In the mood?


It’s exam season, and libraries across Cambridge are packed with students frantically revising. It’s an odd time of the year to be a librarian – some days our reading rooms are full to bursting, then they fall eerily silent before examinees return like birds of passage for a brief stop-over before the next exam.

Many relieve the monotony of revision and shut themselves away from the world by gluing themselves to their head-phones. It reminded me of my own days as a student, listening to Kate Bush ad nauseam while revising for my A-levels (Wuthering Heights still reminds me of a very bad production of Henry IV, Part I, courtesy of an English Lit A-level).

I wondered what advice other librarians would give about music for study? Did they have particular favourites, helpful hints, or horror stories? Here’s some of the combined wit and wisdom of Cambridge librarians…

Exams courtesy of Tetris?

Many librarians suggested using game music. One recommended the old favourite, the Tetris theme tune: “someone told me that the music was designed to keep you in a trance so that you didn’t sleep or deviate from the task you were performing”. The theme tune is actually based on a Russian folk song, Korobeinikibut it does seem to be a staple for revising.

A librarian, who is a music graduate, explained why game music might be especially useful as a background to revision: “While writing my dissertation I relied on game music – anything else and I would end up listening to it, while game music is deliberately written to fade into the background. That said, I think I listened to one track (Castle Bleck from Super Paper Mario) for about 3 hours without realising, and my husband nearly went insane in the next room!”

One cited numerous game soundtracks that had been useful to him including CivilizationAlthough most librarians advised against listening to music with lyrics (most thought they were too distracting), the Civilization lover recommended the album Calling all dawns by Christopher Tin. Calling all dawns is an experimental album that evolved from the music that Tin had created for Civilization.  The track Baba Yetu was the first video game track to win a Grammy.

A huge number of game soundtracks are on YouTube making them easily accessible. They are also generally extremely long – one version of the Mass Effect trilogy extends to over 6 hours, enough to satisfy even the most dedicated reviser.

Another YouTube related recommendation was to check out the channels that are dedicated to “chill study beats“, streaming lo-fi hip hop and trip hop. I would suspect that the repetitive nature of these works probably helps with focusing on the work in hand. Although they wouldn’t be my everyday choice of listening, there is something oddly hypnotic about them, especially when you’re trying to focus on a specific task (like writing a blog post!)

Not unrelated to this, though slightly different, is the use of binaural tracks. Some students find these very helpful, while others find them intensely irritating. I’d be interested to know if this may differ depending on whether or not you’re a music student / lover. The binaural tones in this Bach track felt like a bad case of tinnitus to me, despite the Double Violin Concerto being one of my favourite pieces of music.

To my surprise however, I rather liked this white noise track – very good for blocking out exterior distractions, while not forcing the brain to focus on anything but the job that it’s meant to be doing.

Film music also rated high on librarians’ lists of music to revise to. Most found the familiarity especially helpful. One librarian though had a rather more comical reason for using a particular soundtrack: “I…found that the best way to get essays done was to sit down and not allow myself to listen to anything but *****. I found that this focused the mind wonderfully as the first play through was quite jolly, but by about the 3rd or 4th repetition one is driven to superhuman feats of concentration and productivity simply to be allowed to turn it off!” I will leave it to the readers of MusiCB3’s imaginations to guess the offending soundtrack.

Times have moved on, but music is still a vital part of exam preparation for many.

Some librarians had more traditional tastes – I had a cassette tape (yes, it was that long ago) of the Elgar Cello Concerto, performed by Robert Cohen, which I played constantly till the cassette recorder could take no more and chewed up the tape (probably much to the relief of my neighbours at UCNW).

Other recommendations included: Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony, Glen Campbell’s Wichita LinemanAndras Schiff playing Scarlatti, and anything by Treacherous Orchestra or Lau.

There were suggestions for getting yourself in the mood for a task. One librarian found Fight the good fight helpful, and though not exactly inspiring, The Smiths’ Heaven knows I’m miserable now was vaguely comforting. There were several other suggestions for music to soothe. A post-exam bout of insomnia was relieved by John Rutter’s Requiem, though earlier attempts to revise while listening to Schubert’s quintet were not so successful “my brain nearly exploded” – reviser beware! Strauss’s Alpine Symphony was highly recommended for post-exam relaxation, even better if it could be combined with a walk in the hills.

One surprising technique for relieving exam nerves was revealed: “During my GSCEs there was a trend among my classmates to give each other earworms (though we didn’t call them that!) just before the exam. The most successful ones, if I remember right, were Culture Club’s Karma Chameleon, and The Carpenters’ Can’t Smile Without You (recently popularised, at the time, by Four Weddings and a Funeral). They would be whispered in an ear while we queued for the exam room. Proof that we were absolute rotters, I think!”

Ear worm alert

Finally one librarian was inspired throughout his Finals by a particular piece of music. Although unable to revise with music in the background (too distracting): “Holst’s Planets suite was a very enjoyable way of having a break. The iron menace of Mars, the Bringer of War, gives place to Jupiter, the bringer of jollity, and ultimately it all fades away ethereally, by way of Uranus and Neptune. Symbolic of one’s last year as an undergraduate? In a few weeks, one goes from the menace of Finals, to the jollity of parties…and then one packs one’s bags, and it all becomes a memory!”

Many thanks to all Cambridge librarians who contributed useful, unusual, and occasionally plain weird advice. And good luck to examinees everywhere, whatever you may (or may not) be listening to. As is clear from this post the music that stimulates or irritates you while working is a very individual choice, much more can now be heard courtesy of the Naxos Music Library – free across the University with a Raven log-in. Enjoy!






About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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2 Responses to In the mood?

  1. Where were you when I was just writing my previous exam 😖. Anyway,it’s a very informative and nice post😀.


  2. Pingback: Musical reads | MusiCB3 Blog

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