On Background Music

By

The “Plays” category of my iTunes and Spotify lists fails to adequately represent my musical tastes. While I would claim Radiohead (circa ’97-07) as my there’s-a-gun-to-your-head-so-pick-one-now musical favorite, it’s not even a fair fight between the most-played artist among my list of albums. That title belongs to Ólafur Arnalds.

Sometimes I might listen to Arvo Pärt. Other times, Sigur Rós hits the spot. Mostly, however, Arnalds fits the bill. Any time I write, which these days is most of the time, Arnalds is the background music of choice, the lingering arrangements perfectly framing thoughts and phrases as they come or soothing me when they fail to arrive.

For those who are unaware, Arnalds is a mid-20s Icelandic composer and I wanted to pass this along to you as a gift from my background to yours. I’ve a near-borderline obsession with anything Scandinavian/Icelandic when it comes music, but I believe anyone will appreciate the mood created by the simple recordings of Living Room Songs. All of the tracks are free downloads offering snapshots of the quick takes he put together in his tiny Icelandic apartment.

But this is not just a post about free music. Instead, since this is a community made up of so many artists and appreciators, I’m assuming that we all have our favorite background music. To that end, I’d love to hear your favorites. For such a prominent aspect of our creative lives, it’s something rarely discussed. Do you have a favorite way to fill the silence or do you prefer to avoid any unnecessary noise?

“Þú ert sólin”
by Ólafur Arnalds
from …and they have escaped the weight of darkness

Profile photo of Matt Conner

Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.


60 Comments

  1. John Barber

    No question, my favorite background music is from Linford Detweiler (of Over the Rhine fame). His piano albums, especially ‘I Don’t Think There’s No Need to Bring Nothin,’ are fantastic. They always do the trick for me.

  2. Seth

    I would have to say Fernando Ortega’s “Beginnings” Collection. His piano pieces help me zone out everything except what I am working on.

  3. LauraP

    Wow, what a gift to find here this morning. Thanks for sharing this, Matt.

    For me, there is no such thing as “background” music. Whatever else I’m doing, music takes over my brain entirely, so I can’t be doing anything else that requires thought when I play it. Sometimes that annoys me, because it limits the amount of time I can spend listening to it. But the upside is that putting in my ear buds and playing the right music is the best way I know to settle down my monkey brain when it gets too wound up.

  4. The One True Stickman

    Background music depends on what I’m doing…

    Writing or designing/problem solving often demands silence so my brain doesn’t get distracted and confused. On the other hand, Getting Stuff Done (like cleaning, or shop work) is often aided by cranking up some old Audio Adrenaline or Earthsuit/Mute Math or something similarly energetic.

    In quieter moods George Winston (I think I sense a piano theme), random classical stuff, or new age/celtic (like almost anything from Windham Hill) does it. For some reason Coldplay’s X&Y and the one Clannad disc I have hit the unobtrusively energetic spot in between that not much else does.

  5. Hannah Joy

    Background music really depends on what I feel I need. If I need to settle down and focus on something like geometry or science, Chris Rice, Danny Oertli, Andrew Peterson 🙂 or Rich Mullins are the ones for me. I like to write to movie soundtracks, especially Lord of the Rings and Narnia ones. I also listen to Celtic to calm me down. However, there are times I need to be revved up subconsciously, and then I listen to stuff like Five Iron Frenzy, Jars of Clay, The W’s, and something that will push my brain to creativity and livliness without me really realizing it.

    I also like Joshua Bell’s violin pieces. Very beautiful and calming. 🙂 I could go on and on, so I better stop here.

  6. Jess

    I’m with LauraP, music won’t ever go to the background with me. Which is sometimes frustrating, especially as I like to have music playing all the time. I have a hard time getting things done instead of absent-mindedly sitting still and enveloping myself in the music. Not a very good multi-tasker, I’m afraid.

