On the Subject of Reading with Music

It has been my observation that people fall into two camps when it comes to reading with music: those who do and those who don’t. I admit that I fall into the former group, and I thought it might be an interesting subject to cover. The reasons for not listening to music while reading seem pretty obvious; distraction that leads to lessened comprehension and attention to what is happening in the story is most likely the biggest drawback, but what about the positive experience of listening to music for those who choose to do so?

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I wonder if anyone there is reading; hopefully not since that’s rude to do at a performance.

I will clearly only be speaking on my own behalf, but I find that I listen to different genres or artists while reading depending on what I am listening to in general. Rather than having one favorite band, I have nine (because I am difficult like that), and I usually choose them because that I have heard them many times; as such, they are more like background noise than something I am actively listening to. Cleverly, I call them The Big 9 – Circa Survive, Closure in Moscow, Coheed & Cambria, The Dear Hunter, He Is Legend, Manchester OrchestraMastodonPeriphery, and Radical Face. These bands usually fit well to a certain genre that I am reading; I often turn to Mastodon, whose music lends itself to epic fantasy, and He Is Legend, whose lyrics make a lot of references to superstitions and witchcraft and as such their songs have an ethereal quality with gritty riffs. For science fiction, I listen to Coheed & Cambria and Muse (I know, not in the Big 9) because their music makes a lot of references in their lyrics to science fiction literature and stories and their musical style uses a lot of digital layering and cinematic tones. Most general fiction that I read has The Dear Hunter, Circa Survive, or Radical Face in the background due to the variety of their catalogs. I do want to stress that these aren’t necessarily written in stone and a lot of what I listen to while reading depends upon what mood I am in.

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My collection of vinyl records so far.

When it comes time to read older literature or nonfiction, both of which typically require more of my attention to retain, I will listen to Philip Glass’s piano music because it is repetitive (in a good way) and keeps steady sound and rhythm in the background. I will also use a reading playlist I created that features classical music, film soundtracks, and other songs that are all instrumental and allow me to focus on the story at hand. As you may have noted from my Music Monday posts, I collect vinyl, but I don’t listen to it when reading because it requires stopping to get up and change the record; though, I will do so sometimes when writing. This is one of the few differences, for me, regarding listening to music while writing and while reading. I am much more open to what I listen to while writing because, as long as it fits the mood I am in, I typically can tune it out (pun slightly intended) and focus on my work.

I realize that everyone is different; we all read, listen to music, and do so many other things for our own reasons. I personally like to listen to some albums on repeat while reading a story so that the two become interlinked in my memory and I associate one with the other (The Dear Hunter’s album, Migrant, will forever be linked with Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: Wizard and Glass because the record was released while I was reading that novel). I don’t know; maybe I’m just weird.

So I suppose this is where I hand it off to you, my dear reader. Do you listen to music when you read or write and if so, how do you go about choosing what to listen to? If you don’t listen to music while reading/writing, do you have a specific reason? I would love to hear your thoughts!

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43 thoughts on “On the Subject of Reading with Music

  1. Interesting post! Thinking on my own habits, I most listen to instrumental works while I’m reading. But the specifics are based entirely on what I’m reading. History or historical fiction will have era- appropriate background. For Tolkien or Star Wars or whatever, I’ll break out those film scores. Whatever really sets the mood best. Same with blogging. The subject matter points me to the music.

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    1. Thank you! I tried listening to the Howard Shore soundtracks while reading Lord of the Rings (which I absolutely love), but just found myself thinking of the parts of the movie that went with the songs, which made reading “Concerning Hobbits” a bit asynchronous with the music of The Last Alliance haha. But I definitely agree mood is the deciding factor.

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      1. It’s really difficult to separate the scores from the films in some cases, I agree. That’s the nature of iconic music like that. It took a long time to get to that point for me. The weekly Tolkien chapter blog helped it along. The music got me into the proper mindset because I started with The Hobbit and don’t really know the films nearly as well as LOTR. The scores are every bit as good too, so it sets the mood while being less intrusive.

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  2. Funnily enough, reading is the one thing I don’t like to listen to music while doing! I always listen to music while writing, as well as driving, doing chores, and pretty much anything active, but never while reading. I spent a good deal of my youth working in stables and would always listen to music while working, especially cleaning tack, so I now have a Pavlovian response to music that says, “Work actively!” So I can write to it and it actually seems to help me concentrate, but not read to it.

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    1. Haha, there are definitely worse Pavlovian responses to have to hearing music! If there is an option to be listening to music, I will choose it. I pretty much have some in the background of my life at all times unless I am at work (where I can’t since I work in retail) or watching a movie. Thanks for commenting!

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  3. I don’t make an effort to listen to music or not to listen to music while I read. If I’m reading a good book, I will tune everything out, to the point that I will not hear someone who is talking to me. The only thing that cuts through the fog of my reading concentration is my name (or Mom, now that I am one). Otherwise, I don’t hear the background noise at all so it doesn’t matter what’s on.

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    1. That makes sense! I suppose I seldom make an attempt to listen to something specific (though I am currently listening to Circa Survive while reading because it is a favorite band that led me to the author of said book, who also enjoys them).

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  4. At the back of his recent novels, Ian McDonald has playlists of what he listened to while writing the book.

    I definitely don’t like to listen to music with lyrics when reading fiction though I do listen to a variety of instrumental stuff (often classical, John Foxx, or Tomita). Don’t listen to music much while reading non-fiction books. However, when reading magazines or online, I’ll listen to any kind of music.

    When reading poetry, absolutely no music of any kind on. When writing poetry, I like to often listen to music with strong lyrics of a poetic nature (most often Brian McNeill, I Draw Slow, or Warren Zevon) to remind me of the rhythm and forms I want to emulate.

    Blog writing — pretty much any kind of music. The few and far between times I attempt fiction, I want nothing on.

    The music on cds though I suppose putting my vinyl on would give my body a break after every side.

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  5. I do listen to music while reading but can’t listen to songs in German because that’s too distracting. Instrumental songs are fine, languages I don’t understand as well, and oddly also English even though I understand English just as well as German (unless it’s some really thick dialect) but I can somehow ‘tune out’ the lyrics quite easily.
    For writing, it’s somehow not as bad. I can listen to anything, no matter what language. I guess because when I get distracted by the lyrics I just stop writing and listen for a moment, but when I’m reading I just continue reading without absorbing anything and then I need to figure out what the last sentence I actually read was XD

    But I think apart from doing parts of my last LotR-re-read to the movie-soundtrack I rarely match books and music. I usually have something I’m currently listening to and that’s also on while I’m reading (unless it’s the wrong language)

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    1. That’s so interesting! I know what you mean about losing retention if paying too much attention to lyrics; that’s why I have listened to most of the bands I listed so many times that I don’t need to focus on the lyrics as much, if at all. Thanks for commenting!

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  6. Listening to music, definitely 🙂 I’m tuning out anyway if the book is interesting, but I like to have good music in the background – it’s a great mood maker/enhancer.

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  7. Years ago I would usually listen to music while reading on the bus, but where I live now most of my commutes are no longer than 15 minutes, and I have taken a shine to podcasts. So it’s not really a matter of me being distracted by the music, more that I fell out of the habit.

    I sometimes listen to music when I’m writing at home, but oddly enough lately I’ve been listening to episodes of The Joy of Painting. Bob’s soothing voice and the sound of the brush put me in a good head space.

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  8. I really love listening to music while I read or write. For reading it actually helps me concentrate, as I get easily distracted by my surroundings, and draws me more into the story. The funniest thing about it is that sometimes the music that I happen to listen and the book start to connect. For example, t​he music of La la land and the books of Miss Peregrine will always be connected in my head haha!
    For reading it helps me set the mood for the part that I’m writing at the moment. And again, it helps me focus haha

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  9. Oh, I love this topic! I don’t listen to music while I read, but it’s probably because I really can’t. The distraction is too much. It’s also why I have a hard time with audiobooks. The narrators have to be completely engaging, or I just tune out. I think it has to do with having children that I have perfected the ‘tune out’ method. Lol! I do like to listen to music when I write, and it tends to help me keep moving along with my thoughts. I really enjoy listening to classical jazz for that and sometimes an alternative type band as well! =D

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    1. That’s a fair point! I haven’t listened to an audiobook because I know a narrator can make or break the experience; plus, I feel like I would just start imagining the narrator sitting in a chair reading rather than the action of the story. Thanks for sharing!

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  10. I have had 6 artists on my ipod for the last two years. This is due to my pc crashing and me never having had the funds to repair/buy a new one, download itunes and rework all my owned albums into it so i can put it back into my ipod. My music I listn to when reading goes thusly… A Forest of Stars for psychedelic obscure atmosphere, Fear Factory for brutal guttarals and machines taking over the world music, A Perfect Circle for some not so heavy tunes, Sepultura cuase I love the Roots album and lastly Septic Flesh, i have one album on that I realy liked, lastly, Cult of Luna cuase I fkn looove them and saw them live in2016 and also had a chance to talk with the lead vocalist… I usualy put it on random and read. I only read with this on when noises outside are bothering me(wich is almost always…)

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  11. What a great topic! For me, personally, I really love the idea of listening to music while reading/writing, and wish that I could, but in most cases, I just can’t do it. Usually, I find myself far too distracted by the music, and the ballet dancer side of me ends up creating choreography in my mind, instead of doing what I’m supposed to be. 🙂 This is especially true when it comes to writing! I do find that in rare cases, if the music fits especially well with my current read, I can listen to it while reading, but like I said, that’s pretty rare.

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  12. Interesting post! I do listen to music (with lyrics!) while I write or read. It’s usually the same song or two on repeat, just to “fence in my thoughts” in their repetitiveness, if that makes sense. It sounds ironic, but it’s what gets me into focused mode. Once I’m focused enough on what I’m writing/reading I turn the music off. 😀

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  13. I usually don’t listen to music while I’m reading but when I do it’s almost always Jazz. That’s the only music I can listen to without being distracted. I do find that I can read in a loud and noisy bar atmosphere. It seems I am able to tune out the noise and distraction. It is actually a rather Pleasant thing to do.

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  14. I usually read in silence, but when I do put music on it can’t have lyrics, even from bands I’ve listened to a lot. It also can’t have a saxophone or have a beat/rhythm that’s too complicated or else I start to focus more on the music.

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  15. So it is interesting when you talk about lyrics while reading. Do you listen to the lyrics? I love music in the background, but am not often listening for lyrics. Could be because I get distracted easily.

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    1. Most of the songs that have lyrics appropriate to the genre often have the instrumentation to fit the mood as well, so I think that is really how they’re connected when I read. I often tune them out while reading, but the knowledge is in the back of my head that a song is about a witch while I’m reading about witches; of that makes sense haha.

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  16. When I was in middle school, I listened to Queen’s “Magic” album while reading Neanderthal by John Darton (which reminds me I need to reread that and review it some day). But since then the only music I listen to while reading–if I listen to any at all–is classical, mainly because it’s only instruments and no vocals.

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  17. I’ve actually been thinking about this recently! I usually can’t have anything in the background while reading. But awhile ago, I don’t know why, I felt like I wanted to have something in the background since my apartment building is too quiet sometimes. I tried putting on some background music I found on youtube for focusing and I actually liked it. If I put something on with lyrics or a song I like it’ll definitely distract me too much.

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  18. Pingback: On the Subject of Reading with Music — The Past Due Review – MobsterTiger

  19. I typically don’t listen to music while reading…. But when there is a lot of noise (i.e. bf is watching TV, people talking, noisy neighbors, etc.) I use the music to drown out the other noises and focus on reading. I can’t stand when people are talking when I’m reading cuz I end up focusing on that. Somehow music is different. I listen to what I usually listen to, but I blast it in my headphones and I can then focus primarily on reading. 😊

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