What Do You Listen to While You Work?

As I’ve mentioned in past articles, my dad is an artist. When I was growing up, Dad didn’t go off to work like most other kids’ dads; instead he went into the studio every day to paint. I remember Dad working long hours in the studio, and you could always count on there being something playing on the radio while he was painting.

Dad has eclectic listening habits, so you might hear anything from the local classical music station to rock ‘n roll, country music, talk shows (of every variety, including some pretty strange stuff at night on the AM dial), National Public Radio, or something from his record collection. I can’t even begin to imagine him at work without some sort of audio playing.

I suppose it was inevitable that I would pick up some of the habit. I love a wide variety of music thanks to the range of genres I was introduced to when I hung out in Dad’s studio. I especially love classical music and am a big supporter of public classical radio, and I know this is a direct result of listening to the classical music stations in both Idaho, where we lived until I was thirteen, and summered after that, and Arizona, where we began spending the winters in 1987.

It’s almost hard for me to concentrate without music, and I know this is true of many artists. It’s a bit different for me than for an artist because music is really only in the background in the gallery.  When I’m working in my office, however, I often have on headphones. Because I’m typically working on advertising, crunching numbers, or writing, I can’t listen to music or other audio that demands attention. News and talk are out, and anything that is highly focused on vocal performance are mostly banned because they slow me down and distract. Instead I listen to classical music or instrumental movie soundtracks. I particularly love Bach, Beethoven and Handel, and scores by Hans Zimmer, Trent Reznor, and Philip Glass.

Listening to music helps me maintain my focus on the task at hand, preventing my mind from wandering, while at the same time blocking out potential distractions.

Which leads me to today’s question: What do you listen to while you are in the studio? What have you found to be the most effective audio to accompany your working habits? Are there some things you can’t listen to while working? Share your strategy and a sample of your playlist in the comments below.

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

41 Comments

  1. I listen to music podcasts like BANDSPLAIN or 60 Songs that Explain the 90s or audiobooks or indie rock. Long novels like The Goldfinch are great because they really keep you glued to the canvas. Tana French, Peter Carey and Philip Roth are some literary favorites. I find that even self-help or motivational books take me out of my critical side enough to be freely expressive with the painting. My theory is that if my left-brain is occupied my right-brain can go to town on the canvas….

  2. ~ Jason – With all the chaos in this world news at this time – I have found while standing at my easel painting – I enjoy – “Embracing The Silence” ~ ~ ~

    1. I agree with you, Carole. I love listening to the silence and becoming one with the brush, the paint, the canvas. I am totally in the moment. Time stands still.

  3. My music selection is dictated by the piece I’m working on at the time…anything from modern instrumentals to prog to classical to classic 60s and 70s rock-and-roll. There’s always some kind of musical adventure going on in here in addition to the colorful art adventure.

  4. A long time ago, I developed the habit of “preparing” to paint. The ritual of putting on my apron, getting out the tubes I need and above all, starting up the music has lasted for decades. My favorites: Contemporary Classical, like Glass, Reich, Part…sort of loopy and hypnotic. I do find that if there is a pronounced rhythm, I start painting to it…not good!

  5. WhenI was a photography student at University of Arizona, I began listening to audio books while I worked in the darkroom. The habit stuck. I listen to audio books wHile I work–unless I’m in the designing phase, then I listen to music: rock or classical.

  6. I always listen to music while I work, but I have found that it’s a “right brain vs. left brain” issue for me – language, stories, are distracting. I listen to instrumental music (jazz, classical, sometimes new age) but I have found that I can listen to vocal music if I don’t understand the language. I particularly like Cesaria Evoria and her ilk. One of my painting series was very influenced by contemporary dance – which, of course, is usually set to music. Even now, I find that I choreograph the figures in my art in a dance-inspired narrative.

    1. I take the same view. Words are too distracting and seem to activate the wrong part of my brain. In addition to classical and jazz, I sometimes listen to Italian opera or Brazilian bossa nova. There are words but I don’t understand them so they can just be pleasing sounds to me.

      I have tried opting for silence in the studio but then what I get is noise from the street outside which is more distracting than wordless music. But when painting plein air in a natural setting the sounds of nature are the best.

  7. It depends on what I am working on. If it is a commission or something that needs patience and discipline rather than problem-solving, a podcast can help me stay on track, like the Savvy Painter. If I am working in intuitive-inspiration mode, then something eclectic that I don’t listen to any other domain of life is great: Tash Sultana or Sylvan Esso are great, as is Charlotte Cardin. I play different music when I teach than when I create, so that my creative music doesn’t get associated with the mental work of teaching. My students get to listen to the likes of Vance Joy, Hot Potato Band, and the Lumineers.

  8. Many years ago, as an only child raised on a farm in rural Nebraska, where I often walked the fields and pastures accompanied only by my dog, I am a lover of silence. I find it peaceful and ‘settled’ even now. So my preference whether in the car, alone at home, or painting at Open Studio in our community is Silence. However, I don’t impose my preference on others who come to paint and like music playing. I can ‘tune it out’ when necessary.

  9. I MUST have music on while I paint, and loud enough to move me emotionally. Some of my work is portraits and some are song paintings, so if I’m doing a portrait of a musician I listen to that musician’s recordings, and if I’m doing a song painting illustration I listen to that song or the album it’s on. For example, when I painted Eleanor Rigby I listed to “Revolver” by the Beatles. For all my other work, I choose a time period and genre, which is how my Spotify is organized and let that playlist go on. One example is 1960’s Christmas music during December.

  10. I enjoy listening to music so much that I feel a little anxiety when I can’t play music. I can do almost any activity better with music playing. With that said, it has to be music I enjoy. Heavy metal, Rap, Jazz or most classical music makes me more anxious than no music. Lately I have really enjoyed listening to audiobooks while I work on my art. However, I can not listen to audiobooks or any kind of “talk”, while concentrating or trying to figure something out.
    I usually listen to music on Pandora, building stations around my favorite artists (Nathaniel Rateliff, Brandi Carlisle, Lucinda Williams, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan). My absolute favorite artist is Van Morrison. If I happen to be in an off mood and one his songs comes on, I always feel better. A very interesting thing with listening to Pandora; if I choose Van Morrison to build a station around, I dislike the other artists they play. However, on all of the stations (built around my other favorites) they will play my great Van Morrison songs. Great music to work by!

  11. In High School Art Class, the teachers would put Joni Mitchell Blue Album on while going in the back room to smoke some weed. So now Joni is my “go to” music to be inspired, along with Neil Young, CSN, James Taylor and pretty much any Folk music puts me in the zone.

  12. I paint portraits of musicians, so it’s only natural that I listen to music while I paint. WHAT I listen to all depends on whose portrait I’m painting. When I painted my Sir Bebop painting (I used a photo I took of a friend as my reference), I listened to Thelonious Monk. I listened to Stéphane Grapelli while painting my Jazz Violinist portrait. And while I was painting Young Ella — yup! You guessed it: my Spotify playlist was all Ella Fitzgerald.

    As a former jazz vocalist, I’m quite picky about who and what I listen (and sing along) to. I feel so lucky to be able to do what I do!!

  13. When painting it is either silence (most of the time) or classical/jazz/blues low in the background. However, once in a while I need PJ Harvey or Caruso loud! Usually late at night, or more likely very early in the morning. It works for me.

  14. A soothing meditation style music, heavy on the flute, gives me a sense of safety and communicates to my brain that I can set all the other distractions down, the world is still spinning, so to speak. This also helps reduce my ADHD symptoms. This kind of music invites me to appreciate little things that I miss when my mind is speeding through the day.

