Music for the Home: A New Guide to Audiodecorating

Music for the Home: A New Guide to Audiodecorating


You’ve just bought a new house and set up all your tables and chairs. The walls are covered in pictures of your favorite paintings. Your family has settled down and this house is about to become a home. But what’s missing? That’s right, one final step in cultivating domesticity: music. More specifically, music for everywhere and every possible situation. Here is your guide to audiodecorating, a starter and answer to your most pressing questions.

No, home design is not as effortless and accessible as the television insists. Fitting your home to your particular specifications requires hours of planning, work, and frustration. Recall the setbacks so many HGTV couples have before it goes to commercial: over-budget woes, scheduling problems, interpersonal disputes. There’s a better way. Design your home around the invisible mechanism that is music. No tearing down your walls to install an invasive bundle of cables.

Maybe this seems very 1990s community pool to you. Maybe you are imagining a crackly music rock playing KSEX just loud enough to interrupt a casual get-together. All I suggest is that you develop an internal idea of what your home sounds like to yourself and your visitors. This nebulous theory of design is here to stay. Let’s take a guided tour of a house and explore the feelings and trends that most gel with each space. Think of the examples in each section not as prescriptions but loose inspiration. So, we approach the front porch on a hot night in August.


Kauffman & Caboor“Kiss Another Day Goodbye”

Bukka White“Promise True and Grand”

Seamus Ennis“The First House in Connaught/The Copper Plate Reel”

The front porch exists in a curious place between private sanctuary and public stage. If you get along nicely with your neighbors, or else you don’t fear their whispered words, the front porch is a grand old place to sit banging away on your giant-bodied acoustic guitar. Whether a full wooden platform or a concrete stoop, the perch acts as a bullhorn reaching out of your locked home and into the world. But begorra, you don’t have the energy to drag yourself out there each and every night to play an overlong, multipartite composition and wail away until your voice goes hoarse to an audience that doesn’t know it from elevator music. The same musical end can be accomplished by taking your computer speakers outside and letting them echo into the evening air. The stress and strain of live performance has already been condensed into some wonderful recordings of our favorite troubadours.

One obvious option is the acoustic complement to classic rock music. I picked the Kauffman & Caboor song above knowing it as a tender, melancholic song. It’s maudlin in the best way, and it won’t overstep. Think about all the porch singers you know—the ones who come home and take off their tie and, eager to prove they are not tied to their work, pick up the guitar and howl. That’s the sort of feeling you get with this disc. Sticking with guitar, you can try the blues. Bukka White’s energetic fingerstyle brings an opposite energy. I picked a particularly religious one, so if you seek to evangelize, there’s no better way to do it. Otherwise, try any of the secular blues catalogue. If you’re looking for something that blends into the shared air between you and your neighbors, try instrumental music, like some earthy uilleann pipes music by Seamus Ennis. It matches the drones found in the cicadas, the pounding rain, or a truck rumbling by. It isn’t forceful like the Great Highland bagpipes from Scotland and tends to gel more easily with its environment. In all this, you want to remember not to crowd the musical space too much. If you want projected audio, let it project.


Photo: Deavmi

Brian Slawson“Bach: Allegro (from “Concerto in A minor for 4 Harpsichords and Orchestra”)

Nara Leão“Corcovado”

Umm Kulthum“Efrah Ya Albi”

Stepping inside the open screen door, our tour leads us to the first room in the house past any sort of entranceway—most likely a living room or sitting room. It’s important to note the wildly different experiences and reactions that you will have compared to your guests. To you, this is a sign of entering into your space. For guests, no matter their comfort, it is an act of intrusion. Though invited, this particular boundary crossing is the most delicate in the house (apart from the bedroom). The music you choose to play here should match the decorum of the space as well as draw attention to performance. All the examples I’ve chosen pay particular attention to the question of attention: where your attention goes, and what attracts it. Vocal music is a great addition because it’s forthright. If you should choose instrumental music, try going for something bright and lively.

The first example comes from an album called Bach on Wood, a collection of pop classical hits performed mostly on xylophone. It tempers the daunting task of classical and introduces a sense of order by way of its use of the written score. All fits into place. Nara Leão’s bossa nova is a cool alternative. A voice like this cuts through the conversation, but it is smooth and familiar enough to blend as needed. One final suggestion is to be bold and go for a monumental stage figure like Umm Kulthum. The Egyptian superstar singer has thousands of recordings from the ‘40s through the ‘70s, and the passage of time has only worked to her advantage. Rather than being background music of the elevator music sort, her voice fits the empty living space perfectly. Her singular voice was set to tape so that your home could become a concert hall.


Photo: Steven Pavlov

William Grant Still“Songs of Separation – 2. Poème”

June Chikuma“Climb-Down”

“Blue” Gene Tyranny“She Wore Red Shoes”

The dining room is your opportunity to ratchet up the idea of formality to serve your particular ends. There’s no reason you should expect to host high society dinner parties every night, so don’t plan for that. Instead, use the mask of starched and stilted music to give structure to your candle-lit dinners and holiday gatherings. The simple fact of the dining room is that it must reach toward higher drama. I urge you not to view this as a negative. You are setting a goal for yourself when you self-design in this way. The goal is that you somehow become closer to the music in that particular eating space. It’s aspirational, but low stakes. Also keep in mind looping qualities versus linearity. A long dinner that will take many turns requires a different song structure than a one-time meeting. Finally, the actual loudness of the music is an important consideration in this most high-stakes location. Err on the side of quiet, but have a remote ready to raise or lower the volume to follow the feeling of the room.

I’m including a piece of art song in this section despite its internal drama and self-contained narrative. The way the vocals follow the piano line will have anyone believing in your ability to throw together a playlist. And “Songs of Separation” is not just any old modern classical, it’s one of the most impressive song cycles of the 20th century. If you have the chance to play the whole cycle under the din of conversation, you may find striking similarities and interactions no one could anticipate. June Chikuma’s “Climb-Down” is full of astonishing harmonic layering, making it acceptable both as a backdrop and a healthy musical meal. It lays low in its infinite descent, making no waves but working its way into your mind. Finally, “Blue” Gene Tyranny’s piano work “She Wore Red Shoes” is an excellent example of working improvisatory music into the fabric of talk. After all, there is no script to lunch or dinner conversation, and the unplottable arc of this piece fits nicely with the pops and cracks of your own goings-on.


Connie Converse“We Lived Alone”

Judy Collins“Both Sides Now”

William Onyeabor“Ride On Baby”

If there truly was a vibrant scene of musical decorators, I imagine we would see competing theories of the kitchen. It serves concurrent functions, including (but not limited to) a quiet place for a midnight snack, reluctant extension of entertaining space, joyful solo cooking space, joyful group cooking space, and hidden space. The kitchen has come out of its hiding space, and folks are demanding larger kitchens, but it retains its tonal mystery. The problem of the kitchen is what led me to pursue this guide in the first place. The only solution is to cover a range of possibilities. You yourself know what music happens in the kitchen. Still, I have a few offerings.

Following a literal interpretation of “kitchen music,” we must recognize one of the first singer-songwriters, Connie Converse, who recorded lots of her music in a kitchen (so it’s said). The privacy and oddity of this place added to her myth, and it helped that she herself was taken with themes of domestic life and its discontents. So, yes, I picked a song of hers that includes the word “house” prominently in the words. Playing it in a house seems to resonate nicely with the walls and convince you beyond all doubt that your connection to your living space is not odd, but totally natural. Judy Collins’ “Both Sides Now” strikes me as music you hear accidentally on the kitchen radio, causing you to receive it totally differently. As heard between the clatter of pots and pans, it is disembodied, but still a comfort. And then there’s William Onyeabor, who here (and here only) is an extension of Judy Collins. It’s music played loudly on a phone speaker to accompany making dinner. It helps you along, whether alone or with others.


The Premier Quartet“Moonlight Bay”

Laurie Spiegel“A Harmonic Algorithm”

Olivier Messiaen“Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus: Regard de la Vierge”

Your trips from room to room should be far from forgettable, and your hallways are a space to prove your commitment to musical decorating. Only in haunted houses or art galleries or suspense thrillers do you hear music while navigating the spaces between rooms, but this all may change. These liminal spaces do have feelings, and chances are good that they reflect light just like your living room. They can reveal themselves to be beautiful if you let them, so they must be a place of non-surprises. In a best case scenario, they lubricate and guide your movements. If you seek to add an unsettling twist, you may, but consider their place. They are a necessity in living spaces because of the way we live our lives. It is right and good to lead from one room to the next by way of a tasteful bridge.

The goal of no surprises makes me gravitate toward old, old music. “Moonlight Bay,” from a collection of Edison recordings of Tin Pan Alley songs, is expected despite the fact that it isn’t still a popular song. The fact that we innately know the structure of the song but not the song itself proves the power of a good drifting song. On your way from the kitchen to the basement, shouldn’t your mind fire up for a fraction of a second to think some indistinct thought about “Moonlight Bay”? Laurie Spiegel’s “A Harmonic Algorithm” features a higher order example of “no surprises.” Using a harmonic algorithm, her electronic equipment unites all the intervals we know in our mind’s ear and layers them helpfully. It isn’t so much a demonstration as the title would make you believe, but it starts and completes each of its inventions with clarity and purpose. The last example here is a wild card, from French composer Olivier Messiaen’s piano composition Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus. You may argue that is the furthest thing from no surprises, that it defies every expected and acceptable rule and that, beyond that, it’s supposedly religious? Like the Still’s song cycle, it is a suite with its own internal logic and sets of motifs. If all you play in your hallways is this, your mental map of your house will double back on itself in (possibly) interesting ways.


Seeburg Music Co.“Industrial – 24A”

Barre Phillips“Journal Violone Part One”

Caterina Barbieri“This Causes Consciousness to Fracture”

Now that you’ve found your way down the hall or up the stairs, you’ve arrived at that most sensitive room: the bathroom. Indeed, it seems the most difficult spot for programming—after all, who actually wants to listen to music in the bathroom. All I can say is this: cowards need not apply. In this brave new world of whole house music design, you yourself must first be comfortable with the idea before acclimating your guests to it. “When I go over to X’s house,” they’ll soon say, “there is always the most appropriate music playing in the upstairs bathroom. Sometimes I’ll excuse myself under the pretense of having had too much Bud Light, but really I’m going to have a listen to the exciting programming available there.” Though that will come in time, your goal should be for the music to be subdued and almost invisible. Additionally, there is nothing more unnatural than the loud bathroom song, so keep it on the quiet side.

The first and most classic example here is from the Seeburg Corporation. Specializing in background music for decades, their collective sound was pleasant but never notable. That’s important. This example is from a series of music for factories, apparently to keep productivity high. I don’t mean to say this selection is chasing the same response in the bathroom, only that it is practical and unintrusive. For something less subliminal, try the more personal “Journal Violone” by bassist Barre Phillips. It’s famous for being the first solo bass record, and it goes to some far-off places, but the sound of the solo bass is the right volume. You could also go for any of his later material with even more bassists (and a drummer). An electronic perspective leads us to Caterina Barbieri, whose pattern-obsessed musical language manages to fly under the radar. However, if I’m being honest, I would hope this becomes the showpiece that draws repeat visits.


Smog“Say Valley Maker”

Arthur Russell“A Little Lost”

Snd“Locked Groove 8”

Moving on to the bedroom, we enter the inner sanctum of the house. First, let me immediately dispel the idea that the bedroom is synonymous with intimate encounters. It may include that, but is certainly not limited to it. Music in the bedroom should be that which is hidden from everywhere else. In this, your refuge, you are allowed to punctuate silence with purposeful songs. This allows for the widest variety of music yet, and that’s okay. Still, I’ll offer some starters as well as a practical option for sleep.

“Say Valley Maker” is the kind of personal song that is too vast with the weight of personal associations to hit the ears of those who aren’t ready. The imagery of death is tailored to the love that the songwriter knows. Perhaps you know it too, if only a little. Arthur Russell’s “A Little Lost” is a perfect song of requited love told from a single perspective. It’s tense and holds every little motion up in the air. Seeing the flood emotion waiting behind the dam shows its immense power in a way that’s otherwise hard to achieve in a pop song. If those two songs didn’t do it practically for you, any of Snd’s locked grooves will do for a nighttime song. Simply lock in a groove and lay your head on your pillow. I can’t guarantee the images that may spout from your limp mind in the depths of sleep, but the gentle restart again and again does wonders to drive you into a peaceful state of unconsciousness. The bedroom is most of all about sleep, so take that into consideration with your bedroom choices.


Photo: YvesSch

David Garland“Luminous House”

Loren Mazzacane Connors“Airs 6”

Anna & Elizabeth“Mother in the Graveyard”

The rest of the room-to-room transitions flowed quite smoothly, but to get to the back yard from the bedroom, let’s leap out the second story window and land in the garden. Having made our way through the house proper, this is an appropriate coda for the tour. The back yard is more than a bookend of the front yard. In my mind, music in the back yard should be a practical extension of what little nature you get, should you have the luxury of a yard at all. A patch of grass and flowers should extend and the space may double or triple with the musical echo. It is a perfect communal space, ideally open to the other yards beside you. As a pastoral escape, there’s nothing like it. And it’s one of the more familiar recipients of music in the home (barbecues, parties, etc.). However, to truly appreciate its compact design as a microcosm of all nature, it feels right to reinforce elements of the earth.

David Garland was another inspiration for this project, especially his enormous 2018 album Verdancy, one of the grandest statements about houses and nature I’ve found yet. “Luminous House” evokes both the lights shining out from the house and the precarious position of the house among the nature that overwhelms it. Guitarist Loren Mazzacane Connors’ series of airs is another expansive addition. The gentle tinkering sounds of invented melodies on a humble electric guitar is a comfort and a companion. Finally, Anna & Elizabeth’s “Mother in the Graveyard” celebrates the relationships that are likely to congregate in the back yard. It’s a singalong of sorts with a memorable chorus. It’s far from traditional folk, but it has the same android house-nature quality as Garland. This is all we can hope for as designers of the sounds in our own homes. It isn’t an exact science, but with long consideration and plenty of study, you may yet reach a satisfying balance. And now that we’re in the back yard, feel free to wander in your neighbors’ yards for more clues.