Interview to the founder of Music for Programming, a project dedicated to the curation of music playlists for productive developers and more.

The effects sounds and music have to our brain is a big area of interest. I’ve always been fascinated on how and why music can influence perceptions or opinions, on how it can manipulate or alter our state of consciousness. Music has a huge role in all the areas of our life, even when we are not aware of that. Although we have not always a clear picture of how it interacts with the brain, we do know that music has a big impact on us, actively or passively. Just think about music use in medical therapies and treatments, or the state of quietness it can induce while meditating. It’s not a mystery either that it has been used widely for several subtle purposes as well, including political ones, or to get you buy more stuff, or to influence your opinions and perceptions about things.

That’s certainly a very vast and intricate topic which would deserve way more room for discussions. Indeed, what I want to talk about this time, it’s the exponential growing attention on the effects of music in our work productivity. In the last year or so, surfing the internet or checking my feeds, I’ve assisted to an explosion of information about the subject, describing the link between music and neuroscience within our work environment. We all can obviously see where all these attentions come from, as we are constantly bombarded on how we should be more and more efficient, focused, productive, multitaskers and the list goes on and on. And of course, beside all those task­focused apps for general productivity, here it is a rising trend of subscription services and apps which claim will boost your productivity exponentially. Certainly there are valid researches and studies which give us some guidelines, but there is so much still uncovered. So pay attention where those claims and scientific sources come from while you’re trying to find ways to improve your productivity.

The truth is that, when talking about brain and music, there are so many variables and subjectivity involved that there are not magic formulas. You can try stuff out based on the specific way you work and the way you subjectively perceive music and sounds. Browsing the internet you will find loads of material which highlight music as an effective productivity tool for repetitive and static tasks. And following this principle, music has been widely incorporated in big companies and office work alike. Looks like increasingly more and more workers have started using headphones at their desks. Some find useful to listen to music when they feel they are losing focus or when they need to shut down a noisy, or even too quiet, workspace. In the other hand, there is this idea that music interferes with learning and with the assimilation of any kind of information or notion. So apparently not for students (regardless what they say?) and not for researching or updating your skills. And for instance, what you’ll read often is that music doesn’t seem to work well for tasks which require full­brain streams of ideas or for finding solutions, or even more clearly, for creative jobs.

I don’t think these guidelines are always the case. Everyone perceives music and gives meanings to it in different ways, so what works for you, may not for me. In my personal experience, I tried many times to implement background music as a boost for productivity. I reckon I struggle with certain categories or styles. For instance, I get easily distracted by percussive sounds of any kind of rhythmic patterns, as well as any vocals or people talkings. In general, I also don’t get in the mood with any kind of prominently melodic piece. What seems to work for me instead are those slowly evolving ambient music soundtracks, as well as some nature sounds and background noises. For the latter Youtube is overloaded with such things and there are billions of websites which give you rain or wind loops, noises, and so on, like Noisli.

With no doubts, we can say music could definitely help you in maximizing the focus on what you do, but you should try out different stuff yourself and see what happens. Just think that in the range of what can change from person to person there are even details like the tempo of the music, variations of tempo, amplitudes or frequencies involved, song’s tonality and so on. I constantly read some classical music, like baroque, has very effective pieces to boost work.

While getting into more details about all of this, I recently stabled upon a project called Music for Programming, created by John Davies, which condenses in its concept most of what I said so far.

Regardless the name, the project offers playlists not just for programmers, indeed, and there is a range of choices and stunning music selections compiled by guest curators. So I had a little chat with John, asking some of my curiosities and to get some more opinions about subjective results.

Hi John, what is the story behind the project Music for Programming and which are the reasons that brought you to build it?

John Davies: I made the first mix in 2009 after noticing I kept going back to the same handful of albums every time I felt distracted while working. Harmony In Ultraviolet by Tim Hecker, Quantum Transposition by Arpanet, 92982 by William Basinski and a bunch of others made up a playlist that I became weirdly dependent on (those are amazing albums you should check out if you haven’t already). Having heard them so many times only seemed to make the concentration benefits stronger – ­a more pretentious version of me might claim the music lost all meaning and became a meditative mantra.

Eventually getting sick of the first episode I asked a friend (Andreas Rønning) with similar taste in music, who also codes for a living, if he’d be up for making episode 2, and then it just seemed obvious to invite more people to try and keep it going. After a third contributor joined in (Com Truise), it felt like the episodes should have their own dedicated website, rather than being buried among all sorts of other guff on my own site, and so it became a thing.

There are millions of resources online, though, and I’m curious whether you didn’t find anything that really works or if there is any other reason.

JD: Loads of people swear by psy­trance for intense concentration, but I find that way too bolshie and repetitive. It’s like being in a cheesy computer hacking montage in a 90s sci­fi film. Some people work listening to pop radio with advertising and traffic updates and all the rest of it – only to completely ignore the whole lot – which seems insane, and kind of an insult to music itself.

I’m convinced that to keep a mind focussed on something complex for a long time, the secondary task (in this case digesting music) needs to lead the subconscious around to keep it occupied, it needs to meander and roam, like a West Highland Terrier. You need to be slightly distracted, but not so much that you have to strain to concentrate on the primary task.

The music needs to be interesting enough to not bore you with repetition, and vague enough to feed your subconscious some little spaces to run around in. When it works it’s comparable to meditation, but instead of focussing on the simplicity of nothingness while swatting away daydreams, you’re engulfed in complexity while allowing daydreams burn up on re­entry.

As I wrote above, many sources claim that music helps a lot for repetitive tasks and not for creative ones. That’s not always the case I believe. What’s your idea on that? And is it the case for programming tasks?

JD: Programming is 100% a creative task I reckon, you have to devise and build tiny mechanisms, design structures to contain them and attempt it all in a consistent style. I think whoever said music only helps for repetitive tasks just hadn’t tried the right kind of music, or it didn’t exist yet…

I really like that Brian Eno story of him coming up with the concept of ambient music while lying in a hospital bed after a car accident, a friend puts a record on for him as they leave, but sets the volume way too low so the music is barely audible over the sound of rain on the windows, but seems to interplay perfectly with it.

The platform could certainly be extended to another kind of work besides programming, are you planning to implement other uses based on what people may need?

JD: I considered adding tags to the site and releasing bonus episodes with all sorts of different use­cases in mind, some ridiculous, but it’s probably better to keep it as a sharpened tool with a specific use. I might still make Music For Cheese, though (lots of harpsichords I reckon).

These mixes aren’t for everyone since music taste is such an unquantifiable personal thing, but I really do believe listening to this sort of slow­paced stuff for long periods while working has very real benefits.

What personally works for you?

JD: I seem to get in the zone more easily with the darker side of ambient, and I don’t mean overtly evil­-sounding stuff, more the idea that something isn’t quite right, something is discordant that eventually resolves; if you’re working to solve a problem it feels like the music is on your side.

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Carlo Ascrizzi

Contributor at sounDesign
Freelance sound design and music artist Carlo Ascrizzi creates original sonic contents for film, animations, multimedia and beyond. From brand commissions to experimental collaborations, his work has reached international multimedia arts festivals, film award nominations and digital arts magazines. An all-round creative, tireless traveller, Carlo is also the author of SounDesign's beloved series One Year In Sound.