  15. It varies. Here are a few of my frequent choices:

    1.) The crows in the tree behind my studio, occasionally punctuated by Wilson barking at the Amazon and FedEx drivers.
    2.) OK Computer
    3.) Ziggy Stardust
    4.) Music for Airports
    5.) something by Phillip Glass (Glassworks, Einstein…)
    6.) Autumn (George Winston)
    4.) KCRW’s Eclectic 24: https://www.kcrw.com/music/shows/eclectic24

  16. It’s Jazz, Classical, or 70s music for me.There is usually some form of audio in my studio, depending on if I am shooting, working on editing, or business. Sometimes absolute quiet is also nice, though.

  17. I have vocal music by Lisa Gerard who frequently works with Hans Zimmer on his scores. She has the most unusual voice. Other wise I’m listening to Cajun music, ZZ Top, Stevie Ray Vaughn, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, John Lee Hooker, and the surfin’ guitar of Dick Dale. Pretty darn eclectic.

  18. I also love many different kinds of music. I don’t listen to any particular types of music when working in the studio, but I have found that sticking to the same genre for a particular piece is important. If I start a piece with Bjork, switching to Coltrane messes me up. So, I choose a groove and stick with it!

  19. Surprisingly, alternative music settles me into the flow: DNB, EDM; in college it was underground new wave…

  20. I listen to talk radio & podcasts. My favorites are Coast to Coast which might be that late night AM you were referring to. Jimmy Church, Fade to Black & Earthfiles. All focus on unusual paranormal topics,. Ghosts , UFO’s & aliens, forgotten history & oddities of all sorts.
    Many are really out there but some are totally new fascinating thoughts.

  21. Like many artists, what I listen to depends on the mood I’m in. Usually my preference will change as I get into a piece of work. As a piece develops, the energy it demands will dictate what I want to hear.
    1.I require silence or sounds of nature during brainstorming.
    2. Much of the time I like punk, hard rock or heavy metal for the edgy, intense energy: Accept, New York Dolls, Dead Kennedys, Manowar, Anvil, Slayer, Iggy Pop and the Stooges.
    3. If I want an easier energy that still has intensity, I enjoy prog rock: Yes, Rush, Steely Dan- or fusion jazz- Tal Wilkenfield, Takana Miyamoto, Medeski, Martin and Wood, Billy Cobham.
    4. Sometimes I like 80’s dance or pop. Occasionally indie. My taste is eclectic.

  22. Movie scores!
    I’m a huge fan of Hans Zimmer, Ramon Djawadi and John Barry. Especially while painting, scores tend to spark imaginative ideas and emotions, which channel the energy right to my paint brush.
    When I’m not in the mood for music, I to listen to podcasts on YouTube and/or Spotify:
    Alan Watts, The Futur w/Chris Do and School of Greatness w/ Lewis Howes.

  23. Classical definitely. I listen to the Boise PBS network or my own CD’s of classical when I want something different than they are playing. I especially love Vivaldi and Yo Yo Ma. Silence is great too. My tastes vary but classical usually wins out.

  24. Since my studio is right next to my husbands, I listen to what ever he is working on at the time. Every once in a while I would love to listen to mellow classical music. It’s really a great mental vacation for me. I’m totally out there in the cosmos.

  25. If I’m in the studio, it will probably be BBC Radio Drama – so varied and and even educational! Or maybe Jason’s webinars.
    If I’m painting landscapes outside, I just enjoy the birdsong and the wind in the trees.

  26. Late joining in:
    Although my partner is an excellent classical pianist (and an old rocker, but that’s a story for another time), music is pretty much wasted on me when I paint – you could set a jackhammer off next to me and I wouldn’t notice. On the other hand, when I’m struggling, it’s classical or classic new age – Ferde Grofe if I’m painting Grand Canyon, or Vangelis’ Antartica if it’s stinking hot. But for the most part – silence.

  27. i have pop music playing in my studio, the dynamics are mostly consistent. I love every genre of music (I am a classically trained musician) but for me painting time needs sound that’s uplifting and pacey but not disruptive.

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