Coding to music

Why you should listen to music while coding (and what kind to listen to)

Coman Hamilton

Is there such a thing as the ‘right’ music for programming? And can we even be sure it has a good effect?

It’s time to ask one of the most important questions
in IT: What’s the best kind of music to program to?

It might sound like the topic of a lazy Friday
afternoon canteen coffee break debate, but the question actually
comes from a serious place. The “flow” – a state in which
programmers manage to block out everything else and concentrate
100% on coding – is a highly desired state of mind. When the
perfect conditions fall into place, a programmer’s focus is
entirely on the problem at hand until it is solved. Victory!

Music and the developer’s flow

Psychological studies reveal that developers can slide
into a focused working rhythm with music much faster than without.
Music helps to block out annoying, distracting noises like
telephone conversations, squeaky chairs or that coughing colleague
who gets on your nerves.

Rob Walling
used music to condition himself to quickly assume a
focused work pattern. While programming he would listen to the same
track on repeat for hours until he could concentrate entirely on
his work. Following this experiment, all Rob needs to do is play
the song to evoke his undeterred concentration.

Music and coding

Sam Howard has written a
blog series
listing the various reasons why programmers should
listen to music when coding.

  • Developers often have to deal with arduous, repetitive
    problems such as testing, that can be tedious or boring. Music can
    help to keep the brain alert and prevent it from switching off.

  • Music can also be a motivator. If someone listens to
    epic soundtracks while working, they might be inspired to complete
    a big project.

  • If someone is stressed, Debussy’s impressionist sounds
    can act as the perfect soothing background noise. Tiredness is
    often combatted through rapid guitar noises and a lot of

  • Another bonus of listening to music in the office is
    that headphones often deter colleagues from approaching you with
    small talk when you’re trying to meet a deadline.

The scientists behind focus@will
(a concentration-enhancing music subscription service) claim that
the right music can help individuals to quickly lapse into a state
of high performance.

We’ve learned that people working or studying tend to
take about 20 minutes to acclimate to their environment enough to
really focus on the task at hand. It takes time for your brain to
get used to a stimulus and start “tuning it out” in a process
called “habituation”.

By accelerating the habituation process, music can enhance the
productivity of a team. Data like this begs the question as to why
larger tech companies have not yet started offering their employees
free music subscriptions to Spotify and co.

Concentration killer?

It must also be noted, that for all the positive
effects of listening to music while working there are also some
downsides. The wrong music can sometimes serve as a massive
distraction, so it’s essential to put some thought into selecting
the perfect work tunes. While some individuals may be distracted by
music with vocals, others may be distracted by music they strongly
like or dislike.

  • Those who listen to their favourite top ten charts on
    the radio will probably not have the most productive or focused
    work period. Radio adverts, news bulletins or exciting reports
    between songs will often interrupt the workflow.

  • Sam Howard
    that songs with well known lyrics can also be counter
    productive. The brain automatically zones in on the text and before
    you know it your concentration is lost. Podcasts are also not
    recommended for those hoping not to get sidetracked.

The solution? Just listen to music without vocals, or
songs with less attention-grabbing lyrics. Instrumental music such
as classical, electro and jazz are perfect for setting the right
conditions to get some serious work done. They are also thought to
sustain your focus.

The same goes for many soundtracks. Film scores are
designed support and complement the film without drawing too much
attention to the music, and the logic can also be applied to
programming. The repetitive melodies and rhythms of Minimalist
composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass are also thought to
be an ideal backdrop for successful coding.

Your turn!

But in spite of everything we’ve just told you,
musical is, in the end, an entirely subjective matter and what
appeals to one person might be the wrong thing for another. This is
where individual taste comes into play and to this end we would
like to reopen the debate.

ALSO: Devs
name their top productivity slayers

What music would you recommend listening to while
working? Which artists do you find distracting? Join in on the
conversation on the Reddit thread (six years old and still going
strong): “The
best background music for programming?

Feature image by Alé

Coman Hamilton
Before becoming Editor of (S&S Media Group), Coman completed an M.A. in Cultural Studies and wrote for numerous websites and magazines, as well as several ad agencies. // Want to submit a story? Get me at coman[AT] or
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