What is the best background music for reading?

Adele, Miles Davis and Debussy, says Andy Miller

In 1972, the trumpeter Miles Davis released a new LP called On the Corner. It rapidly became, in the words of the writer Paul Tingen, "the most vilified and controversial album in the history of jazz". Critics from journals such as Downbeat, who already viewed Davis's electric music as a sell-out to rock, detested it; even some of the musicians who played on the album were baffled. And in fairness, even 40 years later, On the Corner can set the unwary listener's teeth on edge.

Miles and his reluctant group sound like they've been awake for days, cranking out the same atonal riff, the tempo never varying, all possibility of self-expression utterly annihilated by the remorseless grind of the music. Quoting Nietzsche on Wagner, the jazz critic Stanley Crouch notoriously described On the Corner as "the greatest example of self-violation in the history of art". But I love On the Corner. When I want to get some serious reading done, this is the record I choose.

I recently wrote a book about the year I spent reading 50 of the greatest and most challenging books in the canon – Jane Eyre, Moby-Dick, War and Peace and so on. As a full-time working and commuting parent, most of this reading was done on trains. Every morning I would board the 6.44am to London and try to focus my pre-office energies on, say, Catch-22 or The Epic of Gilgamesh.

It soon became clear that the challenge lay not just in engaging with the books in question but also in keeping the babble of the carriage at bay: the bing-bong of train manager announcements, the tish-tish-tish of leaky white earbuds, the honking of comedy ringtones, the repetitive beats of the slow-rolling refreshments trolley – TEAS! COFFEES! LIGHT SNACKS! – or the snores emerging from the occupant of an adjacent seat. The perfect sound to accompany Jane Eyre would probably be silence. But silence was not an option.

How to start? When we read, we enter an interzone somewhere between the real world, the world of the book and the wilder shores of our imagination. So Bruno Mars is probably out. One option might be to create a playlist based on the book we happen to be reading eg Iris Murdoch's The Sea, the Sea could be soundtracked by Debussy's La Mer, Charles Trénet's "La Mer", "Ocean Rain" by Echo & The Bunnymen and Adele's "Rolling in the Deep". However in my experience, this bespoke approach tends not to work. Each change of tone yanks the reader forcefully out of the book; too much time will be lost in contemplating one's own cleverness rather than Dame Iris's. And good luck compiling a Gilgamesh playlist.

Over the course of several books, I experimented with finding the music on my iPod which would block out extraneous noise but feed positively into the reading experience. It was surprisingly difficult. All my favourite records were too distracting – so no Kinks, Frank Sinatra or St Vincent. Songs with lyrics, especially good lyrics, were non-starters; concert orchestras, I discovered, were either too hushed or too bombastic; film soundtracks were incongruously syrupy or jarringly over-dramatic; Eno's Ambient 1: Music for Airports, though soothing, did little except provide a gentle sound-bed for other passengers' unsought opinions and coffee-slurping.

I attempted to read Samuel Beckett's fiercely experimental The Unnamable to the strains of Lou Reed's experimentally fierce Metal Machine Music. MMM successfully blotted out the carriage; unfortunately its sheer apocalyptic racket also blotted out the book.

The trick, it seemed, was to find non-vocal, non-melodic music which proceeded at a regular pace and consistent volume without actually being, say, a field recording of the production line at the Ford Motors plant in Dagenham. A lot of krautrock – that wave of German progressive rock from the late 1960s and early 1970s – fits this pattern, groups such as Can, Faust and Neu!. The Galactic Supermarket by Cosmic Jokers provided a sympathetic setting for Toni Morrison's Beloved.

The music pushed me onward while helping me stay in the zone (or interzone), lending some "serious meditative usefulness" to my reading, "serious meditative usefulness" being one of the genre's prime attributes, according to Julian Cope in his excellent book Krautrocksampler, which – not coincidentally – I had read directly before Beloved.

Of course, great, challenging music like that contained in On the Corner is not utilitarian or functional. It should be engaged with every bit as much as great, challenging literature. And as a soundtrack it may not work for you. But sometimes we need a guiding hand, to help us across the threshold of art – and it can come from some surprising places. Who knows? There may yet be life on Bruno Mars.

'The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life' by Andy Miller, published by 4th Estate (£12.99)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried