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What do I listen to while painting?
Friends sometimes ask me what I listen to in the studio while I’m painting. Sometimes they’ll even ask me for a recommendation.
The answer, of course, is “Whatever works best for you”. But, for long periods of intense focus on detail-oriented work, I have found that some things work better than others.
Since this applies to much more than just painting, I decided to share my thoughts about this. It might be helpful for many types of activities in your daily and working life.
Focusing on Focus
For as long as I remember, I’ve had a hard time maintaining steady focus. I get distracted easily by new ideas constantly bubbling up and by all kinds of external stimulus from the surrounding environment.
It’s often difficult to keep my attention on detail-oriented tasks for extended periods. Considering what I do for a living, that might seem like an enormous obstacle. It is. But, over time I’ve developed strategies to strengthen my concentration when it really counts.
About a dozen years ago, I even tried Ritalin briefly. It worked, but I hated the way it made me feel. Before long, I stopped taking it and went back to relying on the methods I’ve used to be productive since childhood.
After all, those techniques have allowed me to successfully compose Classical music, develop computer software, and paint the highly-detailed traditional still life that I am proud to be able to share with you.
The Sound Environment
Rather than thinking in terms of listening to music while I work, I think about sculpting the sound environment of my studio. In fact, often what’s playing in my studio isn’t really even music, strictly speaking.
Depending on my mood, my frame of mind, and how well I am (or am not) able to focus, I can adjust this sound environment to give myself the best shot at a successful working day, which is of course the whole point.
Taking one step back, we can even see that sound has always been an integral part of our surroundings. The natural world is a riot of sound, even when it isn’t loud. Being plugged into it and deeply aware of it must have been crucial to our ancestors’ survival. Think how important it would be to be aware of that snapping twig behind you – is it a tiger?
Empowering, not Entertaining
So what I need, then, is not entertainment – or worse – even more distraction! I need something that filters out interruptions from the world around me.
Far more important, the right choices can help put me into what psychologists call the “flow” state. It’s that wonderful place where the rest of the world falls away. What’s left is you and whatever you’re focusing on. Nothing else.
There’s nothing mysterious about this state. It’s that feeling of getting lost in something – be it cooking a meal, watching a movie, or having a good conversation. Some even would say that achieving this state of mind is even more important than the activity that induces it.
The flow state is an absolute requirement for making art. For that matter, it’s required for any activity requiring extended thought, attention, and creativity. Without it, good work is impossible, no matter what the endeavor.
If I can make choices that keep me in that state for more than an hour, completely productive and focused on the work in front of me, I consider it a total win.
Some Choices are Bad
Of course, everybody is different. As I said above, the only thing that matters is what works for you. For myself, I’ve found that some things definitely work better than others. Some choices are downright wrong.
This has nothing to do with taste or enjoyment. In fact, there are certain kinds of music I wish I could listen to in the studio. But, this isn’t about keeping me entertained. It’s about keeping me painting.
In general, I find that short is bad.
Long, steady concentration seems to require an equally long and steadily unfolding musical experience. A song which begins and ends in just a few minutes contributes to the fragmented thinking I’m trying to avoid.
Unfortunately, this eliminates most pop music, since most songs are less than five minutes long. I also generally find music with words too distracting. Focusing on the lyrics probably activates a part of my brain that I’m trying to keep focused on my easel.
The spoken word is often bad – listening to news or current events programs especially. Since news is so emotionally charged, it usually kills my ability to focus. There are a few exceptions which I’ll mention below.
What Works for Me
So what does work?
Classical music – especially the big 19th Century symphonies. This music was almost designed to induce the flow state. The whole point is to take you on a long journey through a vast musical landscape. They’re very long – often over an hour – and the very best of them function as one extended musical thought.
There’s also a good argument to made that paintings which are meant to elevate and inspire should be created in an elevated and inspiring environment. I do intend that my paintings should enrich viewers in some way. It makes sense then that I should do my work surrounded by even greater beauty that what I’m able to create on my own.
A nearly endless stream of this music can be found on YouTube – both famous and obscure. Simply search for the symphonies of Brahms, Mahler, Bruckner, Dvorak, Raff, Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky just to name a few.
Although it’s very tricky and inconsistent, sometimes the spoken word can induce the flow state as well. In order for this to work, it needs to be an extended and uninterrupted train of thought. Some audiobooks – especially novels – do this well. I often find that long-format interviews can do this as well, where both parties are involved in a deep exploration of interesting ideas. For example, Joe Rogan conducts conversations with fascinating people that regularly last nearly 3 hours. Find him on YouTube as well.
Finally, for me the best music to listen to in the studio isn’t even music. It’s ambient sound – long tracks of non-musical soundscapes that make a perfect backdrop for concentrated work. These are recordings of storms, fireplaces, forests – even the drone of airplane engines. Creators will loop these sounds into multi-hour tracks that I can simply set to play all day long.
It’s just enough sound to block out distractions but never enough to demand my attention. It provides a reassuring “hum” in the background without interrupting my thoughts. They are sort of like an old familiar visitor who keeps me company but never makes too many demands on me.
YouTube also has thousands of these tracks. Since they’re a little trickier to find than the symphonies of Brahms, I’ve assembled a playlist for you with about 60 hours of sound. Click here to listen.
The world around us is making it easier and easier to be constantly distracted. No matter what kind of work you do, though, it’s possible to make your environment more conducive to concentration. The right approach makes it easier to get focused and stay focused. I hope these simple suggestions are helpful to you.