What are the parameters of music to consider so that the resulting composition is suitable as a background music when reading, studying or doing some mental work?

I'm interested in parameters like tempo, rhythm, instruments, elements of music supporting concentration and make the book more colorful (compare it to speech and intonation or using more voices in educational tapes). Are there some music patterns releasing stress, some happy vibrations that should be added? What else should I consider in composition of such a music?

I was looking for some sources but found only sources without scientific (bibliographical) references dealing with similar topic (influence of music on learning). Read the paragraph beginning with "Baroque 17th & 18th century".

thank you

  • 2
    Interesting rehash! I think this will turn out to be a much more valid question, though different people's brains tend to differ in terms of what helps their concentration the most. (Some prefer nothing at all, some need "white noise" of some kind, others like repetitive, non-distracting music.)
    – NReilingh
    Commented May 4, 2011 at 19:12
  • Maybe somebody studied it and discovered some patterns. I'm listening to the radio and sometimes I have to stop reading and sometimes reading is "sweeter".
    – xralf
    Commented May 4, 2011 at 19:52
  • Related: music.stackexchange.com/questions/2927/… Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 23:42

4 Answers 4


Mark gave a great answer, of course suitable for concentration is a subjective thing so remember my answer is based on what works for me when I'm coding at work, or concentrating on a problem.

I would add that there's a distinction between relaxing music and music that helps you concentrate, and there's a certain crossover between the two.

There's a balance between being predictable/boring and over developing your piece in general, but in the case of writing study music I'd say you want to be as close to the predictable end of the spectrum as possible without becoming boring so that the listener's active brain isn't distracted by the music. If the listener is actively paying attention to the music it might even sound boring, but you're not aiming for the active listener in this case, you're aiming for the passive listener.

There was a song called weightless which was created between scientists and musicians that is worth looking into, being designed to relax and is able to slow the heart rate over the course of 8 minutes. An important factor to consider is how long it takes for the human brain to become familiar with a given soundscape, because that time will indicate when you need to start shifting away from it.

Natural noise like a crackling fireplace, pouring water or natural sounds seem to have a neutralising effect, you can explore all sorts at http://www.freesound.org/

Tempo tempo wise, based on the assertion that you should be close to boring I think a little above heartbeat speed might work.

Rhythm I'm tempted to say keep it in 3/4 or 4/4 to keep the ear from noticing anything unusual with the music, but the occasional triplet would be alright.

Instruments Nothing piercing, or overly strange to the audience you're catering for. (Bagpipes might work if you're used to the sound, but to most people their sound will draw conscious attention to it) it is good to have only one or 2 main sounds to focus on at a time. If there's no leading sound/instrument for a long time you again may get too close to the boring territory.


  • Key changes might be one very good way for you to vary the music over a long period of time, but use them sparingly!
  • Use dissonance very sparingly also
  • Take any necessary changes in the music gradually

Some Research music that might be worth exploring

  • Slowed down songs on Youtube
  • LongPlayer - a computer generated piece that lasts 1000 years
  • Vangelis - China
  • Faithless - Sunday 8pm
  • Younger Brother - The Last Days of Gravity
  • Bach - the Well tempered clavier
  • Pink Floyd - Shine on you crazy diamond

Hope that helps!


The most important thing is a predictable structure. Let's say you've never heard Haydn's Surprise Symphony. When you hear that chord, it will distract you and break your concentration for sure! Other than that, if you have heard other Haydn symphonies you know what to expect, and your subconscious mind doesn't have to keep bringing things to your attention.

When composing music, you need to know what kind of music your listener is familiar with. An old person who has never listened to punk rock will find punk rock distracting. A young person who is not used to rubato will find Chopin distracting.

The second consideration is that the music should mask out other interruptions. Suppose a dog barks outside. That grabs your attention. However, if you are listening to music, your subconscious mind hears the bark as less worthy of attention than the music, which is already not worthy of attention.

Movie music that is intended to be a background to a conversation limits the amount of sound energy in the normal speech register (say the two or three octaves starting at C below middle C) so that the speech sounds are clearly heard. Background music that is intended to cover up speech (and let you work better when many people are talking) should concentrate more sound energy in this range. The clarinet could be a better instrument than the violin for this, because the sound energy of a clarinet note is more focused in a narrow range in the normal speech register.

Music with regular, predictable rhythms may make unpredictable background sounds stand out more. If you are used to listening to the last section of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps with its constantly-changing irregular rhythms, a piece written in a similar style would cover up those background sounds.

  • Thank you for suggestions. I often listen to something new that is not distracting but maybe with the predictable structure you're right. If you have some references to your statements it would be great. Sounds from the outside like barking of dog or cars are not a big problem. It's not too often in my case, but it's useful to know.
    – xralf
    Commented May 5, 2011 at 5:05
  • An ideal music for reading would be tailored to the particular book. With the development of tablets and eBook readers, one could imagine as a new composing discipline the creation of a B.O.S. (Book's original soundtrack) which would be programmed to adapt itself to the reader's speed.

  • Some readers are able to generate incidental music in their head that follows their reading and may perhaps help them follow what they are doing.

  • A more specific question would be : can we use music to help people learning to read or having a form of dyslexia?

  • There is a CD of Music to read Jane Austen by. Why not soundtracks for books? Commented Dec 8, 2011 at 10:03

I'm surprised that Brian Eno's ambient work hasn't yet been mentioned here. There's a pretty good analysis available in Eric Tamm's "Brian Eno and the Vertical Color of Sound" book (available for download here), and I highly recommend it for anyone who's interested in theoretical analysis of ambient music. I would also recommend careful listening to a few of his albums as well:

  1. Music for Airports
  2. The Shutov Assembly
  3. Discreet Music
  4. Thursday Afternoon
  5. Neroli

(He has several other ambient albums, but I would recommend these specifically, as I feek they follow a "pure ambient" esthetic best.) Eno's original conception, both on these albums and in numerous installations, has been to set up a series of looping, ostinato lines that slowly shift phase relative to one another. This means that it will take a long time for any particular relationship between the independent lines to recur, providing a continuously-shifting relation between parts that doesn't directly repeat - this is the key in providing an experience "as listenable as it is ignorable", Eno's defnition of ambience.

It should be noted that the "ambient" category has been diluted quite a bit over time; in my opinion a lot of the stuff currently labelled "ambient" is far too intrusive to work as an ambience, with drum tracks, and attention-getting timbral and harmonic motion.

  • Thank you, I will look at it and listen it. I listened a few years ago to some works of Eno, I liked it for awhile but with time it was monotonous and dull for me. But I have a feeling that it were other albums that you suggested because I like ambient music as background and there is a chapter devoted to it, thanks for it.
    – xralf
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 19:24
  • The "Vertical Color of Sound" book goes into considerable detail on a couple of different pieces and I think might be very useful to you. Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 23:07

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