Music for Book Browsing

music and books

At one of the bookshops I worked for when I still lived in the US, I often found myself in charge of choosing the music.  I remember that on one occasion I put on an album of classical (thinking classical is generally enjoyed across a wide demographic) only to have a colleague inform me, as the trumpets and other brass kicked in halfway through Boléro, that she thought my selection might be “a little too rousing for browsing.”  Since then, I’ve taken particular note of what music I most enjoy during my own browsing experiences.

I’m sure there are many different opinions on what makes good browsing music – individual tastes must vary widely.  If I’m just scanning titles and back covers, classic rock is always fun – something I know most of the words to, something that makes me tap my foot. But if I’m doing serious browsing – read the first ten pages type browsing – my music tastes are different, mainly because I’m the type of reader who finds it hard to concentrate in the presence of almost any background noise.

Here are the shared characteristics I’ve noted across my favourite music choices for this style of browsing:

Relatively quiet

Since my reading brain is distractable as a general rule, I tend to prefer to have my headphones playing something that blends into the background a bit — something with cadence and tone more similar to the soothing voices of talk radio than to the Red Hot Chili Peppers albums I used to fall asleep to at university (the only thing that, when listened to through earbuds, could still drown out my loud neighbours).

Not too singable

Again, because of the distraction factor — if music is too singable or catchy I find myself focused fully on the lyrics or melody, rather than the first few pages of the books I’m browsing through.  Singability is also dangerous because I have a bad habit of beginning to hum or sing along without realizing it.

Completely unfamiliar or extremely familiar albums

Both tend to work better as background than albums I’m actively learning the words to.

Nothing that changes in tone substantially from track to track

Transitions from dance track to ballad, for example, always bring my attention fully back to the music, rather than letting it just exist around me.  Albums by Iron &Wine are some of my favourites for consistency from track to track.

Acoustic over electric

Some may disagree, but acoustic guitar and reading just feel like they go together. It’s the tea with milk and one of instruments.


I’m sure there are hundreds of times when I’ve browsed very happily to music that didn’t exhibit all of these characteristics. That said, give me an album that does and a bookcase full of new fiction and, well, I’m going to have a very good afternoon.

Liz Gillett


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