiblu has a cool idea, I should try that sometime.

Personally, I find Boards of Canada (specifically the album Music Has the Right To Children) and Sigur Ros really helpful.
posted by patr1ck at 7:13 PM on March 25, 2006

How about a little Augustus Pablo? Or music with lyrics in a language you don't understand -- an Ethiopiques compilation, perhaps, or some nice Pygmy music, or Arsenio Rodriguez's "Como Se Goza en el Barrio," depending on what languages you wouldn't be distracted by.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:15 PM on March 25, 2006

Some of that new fangled eai (electro-acoustic improvisation) could do, stuff on erstwhile records, for4ears, absurd, etc. The swiss crew, gunter muller, norbert moslang, jason kahn, tomas korber, especially, works well as innocuous but not treacly or invisible background sound, and it will also reward close listening when you need a break.

Or Joe Colley. Fuck. Joe Colley.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:16 PM on March 25, 2006

I like to listen to Gas when I have to concentrate. It'll drown out other sounds at a high volume, but doesn't demand attention.
posted by cmonkey at 7:24 PM on March 25, 2006

When I have the same need as you I just put on SomaFM's Groove Salad. Or their new Space Station Soma might fit the bill too.
posted by vacapinta at 7:25 PM on March 25, 2006

Eric Satie. Particularly "Gymnopedies."
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:25 PM on March 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

I listen to Broken Social Scene's first album, Feel Good Lost when I study. I think it's exactly what you're looking for.
posted by Evstar at 7:26 PM on March 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

Re what occhiblu said about movie soundtracks, I'm sure you'll be able to find a lot of what you're looking for from that angle, but I just remembered the soundtrack for Ulysses' Gaze, which might be what you're looking for.

My husband was just playing Nightmares on Wax "Smokers Delight," an instrumental hip hop album that's cool and not too obstrusive.

He also suggests stuff by DJ Shadow, DJ Krush, Maker, Madlib, and Prefuse 73.
posted by misozaki at 7:29 PM on March 25, 2006

Orbital have always worked for me.
posted by jamesonandwater at 7:49 PM on March 25, 2006

I was searching for the same type of music and I found an album that fit the bill perfectly for me. It might work for you as well. Mono and World's End Girlfriend released a callabroative album called "Palmless Prayer/Mass Murder Refrain"

It's quite mellow with a lot of strings, there are the epic crescendos but not nearly as bombastic as godspeed can be. I did a quick search and found an MP3 you can download from this blog...
posted by monsta coty scott at 7:58 PM on March 25, 2006

If you want movie music, then Craig Armstrong is your man. His music is nothing if not cinematic. Beautiful beautiful sounds, with that not quite Eno feel to them, yet theatric at the same time.
posted by seawallrunner at 7:58 PM on March 25, 2006

Along the lines of what vacapinta suggested, I recommend No commercials, streaming, all-instrumental, very nice. I also like somafm a lot. I'm a writer, and I listen to one or the other all day at work to drown out noisy officemates.
posted by acridrabbit at 8:00 PM on March 25, 2006

i often work to the same stuff i listen to for pleasure, but sometimes, if i really want to zone things out and concentrate, i resort to classical piano. i recently bought the set with both glen gould's goldberg variations, and find they work particularly well. the set includes an interview on the third disk where he explains how he manages to get a uniform sense of rhythm throughout the performance despite significant changes of temp between individual pieces, and i think that helps reduce the "jolt" between tracks.

and there's a balance between change and unity across the variations that keeps things both coherent and interesting. however, i suspect if you had a better musical ear/education you might find them too interesting.
posted by andrew cooke at 8:00 PM on March 25, 2006

DJ Olive.
posted by salvia at 8:14 PM on March 25, 2006

If you have Winamp you can get access to free XM stations...their New Age one is great for when I'm studying and probably; it's pleasant but not so noticable that you'd be distracted from your work. Also, you say vocals distract you but that's probably only English vocals...listening to foreign music probably wouldn't distract you as much. I especially like French music; it's a lot of fun, pretty mellow and can make you very worldly, of course. But with foreign music in general, you can listen to a corss-section of music and not worry about distraction...iTunes has a ton of stations and you can just google around. Anyway, internet radio offers a zillion options, so look into that.

