Does Music Soothe the Savage Photo Editing Breast?

Last weekend, my wife and I enjoyed a wonderful spaghetti dinner at the house of wedding photographer, and fellow survivor of the Australian music industry, Col Hockey. As the night drew on and we sat around the warm glow of his Spotify account, taking turns picking dinner party background music, we set our minds to solving all of the problems inherent in the modern wedding photography world. We discussed gear, marketing, and the mountain that must be climbed: the post-wedding cull and edit. We’re both musicians, so the thought of spending days editing in secluded silence seemed completely alien, but it got me wondering if we were making the right choice.

The very next day, I read a post on Facebook from another prominent wedding photographer proclaiming to have found the greatest YouTube mix of inspirational editing soundtracks. That post has since been removed (did I dream it?), and although I did listen to it at the time, my computer is set to private browsing, so now, I’ll never be able to find it again. Well, I could ask my friend, but who has time for that? Two mentions of the same topic in as many days is witchcraft in my book, and I took this as a sign that I should look deeper into the world of background editing choices.
It turns out there’s been a lot of studies done on this over the years related to both information retention and performing repetitive tasks. A quick Google search can find plenty of evidence both for and against background music, but the larger consensus seems to suggest that some level of background noise helps keep focus or, at the very least, increase the enjoyment level of the activity. It seems like familiar music or sounds can trigger the dopamine centres of the brain, raising your happiness levels and associating that happiness with the task at hand. I’m a huge fan of dopamine, so that's a good enough endorsement for me; turn it up to 11 please.

A lot of the studies suggested that instrumental music was better for study as it wouldn’t put extra load on the language sections of the brain you were actively using while reading large areas of text, but that singing along to music raised your enjoyment levels with repetitive tasks that were less taxing on brain power. But what should I be listening to? Editing thousands of images isn't really as language intensive as in-depth study, but you are required to be mindful and creative, so I took to Facebook to see what my peers are putting into their earholes.

I put the call out across a range of photography groups, from wedding and portrait photographers, to landscape and travel shooters, and I got a huge level of feedback. I don't have a degree in statistics, so I decided that in order to make the math easier, I would just use the results from the first 100 responders, and this is what I got:

  • 95% of responders used some kind of background noise, but 1 of the 5 that preferred silence did admit to spending a lot of time trying to click his mouse to a specific rhythm.
  • 53% listened to music of some kind, 26% used TV or movies, and 14% preferred hearing people talking (talk-back radio or podcasts), leaving 2% who liked the ambient sounds of coffee shops or thunderstorms.
  • Of the 53 music listeners, the largest selection, with 52% of the vote, chilled to acoustic or quiet, lyrical songs, 20% kept things classy with opera, classical, or instrumental soundtracks, 16% rocked out, 8% had the funk, and 4% partied to electronic beats.
  • The video users rated TV shows and movies at 65%, educational or instructional YouTube videos at 23%, recordings of sporting events at 8%, and 4% liked long-form documentaries. Netflix was mentioned many times by this group and seems to be a popular photography app.
  • 7% of the people who liked hearing people talking liked it more if they talked in a language the listener couldn’t understand.
  • The 2% of people that liked the ambiance of coffee shops didn’t actually like the inconvenience of coffee shops and opted instead to emulate the sound through Coffitivity.

I know what you're thinking: "Best record collection ever!"

So, the science is still divided on whether background noise is actually helping or just a placebo, but in this age, where sensory input is everywhere, and I don't leave the house without nearly every song ever written in my pocket and a pair of headphones in every bag I own, the thought of working in silence fills me with terror. If I sit quietly in a bathroom stall for more than a couple of minutes, my brain starts to burn up ideas faster than Johnny Mnemonic. I hate to think what would happen if I left it to its own devices for hours at a time.

But what about you? Do you find you can work in silence, or does the void stare back? Do you prefer music, talking, or just a quiet coffee shop? Do you have a favourite editing playlist? Do you refuse to edit to anything but vinyl? As soon as we settle this case once and for all, we can move onto whether you edit better drunk, or sober. Argue your case in the comments below.