    But this was lovely, and I was glad to let it arrest my brain for a bit. Thank you. 🙂

  7. Aaron Smith

    LAURAP–I understand what you mean. Most music takes my full attention. I have found some though that doesn’t. Music that I can work well to is a real blessing for me. Dave Brubeck, Bach (especially the cello suites and the well-tempered clavier) and Brian Eno all work great for me. I couldn’t believe how lovely Music for Airports (Eno) was, and then was so surprised at how different Apollo (Eno again) was while still being peaceful and working well in the background. Brubeck is great until/unless I start to think about how amazing Paul Desmond’s playing is!

  8. James Witmer

    Music with lyrics can make it hard for me to do more than routine tasks, although it’s often better than the conversations in my noisy office.
    When I need encouragement, while doing tasks, almost always someone Rabbit Room related. When I need music, but not words, I turn to Don Ross and Andy McKee.

  9. EmmaJ

    Sadly for me, I’m not a person who can concentrate too well with music when doing tasks that require focus and careful thought, so work time is usually silence time, but a new favorite companion for cooking and hanging out in the house time – very pleasant for a Saturday or Sunday morning – is Miriam Marston (Luggage of an Optimist).

  10. LauraP

    Aaron S – I’m going to go check out your Brian Eno recommendations right now! Really am getting into him lately.

    Will keep this page bookmarked for the other suggestions too. Have yet to find anything recommended in the Rabbit Room that didn’t meet or exceed my expectations.

  11. Chris

    Arnalds is great. A friend introduced me to his music a few years ago.

    I can and do listen to just about any kind of music (except country and modern rap), so it really depends on my mood and what I’m working on. But a few I’ve been going back to lately:

    All Sons and Daughters–their music is just fantastic.
    Bon Iver’s new album. Good background because the soundscapes are so prominent.
    The Civil Wars–Duh!
    Alyssa Sease–A great folksy singer-songwriter I accidentally discovered on Noisetrade and absolutely love.

  12. gllen

    – currently it’s Oliver Schroer – “Camino”, Rachel’s – “Music for Egon Schiele”, or Robert Fripp & Brian Eno – “Beyond Even.”
    – music with words, i reserve for when i’m cooking, cleaning, or doing other assorted chores about the place – or time devoted to listening…
    – oh, and Rolph Lislevand – “Diminuito.”

  13. Julie Silander

    Yo-Yo Ma – Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites

    Pat Metheny – Beyond the Missouri Sky, Secret Story, Still Life Talking (if you haven’t heard Last Train Home…)

  14. Laura Peterson

    John Barber – how have we never discussed how great Linford Detweiler is?? Wow.

    Matt, this is beautiful. Just the name, “Living Room Songs,” makes me feel more relaxed.

    When I think “background music,” I generally think of music without lyrics. (Unless I’m cooking – then my background music of choice is Jill Phillips, the soundtrack to “Les Choristes,” Norah Jones, or The Swell Season.) Back in college my music of choice while cranking out a paper was the trio of Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O’Connor with either Appalachian Journey or Appalachian Waltz. I think it would feel odd listening to those now without a Microsoft Word doc open on my desktop.

  15. Ryan Adams

    If I need some background music, my go to is Explosions in the Sky. While I think they definitely warrant concentrated listening time too, I could have them playing in the background on repeat at all times. My own personal soundtrack.

  16. Aaron Smith

    Julie–I love the Beyond the Missouri Sky album. Who knew that jazz could be so bright and cheery? Unfortunately, I can’t focus on anything else when it’s playing. The musicianship is just too amazing. Great music for cleaning house though!

    Gllen–I’ll check out the Fripp & Eno album. Thanks!

  17. PaulH

    Great topic. In contemplative, reading, thinking moments I enjoy instrumental music like George Winston, Spanish/Classical Guitar, Bill Evans Trio, and certain jazz oldies.

  18. Jimmie

    Arnalds reminds me of Max Richter (“On the Nature of Daylight”. featured in Shutter Island)…I love it! Here is some more of my favorite background music:

    Andrew Peterson- Carried Along (Actually…anything Andrew Peterson).
    Ryan Adams- Easy Tiger
    James Blunt- Back to Bedlam
    Sera Cahoone- Only as the Day is Long
    George Winston-Autumn
    Swell Season- Strict Joy
    Travis- The Boy with no Name

    And now Living Room Songs! Thanks for sharing!

  19. Kirsten

    I’m a little too excited to tell that Olafur Arnalds’ Living Room Sessions was also my go-to background music during the past few months! It was my good, wintry-but-not-Christmasy background music, but I’ve now moved onto my jazz and folk favorites, which include artists like:

    Kate Wolf, Anais Mitchell, Bon Iver, Joni Mitchell, Josh Ritter, Kathleen Edwards, James Taylor, Darrell Scott, Tim Eriksen, Alison Krauss, Ruth Moody, Solas, Lunasa, Walter Pardon, Dave Swarbrick, Kindling Stone, Andrew Peterson, Randy Newman, Madeleine Peyroux, Heather Masse, Diana Krall, Chet Baker, and Duke Ellington…and more! ha.

    Although, these artists/musics don’t so much serve as “backgrounders.” Rather, they help me to imagine that I’m ANYWHERE-ELSE but a flourescent-light-filled cubicle. 🙂

  20. zachary

    You folks are posting such great music. However, If any of this music were playing during my studies, nothing would get done! I am a silence guy. Too many unproductive study sessions have taught me this.

  21. tricia prinzi

    Matt: When I read the line, “obsession with Scandinavian music,” I pictured you dancing to Ace of Base and laughed. Thank you for that.

  22. Goodgame

    I’m with you, Zachary – and Laura and the others that need their quiet to get things done. I’ve got earplugs in right now. For household chores we usually play Aretha or Stevie Wonder or Alison Krauss. We move slower, but it’s more fun.

  23. Todd

    It all depends on mood:

    For serious “Getting Stuff Done” – It’s got to be Arvo Pärt.
    If I’m prepping a sermon or teaching – Explosions in the Sky
    If I’m feeling plucky or doing something mindless – Steve Martin on banjo

  24. Loren Warnemuende

    Gabriel Faure, particularly his Requiem, Pelleas et Melisande, and Pavane; beautiful stuff and not too distracting unless you’re fluent in French. The same goes for Delibes’ “Lakme.” I’ve never heard a more beautiful opera…. As long as I don’t understand the words, I can concentrate fairly well 🙂 . Of course, for housecleaning, I’m happy to have plenty of words I can sing along with or think about.

  25. gllen

    Aaron – for artistic commitment and pure beautiful craft, take a listen to Keith Jarrett & Charlie Haden “Jasmine” – it’s a CD for cozying up with someone special on a dark quiet evening in front of a crackling fire, and letting those hidden bits of life seep through…
    *** the short “essay” Keith wrote for the liner notes – i have not come across a more powerful and understanding description of the artistic stance in the midst of our quickly-changing world – Wow!

  26. whipple

    Matt, thank you so very much for introducing this music.

    I have to agree with John Barber, except I’ve only heard Linford Detweiler’s “Grey Ghost Stories.” Wonderfully pensive solo instrumentals. I’ve also had a running playlist on SoundCloud that includes some of Max Richter’s work from the film “Waltz with Bashir,” John Califra’s “Remembrance,” and a good deal of Eric Whitacre’s work – my favorite is “Sleep.”

    I won’t say I get much done with some of these, but they always bring me to a place where I can focus on characters and settings. They are not so much space-fillers as space-makers.

    I shall have to listen to Eno’s solo work. Been meaning to for years.

  27. Katherine Kamin

    This was beautiful – I like that description, Kirsten – “wintry, but not Christmasy”.

    Our go to backgrounds tend to be Bill Frisell, Madeleine Peyroux, Balmorhea, Arvo Part, Goat Rodeo, Chet Baker, and Johann Johnansson.

    But when I need to clean, it’s guilty pleasure time and that means Vox Humana and nothing else.

  28. Terry K

    I can’t believe that I don’t see anyone mentioning Phil Keaggy’s instrumental guitar releases. “Beyond Nature” is especially wonderful.

