Music of White Noise for Productivity

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:

Headphones

Headphones

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:

Coffitivity

Coffitivity

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.

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9 Responses to Music of White Noise for Productivity

  1. well.. beeing german and speaking/reading/writing in german helps!
    Most music i listen to comes either with english lyrics or without. But since i dont think english (even while coding) it doesn’t seem to affect me.

    Even worse: i can listen to podcasts (german/english, it doesn’t matter) while coding or writing. It’s not important what those people in my brain are talking about, most of the time i’m not listening to them anyway.
    But hearing something at all is pretty nice.

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  2. Mitlik UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I can relate to the plight of sounds invading thought space. I need something to obfuscate the guy across the aisle micromanaging his kids from work, the girl on the other side of the cube wall making stupid voices and giggling on the phone, and the same 30 radio hits from various decades. I agree with you, headphones don’t need noise running through them, they work wonderfully to muffle the noise a little bit. Sometimes I even upgrade to foam ear plugs.

    About the only times I feel I need sound is when I am cooking or driving. Both require visual focus without engaging language (for the most part).

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  3. I usually listen to a podcast. When programming, I listen to trance. I find I am more productive that way. Thanks for the “coffee shop” ambiance link. I was looking for this type of noise for quiet some time.

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  4. Outside of the radio, I hardly ever listen to music with lyrics. For example, in my Audacious playlist right now I have the Tron: Legacy soundtrack (Daft Punk), the Medal of Honor soundtrack (the 1999 game), a jazz album (Dave Brubeck), and the new SimCity soundtrack. When I’m coding and writing I generally prefer this music to silence. But occasionally I just need to think and I prefer silence.

    Here’s the weird thing: even more than that music, I feel most productive when people are holding a single conversation near me. I don’t even mean that coffeehouse ambiance but, for example, when someone comes by my officer to discuss something with my officemate for awhile. I think this is something I picked up in college.

    <story>

    In college, I roomed with my closest high school friend, with whom I had been camping dozens of times growing up, in a co-ed dorm reserved specifically for engineering students. We happened to get the room closest to the elevator (8th floor). Early on, we had agreed to leave our door open when either of us were in, always make our beds, and keep the room clean, all in order to be very friendly and inviting to everyone else on the floor.

    As a result, for my first two years of college our room was the social hub of the floor. People would always stop by the room on their way in and out of the building (sometimes tracking in melted snow!). The tidy, made beds doubled as open seating along the wall. In fact, this is how I met my wife, since she was one of these people hanging around our room all the time. With all this social activity I quickly learned to get classwork done amidst it. So now I even prefer it.

    Here are a couple of pictures. Note that these were taken about 10 years ago. Here are people sitting on the beds.

    http://i.imgur.com/GJzruDb.jpg (none of the people mentioned above are depicted here)

    Here’s a small LAN party, picturing the other side of the room. There were two more people wielding laptops on the beds behind us (the corner of one showing) for a total of 6 players. We’re playing the brand new Battlefield Vietnam.

    http://i.imgur.com/416d7Xp.jpg (my roommate on the far left, I’m not in this one either)

    I think the “engineering students” part speaks for itself here.

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  5. J. Alan Atherton UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    I do a pretty similar thing. I work in a sometimes noisy shared lab as a grad student, and when I really need to get things done I actually play some brown noise paired with a binaural beat. I find the beat helps to draw my focus away from the outside world even better. I think I made a beat of about 20hz with sine waves frequencies something like 600hz and 620hz. If anyone’s interested I can dig them up and post them somewhere.

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  6. k00pa FINLAND Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I like to listen to music when I code, but its usually some trance/techno without any vocals and pretty low volume also. I can’t code in total silence, but I can’t code either if I can hear other people talking…

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Dr. Azrael Tod:

    Interesting. I’m bilingual as well, but listening to speech in my native language has about the same effect on me – it messes me up regardless of what language I’m currently writing in. Maybe it has to do with levels of fluency and how deeply each language is bound to your internal logical symbol system.

    See, to me both languages are transparent and words/idioms/sentences immediately evoke symbols/memories/feelings regardless of the language. So I think it’s not as much hearing the words, but their processed meaning is what trips me up when writing. Or something like that.

    @ Mitlik:

    I don’t cook much but I agree about driving. That’s one of the activities where music doesn’t really bother me.

    @ Chris Wellons:

    Awesome LAN party picture! :P When I was in college I actually commuted from home so I think I missed out a bit on the “dorm social life” thing . That said, having my room be the “social club” would probably drive me insane.

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  8. @ Luke Maciak:

    See, to me both languages are transparent and words/idioms/sentences immediately evoke symbols/memories/feelings regardless of the language. So I think it’s not as much hearing the words, but their processed meaning is what trips me up when writing. Or something like that.

    Well, it’s pretty much what i would say. I listen to english podcasts, watch english movies, read english texts all the day, sometimes later not even remembering if what i heard was english or german, but i find it’s that little bit of extra effort to decode english that makes it different from german music. (not that i listen to that much music with vocal elements anyway)

    With podcasts it’s pretty much the other way: i can listen to german podcasts and my brain actively decides if something “important” has happend (ie: someone said my name, i start to listen consciously), if i listen to english things this happens less often. So if i listen to german podcasts, i get distracted more, but afterwards i remember more of what i heard and if it was interesting. If i listen to english podcasts i get less often distracted, but when that happens, then i am less able to continue with whatever i was doing because decoding it doesn’t happen exactly on the same subconscious level.

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  9. cptacek UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Ugh. Office noise. My IT group used to sit by ourselves. Three of us, with me in the back corner, with a window, and if things got too noisy, we could shut a door. It was glorious.

    They decided HR needed a space to be able to close doors. So they moved us into a large room with cubes, 12 of us. One woman’s job is to receive calls from customers. She is bright and bubbly and really good at her job, which is talking on the phone, solving customer problems, routing delivery trucks, etc. No, she is great at it. But I must listen to it. And one guy likes to make random noises by kicking his desk rhythmically.

    When we first moved, I had a window in my cube that looked out onto the aisle way, but not outside. Everyone walked past that window and everyone stopped to say hi or wave. I had to have them remove it.

    I have ear plugs when the volume gets too high. If I listened to music, I would sing outloud and not realize it.

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