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Damon Lynch's picture

Train your mind to work steadily and with one-pointed attention. Give your full attention to the task at hand. If you're post-processing photos, that means no music whatsoever. It means no TV either. If you're listening to music, that means giving it your undivided attention.

Although this advice seems like utter madness to most people these days, try it seriously for a month and see how it positively it affects your productivity, you sense of well-being, the quality of your work, and most important of all, your capacity to deepen your concentration.

Rob Mynard's picture

I couldn't imagine it. :-)

Damon Lynch's picture

An ex-neighbor of mine used to complain that his wife would watch plain old TV while they made love.

If you're not getting your stimuli from your work, something's wrong. Turn the spotlight inward. Dedicate yourself fully to the task at hand. Why fritter away your concentration when you could instead be using it to take your craft to new levels and attain mastery.

Rob Mynard's picture

I hadn't thought about using different scents, that's an interesting idea. Someone should market a range of editing candles.

Rob Mynard's picture

No scented candles are plentiful here I was just thinking of a range targeted directly to photographers

Jason Ranalli's picture

I just looked up Coffitivity....WTF??!!!

Rob Mynard's picture

I know right, Now you never need to leave the house again.

kris risner's picture

Personally, whether I am listening to music or not doesn't really affect me. The one thing that does impact my editing though is how clean my space is. I can't work if my space is dirty or cluttered.

Rob Mynard's picture

hmmm, a clean workspace, I've never tried that.

Rob Mynard's picture

Not kidding unfortunately, I'm a little OCD in that I'm happy in a workspace that to the outsider is incredibly cluttered but I don't notice it as long as all the clutter is equal distance from each other piece and the major leading line on each piece is pointing the same way. I don't like cluttered contrast lines on my workspace. I do struggle with triangular pieces like star destroyers though...

Rob Mynard's picture

Spot on, there is no filth in my workspace but there is order hidden within my chaos.

Rob Mynard's picture


David Jaan's picture

I always shoot and edit to music and it actually drives the direction of a shoot and delivery of a set. I even use lyrics from the songs that drove the series to post on social media. Music has always driven me creatively so I can't imagine it not being involved in the process.

Lois Bryan's picture

Music ... American Beauty by Thomas Newman. Over and over and over and over ... da zone.

Rob Mynard's picture

Nice, I'll have to give it a listen. I went through a phase with the Virgin Suicides OST

Thom Handley's picture

Rob great article, but you got the quote wrong it is "...soothe the savage breast"

Rob Mynard's picture

I never knew, and that's what I get trying to sound intellectual using just my knowledge of modern pop culture. I've now corrected it, thanks.

Hi Ody's picture

First of all I am male.

Secondly, I am in the 'listen to music' camp and it doesn't matter whether it has vocals or not but it does matter it matches my mood on the day.

Thirdly, I am a rank amature photographer very unlikely to ever post a photo of mine anywhere other than where I can see it :-)

And Fourthly, I am not a brain specialist, in fact I often wonder where mine has gone.

However, I am a fan of a woman I came across recently who is in fact a brain specialist and has made researching the functions and operation of the brain her life work - Dr Arlene Taylor. Now, and I know a number of people will not necessarily appreciate this, but the male and female brains are, apparently, physiologically quite different and they do in fact work quite differently. Men and Women will never be the same and will never be able to perform in the same way.

According to Dr Taylor, Men only use half of their brain (the left or right hemispheres) at any given time whereas Women use all of theirs; that is why Women multitask better than men - generally. Men are very much single taskers. Mind you, because Women use all of their brain all of the time, apparently, it takes more energy to operate a Woman's brain. For a man to move from one task to another, he must close down the current function and start up the next which, on occasions and depending on task, means moving from the left to right hemispheres of the brain, an energy sapping task - apparently.

So, and please take all of this in the humour it is intended, Gents it would seem we are not generally capable of applying our brains to two functions at any given moment so if, and when, you find yourself doing stupid things while attempting two simultaneous but dissimilar functions use that most excellent and scientifically proven excuse, 'It's because I'm a male.'

None of which helps come to a conclusion about the benefits of background music :-)