Philip Glass 
Philip Glass 

10 Classical Albums to Listen to While Studying or Writing

In 1993, the famous book by Don Campbell, The Mozart Effect, convinced millions that listening to Mozart can have a substantial effect on cognition.  Now, the debate over whether or not music improves intelligence is filled with psychologists, neurologists, teachers, and musicians with so many different takes, it's hard to know the truth.  But one thing neurologists know for sure is that music "activates the brain regions related to attention, semantic processing, motor functions, and emotional processing," according to a study in Brain: The Journal of Neurology.  It also helps relax the person studying.  So before I get too nerdy, let me start.  This is a list for all those times you go to coffee shop and want to drown out the annoying couple playing crossword puzzles; this is a list for all those times you have a block, while you're writing your term paper or a poem; this is a list for anyone who wants to hear good music, while still memorizing the order of all the dead presidents, without being interrupted by lyrics.  These are my favorite songs to listen to while studying and writing.    

See Also:
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*John Coltrane's 'A Love Supreme': The Story Behind the Album
*John Harrington Incorporates Jazz and Jay-Z On Stop Time's New Album

10. Kronos Quartet -- Kronos Quartet Performs Philip Glass

What is so striking about this album is that it grabs you right away on the first track with a brilliance of blooming harmony, and then the album lulls you into colorful melodies so textured and layered, you'll swear you're listening to an abstract painting.  Kronos Quartet is a string section who have been performing for nearly 40 years, and they're internationally renowned as one of the most influential groups in contemporary music.  And on this 1995 album, they play music written by another powerhouse, Philip Glass -- a brilliant composer known for minimalism, operas, and film scoring.  While you're studying or being creative, the repetition, the sonic intimacy, will have you so focused on the work in front of you, of your own space, you might lose track of your surroundings and forget where you are.  

9. Hold Me to This: Christopher O'Riley Plays Radiohead

It might be hard to listen to Radiohead while you're studying, because, well, Thom Yorke's voice is so haunting, it will command attention away from your essay on why California should legalize marijuana.  So, that's why Christopher O'Riley's Hold Me To This is perfect.  O'Riley loosely interprets the melody lines, but he captures the dynamic changes on songs like "there there" and presents your favorite songs Radiohead tracks in a new way that leaves you thinking maybe some of these songs were meant for the piano. 

8. The Road to Perdition Soundtrack, Thomas Newman. 

When it comes to modern composers, our contemporary Beethovens and Mozarts just might be creating the soundtrack to your favorite movies.  Take for instance Thomas Newman.  Newman was the composer who wrote the soundtracks for American Beauty, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Road to Perdition.  These soundtracks are perfect for studying or writing or being creative, because they're designed to reflect a narrative, a story, and drive the viewer/listener forward.  While you can't find the whole soundtrack on Spotify, try either buying it or making it a radio station on Pandora.  The textures, the sonic colors, and the pulling narrative of The Road to Perdition might help bring longevity and focus to those long study sessions.  But hey, I'm not a neurologist.  

7. Ma Sicong: Music for Violin and Piano

For me, Ma Sicong's music played by Hsiao-mei Ku (violin) and Ning Lu (Piano) is one of my favorite albums, because it puts me in a mind frame of peace and relaxation.  The way the violin just elongates these strings of melody, there's something, well, almost therapeutic about it, something unbelievably heart breaking, too.  Ma Sicong is recognized as one of China's leading violin players and composers.  Some of the best pieces are the "Tone Poems of Tibet."  They're visual and mood invoking -- snow-covered mountains and open spaces.  You can find this album on Spotify.  

