Thinking Music Considered Harmful

All the comments on GoodThinkingMusic about the music folks like to listen to while working should be read in the context of knowing about this study:

The only empirical study on music and concentration I've seen is mentioned on p. 78 of PeopleWare by TomDeMarco and TimothyLister.

Two groups of people were given a programming problem of writing code to perform a number of transforms on a set of numbers. Each group consisted of half people who preferred silence, and half who preferred music. One group did the problem in silence, and the other group did the problem with a choice of music.

Both groups did equally well at completing the program, but it was the people who worked in silence who tended to have the "aha" experience that the transforms netted to an identity transform. That is, the output was the same as the input. This was even true of those who claimed to prefer music but were forced to work in silence. Music apparently distracted the part of the mind that noticed patterns like this.

-- JohnBrewer

The above study apparently shows that even those who claim to prefer music perform better without it.


But some of us prefer silence.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream

Her mind moves upon silence.

-- William Butler Yeats (see for the full poem)

I would definitely prefer silence. I don't have that option. I have an open cubicle for an office, and I sit underneath a noisy air vent. Music is better than the random office noise I hear otherwise. (And I'm in the quiet part of the building.) -- KatyMulvey

I also prefer silence. I went to the local gun shop and bought a nice, light (Swedish, it turned out) pair of ear protectors which I wear. Cuts out fans and softens the voices so I can concentrate. I discovered the value of these things in 1978 and have used them ever since, also very good on airplanes.

  and then, 
 again just you, 
  sitting in the snowfield, 
 absolutely still."

-- AlistairCockburn (

"I also prefer silence. I went to the local gun shop [...]" :-/

More than often, silence is the best thinking music. But, since most office (and home) workplaces are filled with random noise (talking, yelling, etc), music can help mask those intrusive sounds. -- ToddCoram

Like any other music, a matter of taste. Anybody who mentioned they enjoyed silence might be interested in John Cage's album "In a Landscape." He's infamous for his piece "silence" in which he just sits at a piano and doesn't play a single note, letting the audience contribute to the noise. The soundtrack to the 2002 release of the motion picture "Solaris" tends to give me a "brain tickling" sensation, and has been my thinking music of choice as of late.

-- Ryan S.

(John Cage wrote a couple of silent pieces, neither of which is called "silence". The one you are referring to is called 4'33" (pronounced "four minutes thirty-three seconds"). Furthermore, the goal of the piece is not to "[let] the audience contribute to the noise"; rather, it is to encourage the audience to listen deeply to the noise around them, coming to the realization that, in fact, there is no such thing as silence. -- JosephDale)

White Noise

My personal favorite is

 $ dd if=/dev/random of=/dev/audio	# or /dev/dsp on Linux

Of course, if there are other users on your system, this will get them rather torked off at you if they need to use pgp or ssh.

And if there aren't other users, /dev/random will probably produce its output slowly enough that you won't actually hear anything. This is the case, at least, under Linux 2.4, where /dev/random is relatively random. However, /dev/urandom works fine.

Recordings of a thunderstorm, a waterfall, and the ocean.

I love music. I make music. I can't abide music while I program. I need every available ounce of my brain for that. -- EricHodges

BenjaminGeiger: That's why techno and things like BMG work for me: instead of focusing on the constant background noise, the music drowns it out and I can concentrate on what's important: the code in front of me. I guess a white noise generator would work just as well, but MP3 players are free.

Try NicotineGum. Nicotine raises the stimulus barrier between synapses. That filters out the background noise at the synapse level. Music can mask other noise, but your brain still has to process it.

Nicotine does increase your ability to focus (baseball players know this). I love it, but I wouldn't recomend the addiction unless it doubles your salary.

EEG: determines brain activity.

Brain waves: the pulse frequency at which measured synapses burn their calories and emit their electrical charge for the needle on the EEG. Foilable by all manner of muscular impulses of the hairline, brow, face, etc., still enough to measure the brain activity of reading, watching something exciting, following movement, etc.

Normal: Typical normal persons operate in waking state at the alpha and beta, gamma wavelengths of activity.

ADHD: Documented cases of ADHD, such as myself, may test EEG at levels of brain activity akin to REM sleep while awake, and unfocused. This level, of activity, theta waves, is evidently performing less electrical activity. Other activities register full levels of activity, related to interest or stimuli.

Alpha-Beta Techno/trance: some techno artists actually acknowledge the music's beat per minute as a tool to alter your brainwave activity, intenitonally and deliberately, for your inspired dance experience.

My own conclusions: that 'aha' moment might be reliant on pattern matching in the linguistic brain function, and thus, a potential test wieght in measuring distraction of listening to country music, rock and roll, and talk radio. Music heavy on beats but light on conflict is a tool I use to deaden a contentious environment when code needs to be rolled out steadily. Imho it can extend a 5-minute attention span to through to the next day when necessary.

-- James Northrup

I'd love to work in silence. However, my best attempts leaves me still hearing the loud ringing in my ears. :(

I wonder if anybody has done a study of the effect of noise/music to concentration over a period of several hours? I agree that in the first 10 minutes, and also the first half hour, and even the first hour or even two that silence is best for concentration, but after that the mind starts to wander and then the right kind of music can help to get you focused back onto the problem at hand.
In the animation industry, Milt Kahl, one of Disney's Nine Old Men, was supposed to have said on the subject of music versus silence, "Do I listen to Music!?! Goddammit I'm not smart enough to think about two things at once!"
Some of the most productive developers I know listen to music while developing. Also, what is "harmful" to one person may not be harmful to another. People vary.

Some people in the study listening to music had the a-ha. Some that were in silence didn't have it. The lesson to take away is not that silence is preferrable to music, but that just because you think you work better with or without music doesn't mean that you do. Note that that means that some people who prefer silence might actually work better with music.
Your conclusion that the lesson of the study is "not that silence is preferable to music, but that just because you think you work better with or without music doesn't mean that you do, is a stretch. That would be like having a medical study where you give placebos to half the patients and a treatment to the other half. The group getting treatment has 75% of the people die and the group getting the placebo has 25%. You then conclude that for some people the medicine is poisonous and for some people the placebo is poisonous. Occam's Razor would suggest that the correct conclusion to the music study is that listening to music reduces somewhat our ability to have insight. For some people it might reduce it less and for some people more, but you would need many more studies to justify the conclusion you spell out here.
I totally agree that silence helps in cases of problem solving and concentration, and I can't have noise on while I'm trying to design a new piece of code or work through a tricky math problem. However, what if you're just mind-numbingly inserting widgets onto a page or wiring together existing pieces of functionality over long periods of times? That's the vast majority of programming in my experience.

~~ Robert Fischer.

View edit of June 26, 2008 or FindPage with title or text search