Can You Read with Music?

At The Guardian, Sam Jordison says no to reading with music, of any kind:

As for novels, forget it. Even music that doesn’t ask too much – or can at least be enjoyed in the background – can cause problems. Brian Eno’s haunting Music For Airports has ruined PG Wodehouse for me in the past. Almost as much as the noise it was supposed to neuter: a woman (old, I might add) yelling down her mobile about the weather. The happy tinkling of Chopin has rendered absurd grisly scenes in Cain’s Book and tragedy in A Farewell To Arms. At the other extreme, I defy anyone to listen to Blonde On Blonde and read Pynchon at the same time without feeling weird.

On the subject of Pynchon, I did once try him with some allegro Mozart flute music, influenced by the once fashionable belief that it can make you temporarily brainier and would thus better equip me to tackle Gravity’s Rainbow. I can’t say it really helped, but the smart pace of the music did at least complement book’s hectic nature, and made an hour on the Oxford Tube far more agreeable than listening to the tinny rattling of my neighbour’s own iPod.

I have almost the exact opposite opinion.

For one thing, I’ve found that Philip Glass’s Music in 12 Parts makes almost perfect "white noise" for shutting out the sound of virtually anything: ambient sound, crying children, loud-talking neighbors, jackhammering, aircraft landing directly overhead (just make sure to have a good pair of headphones).

But for those times that I’ve actually listened to the music as accompaniment, I’ve also found classical pieces rewarding. Usually this is serendipitous, as in the right stretch of Mahler will just happen to coincide with a perfect moment from Dostoevsky, but certain periods of composition definitely do go with certain periods of literature. I especially like listening to the serialists while enjoying a good modernist novel.

And of course, there are those novels that are actually built around a piece of classical music, some of which I discuss in this post.


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I agree with you, Scott. I listen to a lot of jazz while reading in the evening (last night was Alice Coltrane) but I don’t really try to sync the music up to whatever I am reading. My reading and music just flows wherever it does. If anything, the playing of someone like Albert Ayler or Miles Davis in the background can only accentuate my reading experience.

I agree with you, Scott. I listen to a lot of jazz while reading in the evening (last night was Alice Coltrane) but I don’t really try to sync the music up to whatever I am reading. My reading and music just flows wherever it does. If anything, the playing of someone like Albert Ayler or Miles Davis in the background can only accentuate my reading experience.

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