I’m a highly audio-visual human being. I like to listen to music anywhere I go, at any given time, largely for the sake of being entertained, but also because I can’t (and don’t want to) listen to other people talking. I live in the city and don’t own a car myself, so I’m taking the train or bus almost everywhere.
But in this article, I want to focus on “coding sounds”, the audio visual environment i create for myself to help me stay focused for long periods of time.
What qualifies good coding sounds
Personally, I think good coding sounds are like a good film soundtrack: You don’t notice it. When the music blends into the background and you don’t even notice it’s there, you have found what you’re looking for.
Music helps you to get into your current task. When you’re in, you shouldn’t notice the music (or anything) around you, just like as if you where in a tunnel.
Depending on your current task, the choice of sound might greatly differ. For some reason, I have found the sound of rain and waves more inspiring when writing articles (like this one), but classic music more helpful when coding. Although when I’m out on the street’s, I like to listen to more peppy music.
The question of “what do you listen to while coding” has been answered multiple times all over the internet. Lets look at some common responses.
A surprisingly large amount of programmers favor pure silence over any kind of music (or they listen to 4'33 by John Cage).
For me personally, I sometimes (long hours into coding) take a short break and realize, that I did actually not play any music while doing my work. And from that moment on, it’s bothering me. This often happens when “short work” extends into an unplanned, long-term coding session.
There is research in this field, showing that silence can actually be better than any kind of sound:
Performance was best in the silent condition and worst in the familiar music condition, […]
The findings that how often music is listened to does not affect performance in any condition does not support Etaugh & Ptasnik (1982) that people perform better in their chosen condition. However as silence had the best overall performance it would still be advisable that people work in silence.
Other than at home or in your own office, absolute silence might be very hard to come by. So, when working in an office with multiple other employees (which might have other music-habits of their own), Noise-Canceling Headphones can be a good investment.
Another thing that works surprisingly well (even for me) is generated or recorded noise. There is a variety of noise-generators on the internet. The noise normally comes in multiple flavors like white, brown or pink. We also have recorded noise, for example from a rainy day in California.
Mixed together this can make up for a very interesting and relaxing audiovisual environment. To back up this claim, here is some research in this area:
[…] Stall (2004) also discusses the possibility of continuous vs. intermittent noises having differential impact such that continuous may be beneficial while intermittent is harmful, though there is no current agreement in the literature […]
[Conclusion by the Answerer] White noise will improve performance to the extent to which it masks noises that may cause over-arousal or attention shifts away from the task without causing over-arousal itself. Practically speaking, if you’re in a quiet environment, white noise is unlikely to have a positive effect on your concentration. If you are in a somewhat noisy environment, white noise will likely have a positive effect. However, in a very noisy environment it will likely have either no or a negative effect.
Music has been an inspiration for people ever since. And, as always, art is in the eye of the beholder. It depends on your taste and nature. A large audience in the programming business (including myself) enjoys music without any vocals, others have been reported to listen to Rammstein while coding.
There is actually a lot of research around music and how it influences productivity and the ability to concentrate (especially in the field of classical music). To just quote one source:
In bygone ages, conventional wisdom was that music of ANY kind ruins study. Recent studies indicate that slow-to-medium paced, non-vocal, non percussive music can actually enhance study, depending on the type of study you’re doing. This means you should listen to: classical (especially Baroque pieces, such as those by Bach), non-vocal jazz, ambient music, or other forms of “easy listenin” music.
In another, very interesting question, found on StackOverflow, an answerer tries to span a line between actually composing music and coding:
[…] I think that the process of composing music is more related to the process of writing a specification (or at least thinking about HOW you’re going to write a particular program), while the coding itself is more like playing the music, after it has been decided what the goal should be.
Another observation states, that children which listen to Mozard perform better in Math tests. There is a lot of research here too, but I think this article written from a Neurobiology point of view, sums it up pretty well:
In conclusion, my research into math and music does seem to suggest that music enhances mathematics skills. Music targets one specific area of the brain to stimulate the use of spatial-temporal reasoning, which is useful in mathematical thinking. However, as to the question of whether or not music is the magical portion that will elevate anyone’s ability to do math, the answer unfortunately… would be no. Just because most mathematicians are fond of music, doesn’t mean that all musicians are fond of mathematics.
All this suggests that there is a connection between music and the ability to perform certain (logical) tasks. Although the impact of that connection seems to depend on the individual person.
Sources for sounds
As for the usual “conclusion”-part, this will be a list of sound-sources you’ll want to pay a visit.
As a little personal note, try combining the above to create new noise-patterns. For example, if you mix the brown noise and it’s “oscillating”-feature, it sounds like waves on the beach. Combine that with the rain and you have a rainy day on the beach.
Most of the time, I skim through big music libraries like iTunes and look out for compilations. Then, check online and listen to the tracks on YouTube or any other platform with decent quality. If you like five pieces, buy the CD (they are usually not that expensive).
For starters, here are some compilations I have found to be good:
- The 100 Most Essential Pieces of Classical Music
- Giles Lamb - Transform Available for free!
- Giles Lamb - Before the Birds Available for free!
Movie-soundtracks are often a great collection of non-vocal sounds. Try picking up the OST (Original Sound Track) of your favorite movies or games and check to see if there is anything good on those.
Here are some further examples of good movie soundtracks (personal opinion):
- Braid OST (Classic)
- Death Race OST (Electronic, Faster)
- Dexter OST (Electronic, Classic, Dark)
- Cloud Atlas OST (Classic)
- Dead Island - Trailer OST (Classic, Dark)
- Her (2013) - OST (Classic)
- Hotline Miami Soundtrack (Electronic)
Good music does not have to cost anything. Netlabels put music online free of charge (and legal). Some of my personal favorites include: