Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,More happy love! more happy, happy love!/ John Keats, Ode to A Grecian Urn
If it wasn’t for the coffee, I’d have no identifiable personality whatsoever./ David Letterman
Coffee shops are my happy places. There’s just something about a small space brimming with the sharp smell of roasted coffee and the pleasant din of voices and Macbook keyboards and espresso machine steam that makes me smile. Coffee shops are also usually nicer than my apartment – stylish in glass or steel or sea-weathered wood; and neat, having been cleaned at least once a day, every day – and therefore more pleasant to be in than my place.
They’re also the only readily available locations that I can get any work done efficiently, thanks to my father, who used to refuse to turn off the TV while I was doing homework in the attached, adjacent dining room. He’d holler, “I’m training her to be able to concentrate in any situation!” over the crunching sound of the Undertaker body-slamming Triple H into the ground,
and his “training” worked, kind of: turn on some music, have a conversation in the background, add the noise of one hundred students fidgeting and coughing and scratching at paper with ballpoint pens – oh, great!
But situations involving total silence – libraries, study halls, my apartment – basically all traditional places of study: I can’t concentrate at all.
So ever since medical school, and my ensuing caffeine addiction, coffee shops have made many a quick buck off of me. For the amount that I get done, it’s worth it. And I’m not the only one who goes to a coffee shop to work: it’s been the mainstay of freelance artists and insomniac writers for ages. Even science shows that the ambient noise in coffee shops may even boost productivity.
I’ve never had a problem working at a coffee shop until two weeks ago.
Which brings us to the other thing I love about coffee shops: the music. You do too: that’s why Starbucks hawks albums in front of the cashier, and Spotify has at least three coffeehouse–inspired playlists. And I love how the music tends to reflect the culture of the shop and the surrounding neighborhood.
For instance, in Philadelphia
- Elixr, (207 S Sydenham St), those purveyors of too-cool-for-school, free-trade, micro-lotted beans, likes their atmospheric mix of once and future indie hits: Fiona Apple, the Weeknd, Alt-J, Sylvan Esso, and on and more obscurely on. (Though one time they did play Disney’s greatest hits, and it was glorious).
- Café Twelve (212 S 12th St) in the Gayborhood, formerly known more delightfully as Brew-Ha-Ha, and as a site for delicious butterscotch scones and medical boards studying, has a cheery mix of 80s pop and current female powerhouses on rotation.
So I was thrilled to stumble upon Bodhi Coffee (410 S 2nd St) this cozy gem of a coffeehouse in pleasing vicinity to work and home. Among other important coffee things, Bodhi boasts a bottomless cup of coffee for 2.50 (my parents would be proud) and cool baristas who are kind, but succinct (Important when you Just. Want. Your. Caffeine. Please.)
So I slid into a bench, plugged in to an outlet (so key), accessed the free WIFI (love) and proceeded to type away.
Then something funny happened.
It was insidious, but over the course of ten pages of Word documents, I noticed that I wasn’t really able to concentrate on the paragraphs I was editing. The thoughts-to-text conversion rate was lower than normal as well. What was wrong?
Pretty place to work: check.
Music: check—oh wait.
Discordant melodies. Pyrotechnic wailing.
This could only mean one thing: BJÖRK.
Guys, I love her: she’s talented, creatively weird, and a feminist to boot. But Björk should NEVER. NEVER. Be played at a coffee shop. Her music requires brainpower to comprehend and appreciate. And even when you’re not concentrating on it, it hooks onto your subconscious and scratches at your frontal lobe, demanding that your brain listen, REALLY LISTEN OKAY?!
This is not good for productivity.
So I humbly submit a list of characteristics that may help coffee shops – or even individuals trying to stay awake while working at home – to foster a musical atmosphere worthy of the next Great American Novel, or at least worthy of a little less conversation (and a few extra blog posts).
- MUSIC WITH VOLUME LESS THAN THAN 85 db
See the study above. Also, that means no hearing damage, and no angry German death metal, which is good for everyone involved.
There’s nothing more soporific than songs that fade indistinguishably and interminably into one another. That’s why jazz, full of improvised twists and surprising takes, is so commonly relied upon by the coffee shop music industry. Changing up genres is one sure way to achieve variety, so try switching Pandora stations once in a while when the eyelids start to droop.
Listening to music with compelling (or surprising) lyrics also helps. For instance, there’s nothing like hearing the smooth beats of Wicked Games interrupted by a steady syncopation of f-bombs. I laugh every time.
If the words are too distracting for you, try songs in foreign languages: you get the linguistic pop of words without getting distracted by the meaning.
I’ve never been one for instrumentals, but more contemporary covers have been known to keep me awake. If you’re purely a Classic Man, try some of the more stormier stuff: Rachmaninoff, late Beethoven, Shostakovich, Stravinsky.
- DON’T DISS THE SOUNDTRACK
Chances are that you stay awake during movies partly thanks to the background music. There’s nothing like audio cues to make you jump or get your heart racing. So even without visual cues, the moodiness of an epic soundtrack is going to keep you sharp. Another plus: a professional has likely specially curated the music for changes of tempo, volume, and tone, so each soundtrack is essentially a museum of finely paced moods in audio form.
- Stoker: Phillip Glass’ instrumentals are excitingly strange enough – but not too strange – to keep the mind piqued but not overwhelmed. (Apologies again to Bjork.)
- any Christopher Nolan movie: I mean, try not to feel inspired and/or awake with each resounding BRAAAAAHM that makes up the Inception soundtrack)
- An Education: for some old-school cool
- Ginger and Rosa: ditto the above
- Disney movies: for those old pre-school grooves
- Elevators to the Gallows: a cool, New Wave soundtrack improvised entirely by Miles Davis, and not so well-known
- Wes Anderson soundtracks: a well-curated selection of oldies
- Guardians of the Galaxy: because it brought us this
- MUSIC THAT YOU LOVE
You know, that stuff that you can’t help but sing along to. Sure, it might be a little distracting when the quick little shuffle beats to “Valerie” starts to play, and your head starts to perk up and nod along. But there’s nothing like a cheerful mood and exaggerated lip-synching to keep you amused and in a happy, productive place.
- MUSIC THAT WORKS FOR YOU
We’ve all been taught growing up that we are special little snowflakes. And when it comes to music, we are.
If finding the right music for concentrating is hard for you, try taking special note of the songs or genres that help keep you awake, put you in a good mood, keep you eagle-eyed for typos, etc. Soundhound or Shazaam those suckers when you notice them. Soon you’ll have a nice little list of music that you can compile into your own playlist on Spotify, or another little gem, 8tracks.
Hey, if early Baroque doesn’t put you immediately into a Bach-induced coma and/or remind you of a terrifying piano competition where you forgot the last half of the song, and just humiliatingly repeated the same 10 measures until it seemed right (no, just me? okay), then:
(or Glen Gould, I guess.)
So worst-case scenario? If your local coffee shop is simply perfect except for tunes, bring a set of headphones and do one of the above. Your work output will thank you.
(Suggestions and comments always welcome! /c)
https://coffitivity.com/: literally, the sounds of coffee shops from Texas to Brazil.