What Does YOUR Exam Playlist Look Like?

by Sean McGilvray on November 23, 2009

A Boombox to Pump Your Law School JamsAs law students all across the country prepare to barricade themselves in their respective study holes and mainline Red Bull and Coffee to keep their eyes open while rereading their commercial outlines for the 8th time, I can’t help but wonder what all those playlists look like.

I mean this is the 21st century, right? We take class notes on our laptops (in between status updates and looking for couches on craigslist) and we keep our Ipods running on a constant basis. I know people aren’t studying in silence out there. I can see the collective earbuds of a whole generation of lawyers every time I look through the glass wall of the conference room where I’ve decided to make my last academic stand. So what are you all listening to?

I like a little background study music myself, but my attention tends to divert when I hear people singing.  Anything with lyrics is pretty much right out of the running. I suppose classical music is a natural choice, but I know absolutely nothing about the more refined aspects of culture and I can’t tell my Beethoven from my Brahms. I never really know where to begin. Besides, good study music has to be slightly soothing and the main pieces of classical music I know are a little bombastic. Still, going over my International Commercial Arbitration notes while blaring The Ride of the Valkyries does have a certain appeal.

“I love the smell of kompetenz-kompetenz in the morning. Smells like…judicial efficiency.”

Techno (or ambient or elctrojazzercisedubstep or whatever the kids are calling it these days) is another option. It is loud and repetitive just like my favorite gunner from Con Law, but once again I have to admit my ignorance of the entire genre. And the end of the semester when I’m staring down the barrel of the final exams isn’t the best time to improve my grasp of the finer points of electronic music. I have other things on my mind. Besides, it’s hard to manage a highlighter, post-its, and a glowstick.

Which means that my “Study Playlist” is full of movie scores. My favorite list for studying is the orginal motion picture soundtrack for:

  1. The Bourne Identity
  2. The Dark Knight
  3. Braveheart
  4. Casino Royale

I pretty much just hit that on repeat, crack the books and let the test cramming begin. What are the rest of you rocking out to? What gets your exam juices flowing?


John November 23, 2009 at 6:36 am

I took this concept one step further and listened to a pre-game mix of music prior to my exams. I couldn’t listen to music while studying, except in rare cases where something else was even more distracting.

Ryan November 23, 2009 at 8:18 am

Sigur Ros, ()
Explosions in the Sky (all albums)

Joshua Auriemma November 23, 2009 at 9:01 am

I’m seriously ADD so I need music that won’t force me to concentrate on the words. I usually listen to classical / instrumental music (Ottmar Liebert is one of my favs) or something super chill like Colin Hay.

ouij November 30, 2009 at 6:41 am

@Joshua Auriemma: Think out of the box when it comes to composers, too. Philip Glass’s “Solo Piano” album is good, as is his soundtrack to “The Hours.” Terry Riley’s “In C” is postmodern, loopy, and backgroundy. John Adams is also fantastic–”Grand Pianola Music,” “The Dharma at Big Sur,” and “The Chairman Dances” (this last a suite from fragments written around the time of his “Nixon in China” opera score)

I’d put Gavin Bryars on here, too, but his best-known work involves a tape loop of someone singing, which might be too distracting.

Erin November 23, 2009 at 9:12 am

I made a Pandora station based on Imogen Heap and Zero 7 and it is perfect for studying. Yay finals?

Joshua Auriemma November 23, 2009 at 9:16 am

@Erin, Oooh, we’d definitely get along.

Sue November 23, 2009 at 9:14 am

I second Ryan on Explosions in the Sky. Anything instrumental/ post-rock like God is an Astronaut, Red Sparowes… and This Will Destroy You’s Young Mountain EP is my go-to for almost everything.

Laura Bergus November 23, 2009 at 9:21 am

I stick with stuff that I have totally memorized, so I don’t get distracted by the words. Unfortunately for anyone near me, this means I am humming early-90s Stone Temple Pilots and Nirvana the rest of the day. More recently, any Avett Brothers or Decemberists are background-y enough to keep me focused. And old-school Indigo Girls or Tori Amos keep things in perspective when I’m feeling desperate.

Rob November 29, 2010 at 6:53 pm

@Laura Bergus,

Stuff I know by heart usually works best for me too. My playlist is full of early STP. Tried to incorporate Avetts into the mix, however I keep finding myself transfixed by the lyrics even though I know them inside out.

I’ve been using The Best of Bach for the last few months. Worked quite well after I’d run through it a couple times. I’m going to give Braveheart a shot tonight. Thanks!

Scott November 23, 2009 at 9:23 am

Definitely use classical. Baroque instrumental is best. Can be both formulaic and austere, which is great for studying. Baroque choral music is similar, so that you don’t even notice the words.

ouij November 30, 2009 at 7:12 am

@Scott, is it because it’s Baroque that you don’t understand the words, or because the words are in languages you don’t speak?

Huma November 23, 2009 at 9:29 am

Great post idea – I’m definitely checking those soundtracks out. I stick mainly to baroque music with some Mozart and Bach mixed in. I respond really well to repetition, and that kind of calculated music (all instrumental, naturally) keeps me focused, energized, and in the zone.

When I need to mix it up, I put on one of my old Hindi song playlists. It’s all music from Bollywood circa the 1950s-very early 1970s. Since it’s all in Hindi, it’s similar to instrumental music: I can concentrate on the text while still keeping up with the rhythm of the music. The Hindi taps into another part of my brain, so the words/stories aren’t distracting. It’s hard for me to stay in the zone if I’m listening to music with English lyrics. I can’t really explain it, but I’ve always noticed that.

Pscrawfo November 23, 2009 at 11:55 am

Pink Floyd: Animals, Dark Side of the Moon, Relics, Wish You Were Here. Play them through straight, and then take a break from studying. Then start again.

MS November 29, 2009 at 5:23 pm

Oh man! My old pandora playlists weren’t doing it for me today as I studied for Evidence, so I Google searched “best pandora playlist for studying”. Bam–fourth on the list I get not only music for studying, but studying for law school finals! How about that!

Explosions in the Sky, Imogen Heap and Zero 7 are all PERFECT for me! Thanks guys!

@John, I do that too! Except I listen to some of my “pump-up” songs while watching some videos of amazing soccer goals on youtube. I feel like it shifts my nerves from the pre-exam type to the pre-competition type, which I handle better.

Slevin February 11, 2011 at 10:29 am

everyone had great suggestions hi am studying for The NBE NATIONAL Board Exam for Funeral Directing / Embalming. I watch MMA so watching some good highlig.t reels is an awesome idea. Thank You all. My Metalica Orchestra and The Scorched World Orchestra also thank you .

ouij November 29, 2009 at 6:01 pm

My Exam Playlist (in no particular order)–mostly albums.

Jay-Z, Blueprint 3
Radiohead: OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac
Nick Drake, Five Leaves Left
Glenn Gould: Goldberg Variations, Bach 2- and 3- part inventions
Crystal Method, Vegas

Sean McGilvray November 29, 2009 at 6:47 pm

Those are some great suggestions. Pandora and Last.fm have definitely been my friends.

@scott, I have found that baroque is the best classical choice. I’ve mostly been listening to that tag station.

Occasionally, I’ll listen to the Tycho station, really mellow electronic music. And NIN Ghosts is appropriately bleak and distressing.

@ouij, Somewhere out there there’s a Jay-Z/Radiohead mashup, with instrumental versions for all of us easily distracted types.

@MS,@John, So what do the “game day” mixes look like? I think I need some Queen or something equally jock-ish to get in a victory or death mind set that some final require.

ouij November 29, 2009 at 10:11 pm

@Sean McGilvray, you mean the Jaydiohead mash-up album? Got that, too. Incidentally, for anyone cramming for Criminal Procedure, I should note that the second verse of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” is the BEST quick review of Fourth Amendment search & seizure EVER. If you can name all the cases he’s talking about, you’re totally ready for finals.

Also, I totally forgot to mention online streaming audio. Last.fm’s “UK Garage” tag–not garage as in “garage band,” but the upbeat, syncopated two-step dance grooves. And for background ambiance, Soma.fm’s “cliqhop” station can’t be beat.

Angry Sam December 6, 2009 at 8:17 pm

I’ve been listening to a mix of albums that bounce between higher-energy and ambient “concentrating” music.

Do Make Say Think – Goodbye Enemy Airship
Talking Heads – Remain in Light
Jay-Z – Blueprint III
godspeed you! black emperor – Lift Yr. Skinny Fists
Kid Koala – Some of My Best Friends Are DJs
Miles Davis – Sketches of Spain
Pixies – Doolitte
Ornette Coleman – Sound Grammar
TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain

M December 12, 2009 at 9:36 pm

I am all about Koop. It’s freaking fantastic. They’re an electronic jazz band from Sweden, and their music is just so ideal to hum along along to while typing away.

And I also like a variety of French indie music…but I think that’s a symptom of being Canadian and having gone to French Immersion schools for most of my life…

ezeman200x January 19, 2010 at 10:31 pm

Myleene Klass Radio is my Pandora Station for studying. British pianist. No lyrics.

Bailey Jenkins June 21, 2010 at 10:35 pm

instrumental music is very soothing and relaxing.,’*

Maddison Richards July 23, 2010 at 9:13 am

i always listen to instrumental music whenever i want to relax.-;~

Leo King September 9, 2010 at 10:02 am

instrumental music is soothing to the ear and is quite relaxing-::

Dress Pants November 24, 2010 at 10:26 am

classical music is always the best, it is relaxing and very rich in melody ,;”

Smeelies November 27, 2010 at 8:53 am

I prefer music that is chilled out, but somewhat upbeat to keep me awake. Instrumentals or lyrics of a language I don’t understand are ideal.

These artists have kept me going through 2.5 years of law school:
pizzicato five
loop guru
thievery corporation
eric dolphy
bebel gilberto
flying lotus
brazilian girls
beth carvalho
lcd soundsystem

Rob November 29, 2010 at 7:00 pm

Our school blocks Pandora, last.fm, and XM. For 30K+/year I should get Jack Johnson on the ukulele in my study room.

Circuit Board December 15, 2010 at 11:01 pm

when i am relaxing, i would love to just hear some instrumental music instead of regualr music ~*;

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tannaz July 6, 2012 at 5:58 am

Lady gaga – all acoustics

tannaz July 6, 2012 at 5:58 am

Lady gaga – all acustics

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