What is your stance on listening to music while working? Some people swear by it, and claim it helps them to concentrate but I suspect they are blatant lairs. Either that or people are just different than me – but that would be weird, so I will just assume they are just lying to me.
Personally I find music to be incredibly distracting, especially when blogging or writing prose. I can sometimes deal with music when coding, because it actually requires a different creative mind frame. However, when writing plain English, songs usually tend to put words into my head that shouldn’t be there. Listening to anything with lyrics is about as bad as having someone talking to you while you write. I find it distracting.
Music without lyrics is slightly better, but it tends to have another undesirable effect. Usually the artists aim when they create a piece of music is to somehow evoke emotions in the listener. Song writers usually try to do it with lyrics, whereas composers do it with melodies. So a good instrumental track will still pull on your heart strings even if there is no singer whining about love or whatever they usually drone about. Being the inhuman aberration that I am I possess neither heart nor emotions, but what I do have is an overactive imagination. Play me a good melody, and my brain goes off and invents a story that goes with it. Actually it usually it starts with something of a scene – like dude fighting a dragon, or a spider shaped robot dropping from orbit onto a pre-industrial colony world to the astonishment of the natives or something like that. Then it usually rapidly works backwards to establish the context, socio-political details about the setting, important factions, side characters and etc… And then I’m like, “wait, I was supposed to be writing about password hashing, and not this shit”.
So music works for certain things, but not the others. Granted, people frequently assume that I am listening to music as I work, because I can usually be seen wearing these while I write:
I would say 90% of the time, if you see a text editor on my screen, there is nothing coming out of these. Why are they on my head? To cancel out the some of the ambient noise. Big headphones with padding are actually pretty good at noise cancellation. They don’t cut you off completely, but soften the noise and do a good job of muffling stuff like speech to the point it is no longer distracting. You can still hear the clacking of the keyboard, the soft hum of your PC fan and the traffic noises outside the window. But someone talking on the phone or watching TV in another room is less of a distraction.
Some people say that they find it hard to get creative and remain productive in completely quiet environment. That actually might be true, but I wouldn’t know. I have actually never been in a place that was really quiet. There is always background noise wherever I go – even when I’m alone in my room at 4am in the morning there are many sources of noise I could identify: desktop PC fans hum, external drives grind, the house creaks in the wind, there are cars occasionally driving by outside the window, the pipes and radiators make noises, and of course the stupid ghost is jingling his chains in the corner trying to freak people out. Good thing I don’t believe in ghosts, otherwise he’d be pretty fucking scary.
Fortunately, none of this actually bothers me. Ambient white noise is actually something I’m perfectly OK with. I have no clue what kind of an impact would a complete “deafening” silence have on my creativity, because I tend to thrive in the white noise I do have as long as it is kept at manageable level.
So often when I want to drown out localized distractions I will try to put on automatically generated white noise. There are actually a lot of resources online for that kind of thing, and I have done some experiments with different kinds of noise. The so called “true” white noise, which is just random static tends to be very effective at drowning out environment, but also very weird to listen to. The fact it is so patternless is actually distracting, as the pattern recognition engine in your brain gets annoyed and goes on a crazy ghost hunt trying to make sense of it. Nothing in our evolutionary background has prepared our minds to listen to random static for extended periods of time so it tends to be tiring and annoying after a while. Also some people claim they end up hearing whispers of the undead after a few hours, but those people are crazy so you should pay them no heed.
There are other sources that provide you with “ambient” noise – for example birds tweeting (on Twitter I presume), waves lapping at the shore, storm sounds and etc. Recently I stumbled onto a project that aims to provide you with a “coffee shop” ambiance:
At first I thought it was a bit of a joke. You know, with the hipster programmers who work out of coffee shops because it’s cool that way. But they actually seem to be serious about it. I tried listening to it for a bit, and it seems mildly distracting because you can almost catch conversation fragments. On the other hand it is a pretty decent noise track because it doesn’t have repeating patterns (like wave sounds or bird songs) or abrupt events (like thunders in storm sounds). The track retains about the same volume and intensity of noise throughout its length and said noise is rather varied and seemingly random – but also complex and recognizable, so it doesn’t send your brain on a goose chase like static noise. So all in all it is an interesting attempt and resolving the “too noisy/not noisy enough” creativity debacle.
Personally, I prefer quiet. Not complete silence mind you, but just quiet area with not much noise other than the regular environmental sound pollution. How about you? Do you listen to music? Do you use white noise tracks? What is your concentration/productivity sound-scape like? Let me know in the comments.