Coincidently, I am listening to one of my favorite background noise albums, "Chet Atkins Picks on the Beatles". Yeah, it's so not punk rock but it's very pleasant, and this is coming from someone who hates most country with a passion. He has a lot of good stuff too so I encourage you to check him out.
posted by apple scruff at 8:15 PM on March 25, 2006

Oval - Diskont94
Tindersticks - Nenette et Boni soundtrack
Yasume - Where We're From, the Birds Sing a Pretty Song
Tortoise - Millions Now Living Will Never Die
Fourtet - Hands
The Octopus Project - Identification Parade
Chronomad - Sokut
33.3 - Plays Music
To Rococo Rot - The Amateur View
posted by kaseijin at 8:17 PM on March 25, 2006

Seconding Orbital and Boards of Canada. I also recommend RJD2, Air, and the Groove Salad channel on somafm.
posted by makonan at 8:18 PM on March 25, 2006

I was coming here to say Orbital, but jamesonandwater beat me to it. I'm not a big huge fan of electronica or trance or whatever, but I bought In Sides when it came out and it became the default CD to put on when I was working. I remember once putting it on when my brother was working on his computer and 20 minutes or so into it he was asking "what's this? It's great."
It's not like it's wallpaper, but it's not distracting either.
posted by chococat at 8:20 PM on March 25, 2006

Two instrumental movie soundtracks:

The Mission (I love this, especially the woody flute parts.)

The Gladiator (my boyfriend loves this soundtrack. faux-ancient music.)

And here's an exceptional soundtracks list that lists both of those (so he must be right about the others that I haven't heard). He recommends the Bladerunner soundtrack. I'm not sure if that is instrumental though.

And my favorite studying music:

Lynn Harrell Bach Cello Suites
posted by 9000.68 at 8:24 PM on March 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

My experience is that I have to listen to very familiar music in order to concentrate. I do better listening to my favorite CDs, even if they're loud or fast or whatever, than to a relaxing classical piece that I've never heard. It might be that if I don't know the piece I'm listening to, I want to actively pay attention to it rather than my work. Perhaps this approach will help you, rather than trying to find music that fits specific criteria.
posted by danb at 8:30 PM on March 25, 2006

Henry Purcell's instrumental music, especially the fantasies for multiple violas.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:31 PM on March 25, 2006

Some artists I've gone to for similar purposes lately:

Explosions in the Sky
Arthur Lyman

I also recommend Stan Getz and Jobim, as a previous poster did. And Henry Mancini soundtracks to TOUCH OF EVIL and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY's have been good to me lately too. Ditto also the DJ Shadow mention from earlier. Tangerine Dream is something I've been meaning to seek out more for these purposes too.

Other good stuff: the EXOTICA soundtrack, Friends of Dean Martinez, Herbie Hancock's SECRETS, Donald Byrd's ELECTRIC BYRD, almost everything Angelo Badalementi does, Amon Tobin, Air, Herb Alpert, etc, etc.
posted by iced_borsch at 8:31 PM on March 25, 2006

Normally, I can't study with music on, but I have one exception: Dots and Loops by Stereolab. It perfectly combines staying in the background with a driving rhythm that keeps you alert. It's not instrumental, but the vocals don't call attention to themselves, so it feels like it is. I've sworn by it for the last ten years.
posted by umbú at 8:40 PM on March 25, 2006

Pat Metheney.
posted by kindall at 8:49 PM on March 25, 2006

I just spent two hours writing up workshop notes to some south Asian hiphop while there's a raging party going on next door. It's plenty upbeat, and the bass and steady beats seem to mask the outside noise much better than soaring movie soundtracks. I don't pay attention to the words because I have no idea what they mean.
posted by mochapickle at 8:56 PM on March 25, 2006

maybe Benjamin Britten?
posted by amberglow at 8:58 PM on March 25, 2006

posted by gazole at 9:11 PM on March 25, 2006

I'll second the Feel Good Lost recommendation and also suggest Do Make Say Think. I used to keep Goodbye Enemy Airship The Landlord is Dead on constant repeat for paper-writing.
posted by one.louder.ash! at 9:16 PM on March 25, 2006

Previously on ask.metafilter.
posted by dobbs at 9:20 PM on March 25, 2006

I recommend sea and cake.
posted by puke & cry at 9:24 PM on March 25, 2006

Second Tortoise.

I use the Mushroom Jazz sets to study. The sets themselves seem to be a study in how to use the same 10 samples over and over. The songs differ just enough to keep you interested, but the prevailing theme makes it sound like one long song in the background.
posted by easyasy3k at 9:27 PM on March 25, 2006

Brian Eno's Music for Airports
posted by fvox13 at 9:32 PM on March 25, 2006

I've enjoyed listening to archives of the WFMU program Gateway to Joy for purposes similar to what you describe. of course, since it's a radio show, it's not a single artist and sometimes not instrumental but always calming and tasteful.
posted by The_Auditor at 10:01 PM on March 25, 2006

I've got to second Glenn Gould playing Bach, although I've always preferred The Well-Tempered Clavier. Philip Glass' Solo Piano also works nicely, and fits your criteria.
posted by hwickline at 10:13 PM on March 25, 2006

For some reason the music that helped me ignore the loud party next door was The Residents' Commercial Album, which is 40 one- and two-minute-long songs that range from eerie to irritating. Not for everyone, but it worked for me.

I second Erik Satie, and would add Glen Gould's rendition of Bach's Goldberg Variations. Or maybe Sonny Sharrock's Ask the Ages.

Or you could turn your speakers upward and blast Dillinger Escape Plan until they all flee in terror.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:21 PM on March 25, 2006

Some people can listen to music without hearing the lyrics--my problem as a fairly literal person is that I can't help but listen to the lyrics, and when I know the songs, I can't help but sing along (if only in my head) even when I think the song's dumb. So I'd listen to movie soundtracks, or songs with foreign lyrics.

My favourite study soundtracks back in the day were Shakespeare in Love, Dying Young and Andrea Bocelli's Romanza.
posted by phoenixc at 10:33 PM on March 25, 2006

Pat Metheny (although jazz), Explosions in the Sky, Mogwai, M83 --

and also, my top recommendation: Empress. These guys are really slow and minimalist, but they're good.

DRM-free, registration-free, legal sample here.
posted by provolot at 10:33 PM on March 25, 2006

Ravel's and Debussey's string quartets, my favorite version is performed by a saxophone quartet, they are similar and often together on recordings. Eric Satie's Gnossiennes are very good also.
posted by hortense at 10:33 PM on March 25, 2006

Whoops, didn't see the Eno part.

I've listened to My Bloody Valentine's Loveless so much that I use them for study music -- try them out maybe, as noise-ful and shoegaze-y as they are..
posted by provolot at 10:38 PM on March 25, 2006

Philip Glass meets all the requirements you've set and then some. The "Koyaanisqatsi" soundtrack is nice and accessible, but for sheer length, go with "Einstein on the Beach". Orbital (esp. "In Sides") is also quite worthy. Massive Attack's "Mezzanine" has vocals, but they fade into the music more often than not.

And dub. You need dub. Go get yourself some King Tubby remixes.

I'd recommend Gavin Bryars' "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet," but that's more of a "use the saddest piece of music ever to render the upstairs neighbors incapable of doing anything" thing.
posted by Vervain at 11:02 PM on March 25, 2006

Seconding Gas & Boards of Canada for getting things done. Not too sure about Broken Social Scene & Mogwai - although I like them a lot - something about the (mostly) instrumental (post) rock I find lends itself more to letting the mind wander.

I'm a little surprised Aphex Twin/AFX hasn't been mentioned. Whenever I need some serious mental work done I find Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is just the ticket. Drukqs seems made for very late nights IFOC whilst I Care Because You Do is a good way to wake my brain up.

If you like electronic music at all, you could do worse than just start a general exploration of IDM...
posted by hgws at 11:05 PM on March 25, 2006

I'd really have to recommend The Album Leaf, particularly the album 'In a Safe Place'. Also, Because of Ghosts are a good choice as far as post-rock.

For something a bit more chilled out I'd suggest Nightmares on Wax or Zero 7.
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 11:19 PM on March 25, 2006

posted by JekPorkins at 11:22 PM on March 25, 2006

Internet radio stations:

SomaFM's Groove Salad feed
Iceberg Radio's Chill feed

Bands :

Pink Floyd
King Crimson
Tangerine Dream
Thievery Corperation
The Orb
and, inexplicably, early Rolling Stones
posted by Afroblanco at 11:31 PM on March 25, 2006

I really enjoy classical pianist Christopher O'Riley's stuff. His 'True Love Waits' and later 'Hold Me To This' albums consist of instrumental Radiohead cover songs, and 'Home to Oblivion' is a tribute to Elliott Smith. Check 'em out.
posted by jimmythefish at 12:09 AM on March 26, 2006

Orbital, Boards of Canada, The Orb, etc. Also pretty much anything along the lines of Neu. A lot of space rock has too much dynamic range to be music that I can work to, and that's doubly the case for post-rock [Godspeed, Mogwai, etc.] Anything that's got a steady rhythm, a limited dynamic range, and few vocals works well.
posted by ubersturm at 12:28 AM on March 26, 2006

Perfume Tree is mellow electronic, there are some vocals but they're basically indecipherable, so not distracting.
posted by number9dream at 12:42 AM on March 26, 2006

The Requiem for a Dream soundtrack (and the Requiem for a Dream Remixed) are some of my favorite albums. Great themed 'techno'.
posted by devilsbrigade at 12:44 AM on March 26, 2006

As danb mentions, it's highly helpful if you're familiar with the albums and tracks. All of the below I've listened to hundreds of times over, so YMMV as far as it being nice background music.