6. Beethoven's Sonatas: Wilhelm Kempff

Well, how much can really be said about Beethoven today that hasn't been said by a million crazy music teachers in high school.  He's obviously a genius, but what makes his sonatas so perfect for studying or the creative process is that they're so visual.  But you're mind doesn't have to work that hard to construct the images.  There are studies out there that show patients who had strokes have a greater ratio of improvement in terms of memory, when they're listening to music.  That's because when you listen to music, the areas in your brain that are associated with memory are activated.  So if this is true, it's like turning on a switch, a light bulb in your mind.  I recommend Wilhelm Kempff's sonatas on Spotify, but you can find many different versions. 

5. Erik Satie: Trois Gymnopedies

Like sitting outside your window with a pen and paper and listening to the rain, the notes from Erik Satie's, Gymnopedies, sound like music that was meant to be a permanent structure of nature.  Gymnopedies is just the piano, and it's simple and subtle but spectacular.  Satie was a French composer who was labeled as a minimalist -- even though he hated that term.  It's music that is subtle -- almost mathematical -- that pulsates with life and energy.  There is a lot of space between the notes, but the melody is haunting, and it's been in so many movies and television shows -- including Star Treck: The Next Generation, Chocolat, The Royal Tenenbaums -- it will be hard not pull the melody out of some memory.  

4. Chopin: Complete Nocturnes, Barcarolle, Berceuse -- Vladimir Feltsman

In a way, studying or being creative is kind of like sex.  Yes, you can probably have it any time you want (some of us, anyway), but sometimes, it's really about being in the right mood.  And well, Chopin's nocturnes is like an aphrodisiac for the mind.  Chopin was famous for his nocturnes, and they're dreamy and pensive compositions -- usually melancholic.  They're beautifully dark pieces, and the visual comparison would be like staring at some of Van Gogh's various version of landscapes and star-filled skies at night.  You can find Feltsman's album on Spotify, but there are many versions out there, too.  Put on this album, put your pen to paper or open that book, and allow the contemplative atmosphere to infiltrate.  

3. Simon Trpceski -- Debussy: Images

Claude Debussy is one of the best French composers and probably artists, and that says a hell of lot.  His compositions were analogous to the paintings of the impressionists, and he hoped when you listened to his music, you saw, literally, similar visualizations of Monet.  That's why he called his work Images.  You can find an album by Simon Trpceski on Spotify.  Take for instance Debussy's, "Clair De Lune."  It's probably one of the most famous works in music -- played in everything from lullabies to film scores.  And really, it's not just a song.  It's a painting that will set all 100,000,000,000 neurons in the average human brain on fire.  It will open up the creative process.  Allow you to dream, to wonder, to be in awe.  It will free the listener from their office, from their coffee shop with the annoying couples, and transport them somewhere else.  Where that place is, I imagine, is different for everyone.  

2. Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone: Yo-Yo Ma; Ennio Morricone

Yo-Yo Ma is clearly one of the best performers in contemporary music, and on this album, he teams up with an Italian composer, Ennio Morricone, who is widely respected and championed for his film scores.  For the last fifty years, Morricone has written scores for over 400 films, and when he joins Yo-Yo Ma and his aching cello, they create an album with so much emotional depth, it breaks your heart.  While you're studying, you might look away from the page, and hear a moment that just grabs and demands you to pay attention -- to reflect upon a line.  Then it will let you go as it moves into a new motif.  Find the full album on Spotify. 

1. The Hours: Philip Glass

Whenever I want to sit down and write in a space for creativity, my first choice is, almost always, Philip Glass' The Hours soundtrack.  It's an album with so much repetition of ideas but with such stunning variations, it creates this overall composition that just sucks me in, puts me in another headspace, and allows me to forget all the other crap going on in my life.  I don't have to worry about bills; I don't have to worry if my car is going to start when I leave the library; I don't have to worry about anything else but the work in front of me.  It's truly a poetic album, and it was written by one of the world's best composers with a unique and unforgettable style.   For me, there is no better album for the mind, for being in the moment, than Philip Glass' The Hours.  Just listen and let the music speak for itself. 

Follow us on Twitter @OCWeeklyMusic and @JosephALapin on Facebook at Heard Mentality


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