I must start this post with a disclaimer: I don’t really listen to music when I’m working on my PhD. I’m a silent writer and reader, someone who needs peace in order to become properly absorbed in my materials. Sometimes, I find the vague hubbub of voices and machines in a coffee shop relaxing whilst I reference. At other times, I have listened to just one song over and over on endless repeat to encourage greater focus. I can also admit to playing various RuPaul albums at max volume on those occasions when I’m either having a slump in productivity and confidence or I need to be reminded that I am a PhD ‘Glamazon’. These sounds, however, do not a PhD playlist make and, mostly, I prefer peace, quiet, and a strict lack of noise.
I do listen to music, however, when I’m travelling around the city. Commuting takes up a significant portion of my day, an experience which I’m sure many other London-based researchers can share. Long tube trips should be the perfect time to catch up on journal reading or compose a few emails but, as anyone who has caught the Northern Line at practically any time of day will know, personal space is usually at a premium and there is no room for outstretched arms clutching unwieldy tomes. So, for me, tube-time becomes music-time, and I block out the world with a little bit of determination, a stony ‘commuter’ expression, and my over-ear headphones.
It is also in these moments that I do some of my best thinking. As I travel to or from my place of work, I’ll often use my time on the tube to think about the wider project that I’m working on. When I research, I tend to work chapter by chapter, section by section, which is great for the depth but does mean that I am also in danger of ending up with a series of isolated, disjointed articles rather than a coherent PhD thesis. When I’m on the tube, I can stand apart from my work, gain a better sense of the overall shape of my project, and clearly articulate (in my head) why what I do matters.
I’m not sure if the thinking and the music are related. But the latter does help to block out distractions around me and so it must, in some way, be conducive to the former. With this in mind, I thought I’d share a playlist. I’ve tried to pick songs which help me focus, rather than just my normal daily musical fare (which tends to be a combination of The Hold Steady, Drake and, of course, RuPaul). To call it a ‘PhD Playlist’, then, is perhaps bogus, but these are some of the sounds that help me find a much needed ‘still point’ amongst the commuter chaos. Maybe it will do the same for someone else.
Briony Wickes is a first year English PhD at King’s College London, researching settler emigration, human-animal relationships, and global trade in the nineteenth century. Follow her @brionyjoy.