To an easily-distracted freelance writer like me, the right music playlist is like gold. I put on a Spotify list and the words just flow.
That’s a very good thing. Those words are my living.
Finding the best music for writing hasn’t been easy. Some playlists are too distracting. Others make me so mellow that I want to go to sleep, which is not great for my productivity levels. So I did some research.
I am a writer, after all.
My Music for Writing Spotify Picks…
Music tastes are highly individual, but certain qualities suit writing better than others. For example, research shows that vocal music can reduce listeners’ reading comprehension. As writers, we want our reading comprehension to be in top form, so it’s generally best to avoid songs with lyrics in our background music.
I say “generally” because there are always exceptions and caveats. A study out of Taiwan found that when listeners strongly like or dislike a piece of music, that music is more distracting. This particular finding connected the dots for me because I usually listen to lyrical music while writing, but I skip over the songs I love.
Now I know why.
Thanks to these studies and tips from other writers, as well as paying attention to my preferences, I’ve found a few options that keep me focused, awake, and engaged with what I’m doing. I hope they’ll do the same for you.
For a Boost of Energy: Movie Soundtracks
Ever since I discovered curated playlists, I’ve loved writing to movie soundtracks. There’s so much variety available within the genre; I can always find a playlist to suit my mood and the topic I’m writing about.
When I’m working on a particularly dramatic piece of fiction, I head for something truly epic like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or even Harry Potter. I just have to be careful because, as science predicts, I get too distracted if the piece is too familiar. Unfortunately, that puts most of Harry Potter out of the running, unless I can find a playlist that leaves out the truly iconic pieces.
If I’m working on web content, editorial articles, or copywriting, I tend to go for something labeled “study” or “atmospheric.” These are more even-keel and better suited for trying to produce a corporate or “business casual” tone.
Pro Tip: Search through the Soundtracks playlists on Spotify or Apple Music, and find something that suits your taste. Consider video game soundtrack playlists, too. Like epic movie soundtracks, they’re fairly high-energy.
For Calm and Comfort: Instrumental Covers
If I’m feeling anxious and on-edge—hello, looming deadline—I tend to switch over to a playlist of instrumental covers. I like the familiarity minus the lyrics. Again, the lists marked “study” are usually safe bets, unless they cover one of my favorite songs.
There are lots of great playlists of pop and instrumental covers, as well. These help me focus and write well because the sound is contemporary enough to feel familiar, and there’s usually plenty of variety. People have done instrumental covers of all most every genre out there, from Broadway to Bach to The Beatles.
Pro Tip: Search “instrumental covers” and your genre of choice on Spotify, and see what comes up. Don’t be afraid to try a few out, even if they don’t have tons of followers. There’s nothing to lose.
For Extra Focus: Ambient Sounds
On days when I’m having extra trouble keeping my eyes on the screen and my rear end in the chair, I go to my ambient sounds playlists.
I’m a Spotify user, and I’ve always been happy with the number of different playlists that come up when I search for “ambient.” Spotify makes several that are well-followed—at the time I’m writing this, “Ambient Relaxation” has almost one million.
I tend not to go for anything labeled “relaxation” when I’m writing because I need the jolt of energy, but that’s my preference. With so many other choices, from ambient techno and electronic to specialty lists with labels such as “Nordic” and “medieval,” I never lack for options.
Pro Tip: On your chosen playlist-friendly streaming service, search for “ambient” and see what’s available (here’s my Spotify pick). Try something and if it works, mark it as a favorite.
For Even More Focus: Meditation Music
If ambient isn’t getting me to the level of focus I need, I turn to meditation music. Spotify has all kinds of meditation playlists, from the intense to the seriously chilled-out. You can even find playlists of a New Age type of meditation music labeled with Hz (Hertz) frequencies.
Some of these frequencies align with what some refer to as the ancient scale or Solfeggio frequencies, a series of six notes that some say were the original frequencies for the Gregorian chant. Today’s Hz tone music still has a spiritual quality to it, and each one is believed to have certain healing qualities.
Other Hz tonal music is linked to chakra stimulation, energetic stimulation, mindfulness, and more. I’m usually a skeptic about these kinds of things, but I have to admit that a Hz tonal playlist will get me focused when nothing else does.
Pro Tip: Try a few different styles and see what works. Expect different playlists to work for different moods.
For Lyrical Calm: Coffeehouse
If you spend as much time working in local coffee places as I do (hey, the best writing can be done on the road), you know what “coffeehouse” means as a genre. It can be bluesy, folksy, and even a little bit country… but don’t expect a little bit rock ’n roll. It has a chilled-out acoustic sound, and yes, it usually has words.
I find that it makes good writing music despite the presence of lyrics. The tempo is even enough that the words don’t jump out at me, and the songs aren’t ones that I’m particularly passionate about. That’s not a bad thing at all, it just makes it easier to focus, just as the science said it would.
Pro Tip: Search for coffeehouse playlists and browse the sub-genres. The ones curated by Spotify are usually popular, but go with what you like. Here’s the Starbucks playlist, if you’re curious…
Your Mileage May Vary…
These are the genres that I like as music to write to, but everyone’s tastes are different. There are lots of styles that don’t work for me, but other writers swear by them. For example:
- Hip Hop
- Tropical House
- New Age
Do some searching. Try out a few options. When you find the right playlist for your tastes and your mood of the day, it feels so good.
Laura is a full-time freelance writer with a background in playwriting, theater, and dance. She especially loves writing articles that help creatives and freelancers manage their time, talent, and money.
Bethany McKay is a multiplatform writer, editor, and social media manager. She has more than a decade of newspaper experience and subsequent work in publishing, editing and organizing a variety of publications, such as reports, college textbooks, and science, law, and business books.