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Hearing without (Necessarily) Listening: The Soundtrack to Your Work Life

Thinking about our research soundscapes.

September 26, 2016

Laura McCoy is a doctoral candidate in History at Northwestern University.




Confession time: I’ve cried in the archives. Surprisingly, it wasn’t out of frustration at turning the page to find I needed to decipher yet another letter that was in French, cross-hatch, and maddeningly impenetrable handwriting. Those who know me well won’t be surprised at this confession. I’m the kind of person who regularly sheds tears in historic places. Crumbling houses, cemeteries, ivy-covered libraries—each of these has drawn my tears at one point or another. Most recently, however, it was the confluence of source and soundtrack that left me desperately stifling sniffles in the corner of an otherwise silent reading room.


I usually prefer silence in the archives. In fact, I usually prefer silence anyway. Noise-cancelling headphones are probably my most valued possession as both grad student and human. I first invested in them as preparation for my major field comprehensive exam, a marathon writing session that students can complete in a location of their choice. I chose my apartment, but I wasn’t willing to endure the usual background noises of apartment living while I tried to summarize the entirety of U.S. History in eight hours. I didn’t listen to music, but the headphones allowed me to muffle the outside world enough to keep my concentration and pass my exam. I’ve been a regular noise-canceller ever since.


I especially need silence when reading primary sources. I study life writing, so most of my days in the archives are spent deciphering people’s diaries and correspondence. Most of the time, thinly veiled bawdy jokes, anxiety-laced confessions, and deliciously biting confrontations create an absorbing soundtrack inside my head without any outside help. Indeed, most historians I’ve spoken with feel that music can cut a researcher off from primary source material. In the archives, silence is often key to connecting with the stories we seek.


However, there are exceptions to this silence-in-the-archives approach. My most recent research trip, for example, was short and crucial: I had little time to scan a lot of pages which I could properly pore over later. So, to be (or perhaps just to feel) more productive during the monotonous hours of repeatedly hitting the scan button, I decided to plug in. I’m not alone here; research suggests that music can prevent boredom and increase productivity when performing repetitive tasks. Without really thinking, I chose what I thought would be comforting but not distracting background music: Alexandre Desplat’s score for the end of the Harry Potter saga, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Everything was fine until I got to the final track, “A New Beginning.”


As Potter fans like myself will know, this track plays near the end of the final film in the series. Harry, Ron, and Hermione have just defeated Voldemort once and for all, unlocking an entirely new era in the wizarding world. The three friends stand at the end of a crumbling and (dare I say it) burned bridge, staring into the unknown abyss—both literal and figurative—before them. It’s a powerful moment, and the music only amplifies the emotional wallop in an otherwise silent few frames.


My own research focuses on the post-revolutionary generation of Americans trying to build their lives—and the new nation—in a rapidly changing world. That day in the archives, as I scanned letters from mothers desperately trying to find the best path for their children in this unfamiliar and even more unpredictable context, the parallel between source and soundtrack wasn’t lost on me. The tears, they flowed.


Sometimes I think that this is why I prefer listening to music while writing but not researching. The right music can increase my sense of connection—intellectually and even emotionally—with people, places, and events long past, which can in turn help me formulate historical interpretations. I know fellow History grad students who intentionally match their tunes to their research period, listening to Marvin Gaye when writing about the U.S. urban crisis of the 1960s and ‘70s, for example. I’ve also known professors who take advantage of music’s mood-setting power in the same way, playing Springsteen as students arrive for a lecture on labor unions, or “Heart of Oak” (the official march of the British navy) for a lecture on the eighteenth-century expansion of the British Empire in North America. On the other hand, I’ve also spoken with people who find that music too closely associated with subject matter can distract rather than inspire, leading some to pair colonial American history with the soundtrack to “Slumdog Millionaire,” or nineteenth-century imperial British history with indie rock.


Not everyone can write or work to music, of course. If perfect silence is unachievable, then ambient noise apps can be a productive substitute. Whatever people listen to, it seems that most important consideration when choosing a soundtrack for writing especially is finding a soundscape that, put simply, makes us feel good. When I informally polled friends about what they listened to while they work and why, the answers to the “why” question in the context of writing were almost uniformly about comfort and confidence. At least in my circle, people choose their writing soundtracks according to what makes them feel “soothed,” “epic,” “capable of changing the world,” “young and powerful,” and, perhaps most importantly, according to what helps them find that “extra swagger.”


Whether it be returning to the sounds of our rebellious youth or embracing our hopefully still rebellious present, we plug into the sounds that make us feel like our best selves. Confident, empowered, in control. The soundscape may be different for each of us, but in the face of imposter syndrome and the regular self-doubt of the grad school experience, it seems important that we should all embrace whatever work soundtrack helps bring that out in each of us.   


What do you listen to while you work, and why? Has your work soundscape changed throughout your graduate career?


[Image by Flickr user Kevin Morris and used under the Creative Commons license]


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