  29. Tom Della-Moretta

    I also want to thank Matt for the subject matter. I’ll wander all over the genre map for background stuff, but like Terry K., often have Keaggy, or Ross playing. Another fave is soft jazz stuff from Beegie Adair. Besides just being quite tight, it reminds me of how much my dad loved big band music. I can listen, and just see him dancing badly and embarrassing his grand kids.

  30. Jen

    This is lovely… thanks for introducing new music! And I like your ’97 – ’07 Radiohead disclaimer. 😉 I’d agree if I didn’t listen to The Bends so much.

    Background music does vary for me. If I’m writing a music review, then I listen to whatever I’m writing about. For writing in general, I go for either silence or drowning out the noise with big soundscapes and lyrics I can’t understand (or none at all.) Sigur Ros, Explosions in the Sky, or the new Bon Iver usually do the trick. I suppose Radiohead’s new album would work for this too. Otherwise, it has to be a record I have memorized so I can pretty much ignore the lyrics and not be distracted.

    Fun conversation!

  31. GeorgeW

    Trinity Sessions by the Cowboy Junkies. If I’ve written anything worthwhile, this album was playing in the background.

  32. Ben Humeniuk

    Ditto for Sigur Ros and Explosions. But I will out-guilty pleasure all of you:

    I listen to Star Trek scores.
    Now, this includes material from Jerry Goldsmith and Michael Giacchino, both of whom are Oscar-caliber. But I also dig Ron Jones’ synth-inspired stuff (like his Borg episode soundtracks).

    And! And Bear McCreary’s Battlestar Galactica scores, which are hands-down the best world music mashups ever to stimulate a popular drama. (You’ve also heard his stuff on The Walking Dead).

    And then there’s Tron: Legacy, which is all I listened to my last semester of school.

  33. Micah Pick

    If you like Ólafur Arnalds then you have to check out Max Richter, Nils Frahm, and Ludovico Einaudi. All very relaxing and enjoyable. I’m also I big fan of Julia Kent and Zoe Keating for background music.

  34. Micah Pick

    Also, along the same lines as Arvo Part, I love some Gorecki, Tavener, Ratuavaara, or some less experimental Ingram Marshall (Fog Tropes, or September).

  35. Nathaniel

    If you like Explosions In The Sky, I would also highly recommend –

    All The Bright Lights
    Hammock – Chasing After Shadows
    Clouds Echo In Blue

    GREAT music to inspire creativity.

  36. PaulH

    Amy, I am with you on that one as well. We have had that soundtrack in home since it came out and my now 17 yr old goes to bed with it playing. Every night. Magical.

  37. Matthew

    Thanks for the sample, I’m going to have to dig in further, I love background music. In general I can listen to a lot, but mostly I get distracted by lyrics, so Josh Garrels, Andrew Peterson, Derek Webb are not great background music. Sleeping at Last can be though his lyrics tend to be pretty interesting as well, but the classical compositions (at least with yearbook) are really great. I like Celtic Devotion (one of my favorite and simple Celtic albums by Oliver Schroer (my Dad found this cassette years ago in a Der Dutchman and I’ve loved it since, especially driving through Snowdonia, Whales). I could go on, but one of the odd pieces I’ve found that is some of the best piano background music is the piano version of the Final Fantasy X-2 soundtrack. I got it for a laugh and was actually really amazed at the emotion you find in the songs (artists were Noriko Matsueda, Takahito Eguchi), it has a similar feel to Jim Brickman, but with a little more punch I think. Oh, and the Gettysburg soundtrack is pretty good as well for those Michael W. Smith Freedom lovers.

  38. Matthew

    Almost forgot, while I’m spouting off little known music, for you Radio Head fans try Freelance Whales, amusing background music for sure (though I suppose it is more Postal Service like, except with Banjos).

  39. Eowyn

    When I’m writing, I do best to listen to instrumental stuff…I can’t concentrate otherwise. So…it’ll probably end up being Lord of the Rings or the song Promontory from Last of the Mohicans (only if I’m writing a fight scene) or something by Hans Zimmer…Gladiator, most likely. Oh, and Braveheart’s soundtrack is good. 😀

  40. redheadkate

    The voices in my head can’t take any competition, so no background music for me when writing.
    But baking on the other hand required music! My staples are Lady Antebellum, Dave Barnes, Matt Wertz and The Civil Wars.

