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I wanted to know whether you think and audio background is just a distraction or could be of some help while programming.

For me, it works like this:

when I'm writing pseudocode, or implementing procedures that are very clear in my mind in a language I can write without looking up docs, having music playing in the background (very straightforward electronics, mostly) helps me a lot: it kind of gives some rhythm to my coding and, if the procedures are trivial, avoids the distractions that boredom can cause.

When I incur in a problem, or I have to try to fix a bug, instead, it just distracts me.

Also, if the song is really regular and I know it well enough not to cause me to focus on it, it eliminates unexpected environmental noise that sometimes make me waste precious seconds before I can concentrate on the code again.


Guidelines checklist: 1 ok, 2 I hope; 3 I suppose; 4 Definitely; 5 I would like that to happen; 6 Doch (English should implement a way to disambiguate double negatives in answers)

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1. not really, 2. not really, 3. yes, 4. not really, 5. no, 6. no. In my book that's 1 out of 6. Your actual question (is background music a distraction or aid?) can be answered in one sentence. The rest is how you use music. –  Walter Dec 23 '10 at 14:07
    
@Walter 1. Actually everybody answered with a why/how; 2. Well, in my question there was a sample answer too, and it was pretty long; 4. It's all about experiences, please refer to the answers; 6. I am interested in opinions and others' experiences. Might be mindless by your standards, I disagree. –  cbrandolino Dec 23 '10 at 14:13
    
@other close-voter, would you be so sweet to clarify how the 6 guidelines aren't met? every new answer seems to prove the opposite. I'd like to know about your interpretation. –  cbrandolino Dec 23 '10 at 18:25
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1. not seeing it in the answers, 2. not seeing it in the answers, 3. yes, 4. yes, 5. not seeing it in the answers, 6. not seeing it in the answers. And on top of that the top voted answer is currently a quote from a comedy writer who lived before the computer was invented and not a single person has cited research or any form of hard fact. –  Jon Hopkins Dec 23 '10 at 22:24
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@cbrandolino - 1. The closest you've got to how and why is "it helps me concentrate" which is obvious but actually no-one has really backed it up other than by straight assertion. 2. I think one paragraph is short for this site. 5. This point is about facts and references, not experience (which is point 4) and there are absolutely no facts or references. 6. Really? What did you learn, that other people like to listen to music while programming too? You seriously didn't know that? –  Jon Hopkins Dec 23 '10 at 22:37
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closed as not constructive by Jon Hopkins, Walter, David Thornley, Mark Trapp, bigown Dec 24 '10 at 1:31

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12 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Prelude

Well, my boss just just plugged in two servers on the other side of an un-insulated drywall wall, and there are 4 more to turn on. Right now, I'm glad I bought a pair of noise canceling headphones.

Ideally I think programmers should be setup into teams that work in private rooms. This gives us a quiet environment that can help us concentrate, and fellow programmers that we can talk through an issue with without distracting other programmers whom are not concerned with the issue. Alas that is an ideal world though.

Answer

As per the exact question, I use noise canceling headphones with music when I'm not working through anything particularly complicated. If I really need to focus however, I turn the music off and just let the noise-canceling effect do it's job. Gives me a reasonably quite atmosphere to think.

Also, I've read that there have been studies that show that music without lyrics is far less distracting than music with them. This might be something that some people would like to explore.

In Closing

I think whether you listen to music or not, a decent pair of electronic noise canceling headphones are one of the best investments you could ever make. They are more comfortable, as well as more manageable than earplugs.

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uh, just discovered there is the possibility to accept answers to closed questions. I chose yours, since that kind of argumentative answers is what I was looking for. –  cbrandolino Jan 21 '11 at 15:05
    
Why fight fire with fire when you can extinguish it entirely? Fire being music and external sounds. Personally, if I can't hear myself think, then I'm not being as productive as I should be. –  Gio Borje Apr 9 '11 at 11:10
    
Unfortunately this question has been prematurely closed. There are well-documented psychological studies that show that music is unhelpful. Just Google for "Furnham et al (1994)" and start there. However, given that sometimes there are other, worse, distractions, then some of the other suggestions in this thread (e.g. white noise) might be useful, but they are workarounds. I'd say there's enough objective science on this subject for it to be worth re-opening the question. I'd be interested in knowing about any studies that address the effectiveness of music/white noise as a workaround. –  Dominic Cronin Jan 17 '13 at 21:50
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I think we should be the ones who sing while programming and I agree with G.K. Chesterton who wrote in Tremendous Trifles nearly 100 years ago:

If reapers sing while reaping, why should not auditors sing while auditing and bankers while banking? If there are songs for all the separate things that have to be done in a boat, why are there not songs for all the separate things that have to be done in a bank? As the train from Dover flew through the Kentish gardens, I tried to write a few songs suitable for commercial gentlemen. Thus, the work of bank clerks when casting up columns might begin with a thundering chorus in praise of Simple Addition.

"Up my lads and lift the ledgers, sleep and ease are o'er. Hear the Stars of Morning shouting: 'Two and Two are four.' Though the creeds and realms are reeling, though the sophists roar, Though we weep and pawn our watches, Two and Two are Four."

"There's a run upon the Bank--Stand away! For the Manager's a crank and the Secretary drank, and the Upper Tooting Bank Turns to bay! Stand close: there is a run On the Bank. Of our ship, our royal one, let the ringing legend run, that she fired with every gun Ere she sank.

That would increase our productivity the same way sailor's songs increase their productivity. If gets everyone on the same page and directs our goals to a common point.

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+1 because Chesterton is great. –  Ami Dec 23 '10 at 20:25
    
I don't sing out loud, because I'm afraid of the looks I'll get :D –  Matt Ellen Dec 23 '10 at 21:06
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I sometimes tap some rythms on my keyboard :) –  phresnel Oct 1 '11 at 15:16
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this only helps with non-mental tasks. For mental tasks, its better to have someone else sing - so the bank should employ a gang of minstrels! –  gbjbaanb Jul 18 '12 at 14:56
    
Can someone please come up with a little tune for programming? :p –  DC_ Apr 3 '13 at 1:38
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In my case when i listen to music using noice canceling headphones it helps me concentrate a lot. When the melody is regular, it feels like being in a bubble. I dont have an office for my own so it could get quite crowded in there.

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Well, some call it "muzak". Productive music is not a new concept and it being used from centuries ago (yes, centuries). Personally what works for me for working as a programmer is lounge music. Specially, I program everyday with Groove Salad on and on all day long. It helps me a lot to focus 'n flow! Very recommended for programming. Bye.

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It depends.

If you ask me, listening to Pandit Ravishankar on my noise cancelling headphones definitely cuts me off from whats happening in the outside world. Concentration booster, big time.

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Uh. I could never make it with anything that's not 4/4 and based on a basic harmony, instead. –  cbrandolino Dec 23 '10 at 14:01
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As you said, it all depends on whether you can focus better with or without the music. If I am in an environment that is noisy then I find music does help, although generally I prefer not to listen to music while working on code.

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Personally, without music I find it very hard to get "in the zone."


...which has been a problem lately. Internet Radio sites are blocked, we're allowed to listen to headphones but my phone/mp3 player bricked about a week ago and has yet to be replaced. :(. Generic office background noise does not conduce good work.

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Definitely. I listen to a lot of music, it's my main passion outside of computer-related stuff. I find non-vocal music to be the least distracting.

I don't use sound cancelling headphones- my music is just loud enough for me to ignore the managerial murmurings from the other room, and people having impromptu meetings at a desk next to me, but it's quiet enough for me to be able to hear people when they want to get my attention.

The only time I find it distracting is when I'm fixing something super-critical. The rest of the time it helps me get into, and stay in the zone.

edit: I tend to listen to late night shows on the bbc iplayer, or stuff from various music hosting sites like soundcloud.

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This is a case of sometimes fierce debate at work.

I work better with certain kinds of music - either light stuff, classical, or metal. (Death/black/extreme metal also acts as a very effective sound barrier when played through headphones.)

But others here in the office cannot help concentrating on the music rather than programming.

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I find its easier to code with music I know and like, but harder to code with music I either dislike or don't know. It comes down to maintaining focus, its easier when the music fits a regular pattern and consumes the background noise from the office and the brain.

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I started listening to Soma.fm. They have some stations with easy-going, lounge kind of music. It doesn't distract but keeps you going.

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I prefer either white noise - such as the 'music' of servers humming in the background - or a consistent level of talk, from either radio or TV.

I dont like programming or working with music in the background.

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White noise is great - except we have horrible and dying machine, so in our case is not "the conforting humming of trustworthy servers" but more like "the terrifying clangor of steampunk nightmares". The "consistent level of talk" part astonishes me instead: I thought people talking would have been distracting for anybody - irregular rhythms, volumes, etc. –  cbrandolino Dec 23 '10 at 20:16
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