Young woman wearing headphones while taking notes in front of a laptop,
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It can be hard to focus in a world with so many distractions. The right kind of music can make all the difference, and video game soundtracks often make for perfect background audio to help you focus, even if you don’t play games.

Why Video Game Soundtracks?

Music in video games is used to set atmosphere and pace, just as it is in film and TV. But video game soundtracks usually go a little further in that they often underpin everything you do in the game. Whether you’re engaging in battle or just moving from point A to point B, your actions are usually accompanied by music.

This music is often designed to motivate without being distracting. It’s ultimately designed to help focus you on the task at hand. Based on our previous examples, battle music may be fast-paced and dramatic, but wandering around an open world is usually accompanied by far more sedate and ambient tones.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)

There are other reasons to pick video game music, particularly games you love. People play games to have fun, or even as a way to escape the mundane and stressful real world. Listening to music from your favorite games can help elicit a sense of that enjoyment and escapism while working. Not everyone loves their job, but even if you do, work is still work.

There’s no shortage of upbeat and energetic video game music. Take arcade classics like Outrun or home console favorites like Mario for example. Many people listen to fast-paced electronic music like house or drum and bass while exercising to maintain a rhythm, and upbeat video game music can help in this regard too.

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But not everyone needs a groove to feel focused. There’s no shortage of downtempo and ambient music YouTube channels designed to help you study, and there’s a huge pool of this type of music in modern video games too.

Different Music Suits Different Tasks

The phrase “different strokes for different folks” certainly applies here. Not everyone will find it easy to study or work with a frantic Mario ditty playing in the background, while the ambient open-world tones of Skyrim could put others to sleep. Ultimately your choice of music depends on what you’re doing, and how you respond.

Mundane tasks may be boring enough that upbeat music improves your productivity. Just like the aforementioned workout music, keeping up a pace or a rhythm can be useful in some cases. The same isn’t necessarily true if you’re trying to read or absorb information though.

One of the most important things to get right is volume. This is important whether you’re listening to classical music or the Undertale soundtrack. Music that is too loud and sits above the “background” threshold is likely to be more distracting than helpful. Noise-canceling headphones can help you keep music at a low level, even in loud environments.

RELATED: What Is Active Noise Cancellation (ANC)?

Avoiding the “Wrong” Kind of Music

One helpful thing about game soundtracks is that vocals are generally kept to a minimum. Outside of the odd song that might play during the credits or a particularly memorable scene, most game music is instrumental. In terms of focus, this is a very good thing.

An article by a lecturer in psychology at the University of Wollongong from 2019 looked at published research and drew the conclusion that avoiding “wordy” music was important in aiding students. It is also recommended that students avoid fast music at loud volumes, and focus on music that puts them in a good mood.

Sable (2021)
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Music in games is varied, but much of it is designed to melt into the background while you play. Vocals are generally used sparingly in original scores, like “Glider” by Japanese Breakfast in Sable (2021) or “Still Alive” by Lisa Miskovsky in the original Mirror’s Edge (2008).

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Some soundtracks like the Forza Horizon series and Grand Theft Auto games are filled with radio stations attempting to emulate the real world. Jet Set Radio has one of the finest soundtracks of any game but it’s filled with vocals and distracting samples. And what would Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater be without its signature 2000s punk rock style?

Some Ideas to Get You Started

You’ve probably got a good idea of where to get started, based purely on your favorite games. Think of games that you’ve played for hours, that you never get bored of, and that always put you in a good mood and start there. But we also have some recommendations that you might not have considered.

The soundtrack for Fez (2012) by Disasterpeace fuses ambient and chiptune and is one of the finest examples of its kind. C418’s work on Minecraft Volume Alpha for the original Minecraft (2011) release sets a similar scene. Japanese Breakfast’s aforementioned Sable (2021) soundtrack is perfect for exploring the desert on a hoverbike or doing your homework.

Strategy games are designed to make you think. If you like a little jazz with your city planning then give the Sim City 3000 (1999) and Sim City 4 (2003) soundtracks a shot. Embrace planning on a far smaller scale with breakout hit “house move simulator” Unpacking (2021) and its sedate-yet-upbeat soundtrack.

Inon Zur has been called upon by Bethesda to write music for some of the company’s biggest open-world RPGs, including The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011). There are countless collections of Skyrim music on YouTube, but the best ones combine both music and open-world ambiance. If you enjoy these, check out the background ambiance for Fallout 3 (2008)New Vegas (2010), and Fallout 4 (2015).

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Post-rock band 65daysofstatic composed the No Man’s Sky (2016) soundtrack, a game about exploring a procedurally-generated universe that morphed into a building and trading simulator you can play with your friends. The Halo series has always had impactful orchestral scores, with Halo 3 (2007) being a highlight. Since then Halo 3: ODST (2009) dabbled in jazzy sax and recent return-to-form Halo: Infinite (2021) fuses the classical orchestra with shimmering post-rock guitar riffs.

Don’t Just Play Your Favorite Games

Listening to the soundtracks of your favorite games can help transport you back to the first time you played them. If you’re fond of a particular world or setting, the music can take you there while you get on with the more mundane tasks that pay the bills.

There’s a lot of different music you can turn to help you focus. But why stop there? Block distracting websites, use a Pomodoro timer, and turn off your notifications to help you focus throughout the workday.

Profile Photo for Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He's invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf.
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