Boards of Canada
Casino versus Japan
Some Bill Laswell
Tetsuo Inoue
Almost anything on the "FAX" label
DJ Food
Luke Vibert AKA Wagon Christ
The Orb
Earlier Scanner
Hardkiss' "Delusions of Granduer"
Experimental Audio Research's "Mesmerized"
Nurse With Wound vs. Stereolab "Trippin w/ the Birds" and "Simple Headphone Mind"
Coil's "The Snow EP"
Psychick Warriors of Gaia's "Breakshifted"
Ambient Temple of Imagination's "Mystery School"
Neu! - especially Neu!'s "Negativland" - from which the modern band of the same name gets its name.
Up, Bustle and Out
Ninja Tunes
Thievery Corporation
Mark Farina's slow-house-dub DJ sets
Some Cylob
Some Jega

There's tons more. You might like my occasional DJ sets on radio MetaChat.

You might not, though, if you primarily listen to punk. But know that I used to primarily listen to older punk and ska, and it's the hands-on, DIY, punk-like ethics of this music that attracted me to it in the first place. Plus it just sounds... neat. Different. Intriguing. Disturbing or dark yet comforting and warm.

I'm absolutely and unashamedly addicted to "furniture music" that's broad-spectrum tonal grooves and noises, be it beatless ambient or neo-hiphop and acid jazz. Stuff that is nice in the background as truly ambient noise, but stuff that's still very nice for active listening and enjoyment. I like my music to speak to me with music, not words. Good music doesn't require words.

Shush, you post-punk angst-pop hipsters. I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
posted by loquacious at 1:50 AM on March 26, 2006

when i made my post i was going to mention harpsichord for lack of dynamic range, but forgot - anyway, here's a second for drukqs (except for the answering machine, but iirc that's only on one disk).
posted by andrew cooke at 4:58 AM on March 26, 2006

Euphone Hashin' It Out
The Fucking Champs IV

How about Jazz?
Miles Davis All-Stars Walkin'
Sonny Clark Sonny's Crib
Lee Morgan Sidewinder
Kenny Dorham Afro-Cuban
posted by bwilms at 6:28 AM on March 26, 2006

Eric Clapton - Rush soundtrack
posted by raider at 6:31 AM on March 26, 2006

For this type of thing, we tend to go with flamenco or, as previously stated, SomaFM.
posted by moira at 7:18 AM on March 26, 2006

Mars Lasar (or his alter-ego "Karma").
posted by Merdryn at 7:25 AM on March 26, 2006

Sigur Ros.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:42 AM on March 26, 2006

Ohhh, Serial Killer Slumber Party has it right – The Album Leaf's "In A Safe Place" is an amazing album and great for studying.
posted by patr1ck at 10:28 AM on March 26, 2006

I find two kinds of music help drown out distractions. Bach fugues, and glitch electronica like Autechre. Both types of music affect me the same way. They're engaging and intricate and beautiful, but somehow the lack of "narrative" in the music means it doesn't rob me of my concentration.
posted by Nelson at 10:45 AM on March 26, 2006



posted by billysumday at 10:46 AM on March 26, 2006

I like Errol Garner's "Penthouse Serenade"
posted by bkeaggy at 10:49 AM on March 26, 2006

Sigur Ros (which has vocals but they are in Icelandic and also a made up language, so I consider them more of an instrument)
posted by sugarfish at 11:06 AM on March 26, 2006

Claude Bolling.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:05 PM on March 26, 2006

if you want old-school ambient, i just came back from the shops with a sampler from all saints records called "compounds + elements" that has 18 tracks by budd, eno etc, for a rather reasonable price.
posted by andrew cooke at 12:13 PM on March 26, 2006

Lotus - Float
posted by furiousxgeorge at 3:57 PM on March 26, 2006

Angela Hewitt's interpretation of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier Books One and Two is perfectly pitched for this application.Failing that Shoutcast has shedloads of streams of downbeat / ambienty stuff.You have my sympathy.Noisy neighbors are a curse.Best of luck with your 'other means'.
posted by Dr.Pill at 4:09 PM on March 26, 2006

autechre - tri repitae
This is my working music. I put this cd on and I know I will get a solid hour of work done.
Its very repetitive, doesnt distract you to much, it turns me into a busy worker drone.
I think the first user review on the amazon page sums it up pretty well
posted by phyle at 4:53 PM on March 26, 2006

Steve Reich's 'Music for 18 Musicians' always does the trick for me.
posted by hogweed at 1:02 PM on March 27, 2006

Mono - Japanese post-rock outfit.
Tarental - percussion-based electronica, similar to the Bays.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 10:01 AM on April 23, 2006

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