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.

86 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.

    2. I have to admit, that was me for many years and some days, the peace is enough. I now have a great sound system with SONOS speakers and I find remote voice control makes it easy to have some instrumental chill or non-disturbing sounds in the room. But some days, silence says it all!

  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!!

    1. I like Jazz as well. One of my favourite oldie CDs (yes CDs, I’m a Luddite sometimes) I listen to while painting is one by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

      And sometimes I just like the sound of silence.

      I like lots of different genres but classical music is not one, and it makes me anxious. Sorry Jason. I grew up in red neck ‘rurally’ Saskatchewan where only a few of the upper crust listened to classical. At least, I assume that’s what they listened to, not being one of that ilk – ha ha ha.

  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.

  28. That’s like “how do you feel today?” It depends on my mood. I like something in the background. Not to notice or “reallly ” listen to. But to blank out any other noise that may creep into my concious mind. Bach is my favorite, but again it depends on my mood. Easy listening. New wave, slow jazz. 50’s, 60’s etc soft rock. I was part of a project at our local art council, and happened to be the first one in. I set my computer to Bach and turned up the volume. It was awesome. I didn’t even realize that the rest of the entourage was setting up around me. I nearly finished my artwork before anyone else was in the place. Awesome.

  29. I vary with the day as to what I listen to. Some days nothing others jazz, country, motown or kindle book. Many days nothing but the sounds in the house as the family go about their day. If I wake up at 3am as I often do, to paint I do it in silence

  30. I listen to Jazz mostly. It depends on what I’m painting. Sometimes it’s Jazz and other times Blues. I like Tommy Emanuel, Joe Bonamassa, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, Diana Krall and Melody Gardot to name a few. I listen to a local public broadcast station which plays Jazz all afternoon. I have to have music in the background in order to paint. Talk is too distracting and silence is not inspiring.

  31. Basically it depends what I’m doing. Why I’m creating it’s usually Jesse Cook classical guitar or Jade warrior world music. If I using my tools like a saw or a mill then it’s usually rock and roll from the 50s to the 70s. basically is from Debussy to The Doors. For me it always has to be in the background. No news, no audio books. Nothing that I have to be actively engaged in. My pleasure is in my work.

  32. Depends.

    Sometimes silence, especially if the work is tricky and detailed.
    Sometimes Tchaikovsky or Smetana if I’m working on a panoramic.
    Sometimes Wardruna (unknown language makes words just part of the sound) or Adrian von Ziegler…especially if I’m trying for a foggy or mystical feel
    Sometimes classical rock instrumentals if I’m using a lot of warm colors.
    Hardly ever anything with a lot of words…buuut sometimes Little Big Town or Simon and Garfunkel or 3 Doors Down or Kingston Trio if I’m painting a play on words.

  33. I also vary, depending on the mood I am in, or better yet, what mood do I want to be in!! Everything from Easy Listening to Classic Country is on the playlist. 50’s and 60’s also. Currently I am on a Waylon Jennings trip! Some sound is always in the air, complete silence is a distraction for me! I do try to use Sirius or Pandora so to eliminate commercials. I also have a pretty good collection of vinyl, of all genres. It is a little distracting to get up and flip the record every 15 minutes. Although it does get me to step back and look at the work.
    Everybody is different I guess.

  34. I like Kenny G since it puts me in the right frame of mind…. Soft and meaningful. For a change of pace I’ll listen to Chris Stapleton or Zach Brown.

    1. I always have music playing while I paint. My taste is quite eclectic – from classical to old standards, big band, Billy Joel, blue grass, Bobby Darin, Gil & Cartas (Mexican guitar and violin virtuosos who are amazing), Woody Herman……and my list goes on & on.

      But, recently, a friend introduced me to the music of Chris Stapleton and I am addicted to his soulful voice & guitar. So he’s getting a lot of play in my studio right now!

  35. I can’t play anything while I am painting. I am a musician and writer so words distract me. Songs distract me because I pay attention to everything in a song (I am a singer). I cannot tune out music. In the studio at college, it was very hard because there was different music playing from all parts of the studio. I worked often late afternoon or evening. Even the TV playing in another room is not possible. My concentration is more precious now since Lyme disease interferes with it.

  36. Definitely classical for me. It puts me in a good mental place, and keeps me going. Some of my favorites are Capriccio Italien, Bolero, Saint Seans number 3, The Firebird, and especially The Planets. Depends on my mood at the moment. Sometimes silence, but I paint better with music.

  37. I listen to things that take me out of my own head, so I can paint or draw intuitively. Anything from audio books, to art podcasts, to music, to ghost hunting TV shows on the travel channel (I don’t ever have to look at those; they all sound the same, “Did you hear that?” lol). The essential thing is for me to create with my heart instead of with my brain. That’s why I Like to occupy my thoughts with something OTHER than my artwork.

  38. I must be the only one who likes Celtic music but I have eclectic tastes. Mostly I listen to music in the car rather than the studio though. I like to leave my door open, weather permitting and listen to nature busy in the woods outside. Sometimes I listen to art talks while I work, taking a glance over at my computer when they show work.

  39. I am a sculptor and I can work for hours and hours listening to Native American Music. I have one c.d. but Pandora offers John Huling radio that plays on and on leting me tap into an inner creative talent from another dimension. In December I enjoy working to Handal’s Messiah.

  40. I go through different phases, but I gravitate toward 1970s era progressive rock. Sometimes I switch it up and listen to political podcasts or biographies. Occasionally, I get in a strange mood and play the background music from K-Marts of the past. (It is amazing what you can find on Youtube.) I have tried listening to novels, but I tend to get distracted and miss part of the story. Then I have to run it back and this messes up my flow. Having something to listen to occupies the part of my mind that interferes with my progress.

  41. LOL. I would like to say “Classical Music”. However, I have found it difficult to concentrate on my painting when I hear music that I have spent my life performing. Too hard to concentrate, so I simply turn off my favorite CapRadio station so I can focus on my art.

  42. I google music to concentrate by and select a genre like soft bluesy Jazz with cello; or I plug in my earbuds and sink into one of my Spotify playlist that fits my mood.

    When painting words are ok; when crunching numbers give me instrumental.

  43. I mostly paint Christian art inspired by scripture and worship music, so when painting I most often play worship music. It is peaceful and inspires me to do more of this kind of art. I’ve always loves the Moody Blues and sometimes play their music. Sometimes I turn it all off if it is distracting me.

  44. I’ve listened to and been involved in so many performances that the music is in my mind’s ear. It is mainly classical for the reason that it has sonic form and substance the way paint has visual form and substance.
    Now that I am engaged in a large visual music project (not my first) I do quite a bit of listening to the piece at the center of the project.
    I grew up in both modalities so it’s only fitting.
    Music for me is not background sound.

  45. I listen to ocean waves crashing on the beach (white noise?) recording. I was born and grew up on the coast and to me it sounds and feels like breathing.

  46. Usually it’s classical on the radio or CDs of Steve Kilbey, The Church, Tindersticks, Brett Anderson, Seude, David Bowie, Talk talk, Lenny Kravitz, Chris Cornell, And so many other holdovers from my DJ work at KUOI, I also listen to world famous KEXP. It’s been an honor and privilege to know some of these musicians and provide artwork.

  47. When I am immersed in the studio with my large gestural watercolor ink paintings I like meditative flute music. Some of my faves: Paul Horn and Carlos Nakai “Inside Canyon De Chelly’; Hubert Laws, “Rite of Spring’ . Dance and movement art has always been a part of my creative expression and sometimes I will dance or do tai chi before painting as a centering practice. Much of my painting over the last decade has been out of doors— so birds, wind in the trees, and ocean are a part of the painting experience.

  48. I’m a stone bear sculptor and work outside with face respirator and headphone protection for my hearing aids, which are connected to my iPhone. I start the morning with sports talk radio, then political talk radio and end with Bee Gees and Eagles greatest hits!

  49. Ok….I’m a little different I guess….I love Gregorian Chant. Being a Catholic who struggles to work in prayer or lessons, I listen to programs or podcasts, Mass, ect. I feel closest to God when I create and like to give my joy back to Him.

  50. I like to listen to the old soft rock music from the 60’s and 70’s.
    laura Branigan, Cher, Carly Simon , The Four Seasons, and Gary Pucket and the Union Gap
    are a few examples. Some times, I don’t listen to any music. Just the quietness.

  51. I listen to audio books with my earbuds. Nothing too deep, mostly memoirs, biographies, and fiction. It allows me to focus with less distractions and I can totally lose myself in my painting!

  52. I loved this blog. I took so many notes on what people are listening to.
    I put on Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Karla Bonoff, James Taylor, Wendy Waldman and more, as I paint and print.
    I am such a product of the 70’s.
    These folks are my heart beat and heart break. And I painted to them then and get to enjoy painting to them now.
    But I may try some of the suggestions from other folks.
    Thanks for sharing!

  53. As a photographer I don’t listen to anything during the capture phase. I do spend hours on the computer finalizing my abstract imagery and listen to pianist composer Peter Kater. His heart-felt music just resonates with my core being. I suppose in a way he is co-creating my work.

  54. I most often listen to classical piano music, I love Chopin and Motzart as well as other classical composers. I also listen to some folk, Choral music and Andrea Bochelli.

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