  41. Grace

    Soundtracks are my favorite “background” music for any creative process, but especially for writing.
    To throw in even more international flavor, of the Japanese variety:

    Yoko Kanno (Darker Than Black, Brain Powerd)
    Joe Hisaishi (Princess Mononoke, Departures)
    Michiru Ooshima (Sora no Woto)
    Yuki Kajiura (Le Portrait de Petit Cossette)

    Harry Gregson-Williams is one of my top “American” composers for soundtracks, though Hans Zimmer, John Williams and Thomas Newman are also up there.

    For baking/cooking, Audrey Assad. Can’t get enough of her songs.

    Thanks for bringing up this topic! I’m always adding to my collection of ‘writing music’ and there are several here I’ve never heard of.

  42. Walt

    Um…sorry…not digging the Arnalds music posted here. I know I’m going to get a lot of flack here, but it sounds like generic movie background music cheaply made on a moderately-priced synth. (Maybe it’s my computer’s sound system, but the “horns” really sound especially chinsy.) Of course, that is just my opinion, and every person’s tastes are unique. Based solely on this example, he needs to work on writing a good melody. Just a bunch of phrases strung together to create a fantasy-like sonic landscape isn’t going to cut it. We need to hear something that we can remember.

    I admit that I’m a bit of a snob in the realm of art music. I prefer Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Brahms. As a saxophonist, though, I developed a taste for modern music — Paul Creston is a great example of a 20th centruy American composer who managed to combine actual musical elements, such as melody, harmony and form, with contemporary tonal languages.

    Anyway. For background music, actually, I prefer Van Morrison. 🙂

  43. Walt

    AH! Sorry! I just discovered that my wife had a cheesy online version of Risk open, and that music was drowning out the Arnalds music! Sorry! Yes, this is much better than I orginially thought. The composer of that Risk music, however, should be ashamed of himself. Blah.

    Okay. That is all. Though…there should be more melody here, too. I think background music is an apt use for this stuff. Not something I would want to sit and listen to in concert. Fairly innocuous stuff — good for times of contemplation and what-not, but not something that will captivate an audience (or at least not THIS audience).

  44. Amy

    WA-A-ALT! I was going to WIN that one! Argh! I had the laptop muted for a reason.

    Sorry to hijack the comments with our family squabbles. Personally, I’m fond of Arvo Part… but I get tired of his shtick after one or two songs. His choral music is super fun to sing, though, especially in a room with great acoustics.

  45. Walt

    Ah, yes. Part’s “Beatitudes” is pretty cool. And the Magnificat, of course.

    And since we’re talking about choral music, we have to throw in Eric Whitacre. Now there’s a composer who writes in a modern idiom but hasn’t abandoned tonality. Also, his music GOES somewhere.

    The short clip we heard from Arnalds on this post, in contrast, didn’t go anywhere — that’s the problem with it. It doesn’t matter how many mysterious titles you give to your music; it has to actually be intrinsically interesting.

    Again, it’s not bad music, it’s just background music.

  46. Greg Warner

    You have excellent taste, sir. I discovered Arnalds a couple months ago with Living Room Songs, and since have become similarly obsessed with his minimalistic, haunting, melodic arrangements. Arvo Part, Eric Whitacre, Balmorhea, Brian Eno, Edgar Meyer, are other background-music favs. I’m drawn to modern stuff that sets a mood rich in emotion, things that set me waving between focus and introspection and hope and initiative. I’m a graphic designer and I attempt to play DJ at my Mac for my in-house team, so I’m always trying to avoid stuff that’s overly distracting. Rich now Arnald’s Erased Tapes-compatriot Nils Frahm is my top fav. His “Felt” album just refuses to stop playing around here, along with Unter/Uber and Wintermusik. Gorgeous stuff.

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