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)

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
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.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor