Fog Creek Software
Discussion Board

Can you listen to music while you code...

.. and if so, what genre or style?

Heston T. Holtmann, B.Sc.Eng
Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Everything But Country (TM)

A recent playlist:
* Basement Jaxx
* Mozart
* Norah Jones
* Eminem
* Justin Timberlake
* Joan Armatrading
* Bach
* Lou Reed
* Al Stewart
* Jimmy Somerville
* Joe Cocker
* Ry Cooder
* Stevie Wonder
* Dolly Parton (but bluegrass only)

Joel Spolsky
Fog Creek Software
Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Not only can I, but I sort of "have to"; I find it very difficult to maintain my train of thought on coding long enough for good productivity unless I can tune things out with music.

Jim Causey
Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Based on that list, you may (or may not) enjoy The Grey Album, delicious and politically active!

Richard Platel
Tuesday, February 24, 2004

I pretty much have to listen to music too, as I'm stuck in a cube farm, but this has presented a few challenges.  While never officially diagnosed, I have little doubt that the way my brain works qaulifies as Adult ADD.  Initially I couldn't even do mundane coding tasks with music on, but I couldn't do anything without it either because I'm surrounded by people who are oblivious to the concept of people trying to work in neighboring cubes.  So I started forcing myself to work with music on anyway--starting out with classical or ambient while working on easy stuff, and gradually increasing my time with headphones on as well as varying genre.  I think I made a breakthrough on the attention span thing where now my brain is trained to do what it's supposed to do whenever the music is on.  So now I'm kind of like Mr. Causey above, but it took a fair amount of effort to get to this stage, and occasionally on something perplexing I have to pull the headphones off and take my chances with interruption or wait until everyone goes home to think about it.

So now I have another problem.  The cartilage in my ears gets sore every day from the headphones.  I'm planning on shopping for a softer pair, but haven't had a chance yet, and probably can't spend more than $50 on them anyway.  Any recommendations would be appreciated.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004


But I work very well to movie dialog. I have a few choice movies that have good dialog that sort of just drowns out in the background.

I'm much less productive when I forget my portable DVD.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

I hate "Anything But Country".  It's a complete non-answer.  Every person who's ever said this, I've been able to find other genres of music they hate.  I think it's like if I had asked somebody what kind of music he liked and he said "I don't like Britney Spears", um, ok, that's nice, but that doesn't tell me what you do like.

MacSqueeb: You buy headphones for how they sound, not how they feel.  (Wait, hear me out!)  I got some Grado SR-60's for about $50 (slightly used), and they've won all sorts of awards for being a great value.  They sound better than lots of headphones I've heard costing several hundred dollars -- but they're infamously uncomfortable.  Now, go buy some nice-n-squishy pads (my old Sony headphones have it, maybe you can buy it separately), rip the useless padding off the Grados, and superglue the squishy stuff to 'em.  Problem solved!  (Just make sure to cut a hole in the middle of the pads, like the original pads have, or it'll sound like you're listening through a blanket.)

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Other than myself, I've asked around and noticed that people with musical training and have played an instrument for at least a few years cannot work with music playing in the background. The auditory system is too well trained that it becomes a heightened sensation and takes a different kind of priority in the senses, so any background music becomes a major distraction.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Yes,  Good variety, and usually neither "heavy" enough to disrupt my train of thought nor light enough to put me to sleep.  I.e. good for programming.  Of course, it helps if your employer has an "all you can eat" fixed-price deal with their ISP.

Not affilliated with RP in any way
Wednesday, February 25, 2004

I'd recommend the Sony  Fontopia® Headphones
MDR-EX71SL . They fit rignt inside the ear, so take some getting used to, but they give great sound and block out everything else as well. The only slight criticism I have is that they're a bit fragile.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Am I the only developer in the world who doesn't like music when I'm working ?

Its not a case of genres, I just find it distracting, possibly because my brain actually listens to the music instead of allowing it to pass me by to provide ambience. My ideal work environment is music free with a low level of conversation in the background.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

I prefer silence as well.

Just me (Sir to you)
Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Yes, silence is definitely the best noise to work to !

Failing that, I prefer music of my choice to the incessant, inane gibbering of people working around me and/or the phone ringing constantly.

Genre of music is dependant on task.  For deep concentration, only classical will do but for debugging or support I need something more distracting to stop me chewing my arm off with boredom.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Mark and KH: Thank you for your suggestions.  I never thought of hacking the headphones for comfort.

rexguo: I think you are absolutely right about musicians having a harder time working with music because they begin to analyse what they're hearing.  Fortunately I was such a lousy musician after trying to be a guitar player for ten years that I eventually learned to suppress that tendancy.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

I find that anything that sounds like static is enough to block out my coworkers, but doesn't distract me. Luckily, the early and mid-90's produced a significant amount of music that fits the bill!

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

When I'm not writing code I enjoy listening to jazz music. But I find it too distracting while programming (my brain wants to pay too much attention to it). So for me it's either classical or some mindless trash that fits the mood.

I often will listen to the same song over and over again. Am I the only one who does that? Once, while debugging a particularly nasty memory overwrite bug I listened to "Break on Through" by the Doors for two days straight.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

I end up listening to the same music over and over as well. Though, it is usually the same CD/MP3 playlist. Not just one song.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

"Other than myself, I've asked around and noticed that people with musical training and have played an instrument for at least a few years cannot work with music playing in the background. "

I must be the exception that proves the rule.  Even back in high school, when I was joyfully practicing at least an hour a day, I preferred to work to music.  Still do. (Still play instruments regularly, too.)  It stimulates pleasure & feelings of well-being, among other things.  It's hard (for me) to work well when I'm anxious; music is calming. 

I find that vocal music in English is too distracting for serious concentration (vocal music of any kind can be a problem if I'm thinking hard enough).  It's perfect, though, for (some) debugging, or anything moderately mechanical.

a music-listening musician
Thursday, February 26, 2004

I second the vote for Grado SR-60's.  They are probably the most bang for the buck that I've heard.

They work well with low-output portable players and computers.  They are open-air phones, though, (as opposed to sealed) so if someone sits near you, they might be able to hear your music slightly.

Headroom is a pretty good resource for headphone info:

I believe they also sell "soft" replacement earpads for Grado phones...

Tim Lara
Thursday, February 26, 2004

I also listen to the same song over and over again. Don't tell my wife tho, I told her I needed a 20 G iPod for work reasons.


michael christopher
Thursday, February 26, 2004

I'm a musically trained person. I've played cello practically all my life (22 now), and I find that while I'm coding I can only listen to music which I don't particularly like and doesn't have any lyrics. One pretty good choice is to take a techno channel from Shoutcast and listen to that...

If I try to listen to some of my favourite music, I just can't get anything done. It's even worse when it's something which I've played, since I start to mentally "play along."

Timo Virkkala
Friday, February 27, 2004

I always need to listen to music when I work. I find English lyrics distracting, so I've always listened to music with non-English lyrics (which is how I really started getting into African music and other kinds of "world music").

That has backfired a bit - I often find myself singing along in languages like Wolof and I'm actually starting to understand a few words in some obscure languages.

Mike Cohen
Friday, February 27, 2004

I find that if I need to bang out some code for a couple of hours, I work best headphoning some good jazz (i.e., jazz I like).  It drowns out my cube neighbors who like to speakerphone their telecons.

An energetic song translates into faster typing (Brubeck Live at Carnegie Hall is great for this; Joe Morello is an exceptional drummer).

The downside of this is that I have to stop working when I'm listening to Paul Desmond's alto solo on "For All We Know" from Jazz at the College of the Pacific because it's just too darned beautiful.

Oh, and I've been a musician for most of my life.  Another data point for you.

Greg O'Rear
Friday, February 27, 2004

Cannot listen to music at all when in any sort of design process, whether system design or implementation strategies.

Must have music for testing/debugging/integrating and script writing.  Electronica, ambient, noise and hip hop preferred.

Recent tunes playing on my iPod:
DJ Danger Mouse
Melt Banana
Johnny Cash
Gang of Four
Mr. Oizo

Casey Marshall
Friday, February 27, 2004

Music is my first love.  I'm either actively listening to it as my primary activity or not.

Silence is my second love.  I have to have time alone with my own head.

I'm only productive programming when there is silence. Music either annoys me to distraction or commands my full attention.

It's never music AND. It's always music OR.

fool for python
Saturday, February 28, 2004

...oh yeah. Genre.

When I'm not programming, enjoying silence or otherwise pre-occupied, I'm listening to or playing (piano) mostly jazz.

fool for python
Saturday, February 28, 2004

KH, you bought "slightly used" grados for $50? Buying used headphones is like buying used socks: gross. Also, SR-60s only cost sixty dollars brand new.

 me again
Saturday, February 28, 2004

I find that it depends on the complexity of what I'm doing.  If I'm working on something really hard then I need silence to concentrate.  But, if I'm doing something less complex, music helps to establish a rhythm that keeps me going forward and making progress.  However, it has to be either instrumental music or, if it has vocals they need to be non-English or if they are English they need to be very repetitive or very ethereal, almost unintelligible vocals so that my brain tunes out the lyrics.  Some of my favorites for coding are:

Ravel (mostly his pieces for piano, orchestral stuff can be a bit too distracting for me)
Pizzicato Five
Ghost in the Shell Soundtrack
Future Loop Foundation
Juno Reactor
My Bloody Valentine
Petra Haden
Cocteau Twins
Vangelis (especially the Blade Runner soundtrack)
Macross Plus Soundtrack
All Natural Lemon & Lime Flavors

Swing Out Sister, The Talking Heads, Mojave 3, Charlatans UK, and That Dog are rare exceptions to the rule that are in intelligible English that I can still listen to while coding and not get distracted.

Sunday, February 29, 2004

"me": No, it's not.  My hacked SR-60's only have metal and plastic and wire from the originals (easily cleaned, and probably don't pick up much, anyway), and don't come within 1/2" of my head, anyway (new thick pads).  It's not like me or the original owner have any hair, anyway, so I'm not sure what problems there could be...

Maybe it has to do with how active your thought processes are.  When I'm banging out C code I've done a million times before, or running test cases, I can listen to music ok.  But when I'm playing go, music grabs my mind and won't let go.  Are there any other go players here?  Can you play go while listening to music?

Sunday, February 29, 2004

I work with music in the background, but I found that I can only
concentrate with music that I already "know".  I can tune it out
and it blocks the background noise.

If something new comes on the radio, or it is a new CD,
I can't work and listen at the same time.

Radio Head
Wednesday, March 3, 2004

I have a playlist that is mostly Paul Simon and Jimmy Buffett.  I like to have music while I work, especially if I'm in a common room or cube farm with others.

One think I think is the mark of a true jerk is the person who assumes that everyone shares his or her taste in music (to include volumen and qualifty). 

If you work in an open space, you have no business playing music through your speakers.  Period.  End of discussion.

If you work in a private you may play your music softly, but not so loud as to be audible to your next door neighbor.

If you can't comply with these two simple rules, then you are jerk. 

Jim H
Monday, March 8, 2004

Great headphones: Sennheiser HD570. They fully enclose your ears but they are very soft and you can still hear things like your phone ringing. The sound quality is incredible.

John Dawson
Wednesday, March 31, 2004

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