Jun 292011

Code loves MusicJust the other day I was bludgeoning my way through some code and someone walked up to me and said: “Gosh Stu, you always look so focused when you’re working with your music on. What do you listen to when you’re zoned-in like that?”

To which I distractedly replied “Well Dave, imaginary friend of mine, when I’m zoned-in (like I was just now) I listen to all sorts of things. Have-a-nice-day-now-thanks-bye.” Which in retrospect was needlessly abrupt and dismissive of Imaginary Dave, so let me atone my rudeness by expanding on my answer.

All Sorts of Things

This is a lie. What I actually meant was “Things That Fall Into Certain Specific Categories.” (well, actually I meant “Bugger off Dave“). If you’re trying to concentrate the last thing you need is a distraction, and this holds true for the music you’re listening to. Here’s a list of things I look for when choosing music to code by:

Unobtrusive Lyrics

Whether it’s an amusing turn of phrase* or an endlessly looped sample**, if you’re thinking about the lyrics then you’re not on the right track, so to speak. There is a surprisingly huge selection of music that contains no lyrics at all (not just elevator music) but I’ll go into that later.


Harsh or frequent track changes can draw your attention. Albums with long tracks will help alleviate this, but sometimes it’s good to find one with a consistent theme instead. Nothing’s worse than having an introspective
progressive metal epic gatecrashed by passing gypsies… or it could just be me.

Uplifting Theme

Even if it fulfils the previous requirements, if it’s going to sap your will to live it’ll damage your motivation to code on the way. With slightly droney vocals and consistent theme The Gathering is a great example of this; yes, in the video she’s both strangely enticing and smiling at you, but she also happens to be soul-suckingly depressing to listen to for any length of time. Which is a boon if you’re into that kind of thing, I suppose, but not useful to us in this context.

Perhaps I Should Actually Recommend Some Music

Post-rock (‘post’ as in ‘after’ rather than lampposts) is a wildly varying but often intriguing genre that generally decided that there was much more to music than shouting your opinions at people… did I mention Punk is a bad choice? Anyway, if you’re looking for some good starting points, I’d recommend Explosions In The Sky and Yndi Halda.

Another area of music that by its nature often avoids needlessly grabbing your attention are albums specifically composed as soundtracks. Of course this is broad area, so you’ll have to choose carefully (beware The Labyrinth). Music from games you’ve played and enjoyed are always a great choice, as you’ve already trained yourself to ignore it and as a bonus have associated it with enjoyment. My most ignored list includes The Longest Journey and World of Goo.

Of course I can only vouch that the above work for me, and may be annoying to the Enya-th degree for many others.

* I can’t listen to ‘Books from Boxes‘ without smirking at the artfully shoehorned “I find the weight upon your kiss ambiguous”.
** I’m looking at you Daft Punk. You and your goshdarn ‘Steam Machine‘.

  10 Responses to “Music to Code By”

  1. Insightful, and an onomatopoeic domain too !

    Right there with you on Steam Machine ;)

    Another good choice are very long mixes, which help to prevent the ever present problem of having to queue new tracks up after you find yourself listening the Flash Gordon soundtrack for the fifteenth time !

  2. All of which makes Discovery an awesome coding album (Human After All just didn’t happen, ok?). Music which is repetitive (but not *too* repetitive), lyrics which are more like part of the music than actual song, seamless track changes, a consistent theme and associations with happiness (the anime, even if it isn’t necessarily very good anime by some comparisons).

    The Wipeout 2097 soundtrack, too – yes, it contains Firestarter, but it’s the instrumental version. :)

  3. A collision of the two – Daft Punk’s Tron Legacy soundtrack – ambient, orchestral in places. Chilled stirred in with tense. Its been remixed too.
    Switch to winter, and Mellon Collie is enough to keep you going for a stint…
    Certainly beats a certain someones 80′s cheesy classics – Eye of The Tiger, various Bon Jovi, The Breakfast Club soundtrack *voms*

    • Airplane headphones didn’t do the soundtrack justice, I’ll have to go acquire it.

      Ah yes, the well-known uplifting album “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”. ;)

      To be fair, headphone bleed from anyone’s favourite tracks is painfully annoying (especially on constant loop), although that was a particularly unpleasant example.

      Oh can we mend… These broken wings… Hörk

    • An opportunity to publicise my article? Don’t mind if I do.

      • I can’t comment (yet) over at stack, so I’ll do it here. I just discovered the ‘post-rock’ genre at Pandora a couple weeks ago. It contained a couple bands I was familiar with as being related to Ambient. Another genre to check out is Drone — you’ll may get some shrill elements of Experimental Noise but I’ve ‘thumbs-downed’ those and my Pandora Drone station has mellowed nicely.

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