Playlists and procrastination: soundtracking exam season

Sophie Jordan explores the link between revision, creativity and music

Source: Pixabay

Sit down and open a few books, type an essay title, play around with an introduction and – give up.

This sadly well-known routine doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with music, yet it very quickly becomes associated with the couple of beats we switch between until eventually settling for a random selection.

The fact that this music mostly goes unnoticed is representative of its purpose: to slide past our ears and blend into the background, just present enough to discourage us from seeking additional distraction.

In order to simply become a reassuring part of the dull scenery our college rooms offer, ‘essay music’ needs to be something we can’t sing along to, something which won’t get us excited enough to attempt writing while on a moonwalk roll, nor kick off a few hours of meditation on how our doubts are growing faster than the word count. For once in our lives, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ just won’t do.

The moment we default to YouTube is crucial. With a little inspiration, our ears can be graced with a long-forgotten oldie or last year’s obscure indie crush, or even go straight to good old Ludwig for a couple of 70 minute-long symphonies saving us the stress of having to think of the next tune. That is, until the flamboyant ‘Ode to Joy’ emerges three quarters of the way through ‘Symphony no.9’, sending cold sweats down our shoulders while we anxiously glance at the calendar.

The risk here is falling into compulsive repeat-button-pressing after rediscovering a favourite. Maybe Portishead’s ‘Threads’ is not a song that should be listened to more than five times in a row, and hearing Beth Gibbons’ quivering “I’m worn, tired of my mind / I’m worn out, thinking of why I’m always so unsure” over the obsessive leitmotiv of a gloomy bass, certainly won’t make an essay any easier to write. Luckily for us, beyond the failures of personally picked essay music and just around the corner of the desperate search for “random chill music” on YouTube, lie its wonders.

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If the tempting option of looping Imagine Dragons’ ‘Warriors’ and the yet dafter prospect of working exclusively to ‘Taking the Hobbits to Isengard’ tend not to last as long as the songs’ original duration, surrendering to Youtube’s guidance and powers can still be worthwhile. Among the platform’s strange mass of options and creeping undead dubstep, Canadian folk band Leahy stands out to provide the most adequately mindless music to work with.

Sound volume unassumingly low, paragraphs slowly start to take shape on the page as the epileptic but somehow comfortable racing violin slots into the bored part of my brain. Had I the ability to tap dance, I would be out on the quad and clacking along with the perfectly synchronised, surprisingly musical group of siblings. Equally mindless, Com Truise essentially offers the electronic version of Leahy. This artist’s familiar-sounding yet disorienting pseudonym is like his music: the tracks on In Decay (2012) barely qualify as either original or even music, relying on little more than a gradually evolving rhythm and bubbly synths to exist and entertain.

Whether a safe choice or an entirely free venture into the big world of random beats, the music which accompanies us in our struggle to work efficiently gives us something to hang onto for comfort, and in turn tends to stick to our ears and unexpectedly become a regular listen. After all, the odd bit of synthwave will only send us straight back into the arms of classic alt-rock once the essay has been sent.