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Using Music to Boost Productivity

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I often enjoy listening to music while I work. I don’t just mean physical labor like laundry or dishes; I am talking about the programming work I do for my job. While I was still in college, I would also listen while I studied.

I realize that many, many people like to do the same thing. The idea of using music to boost productivity is not new, and I certainly didn’t come up with it. What interests me the most about the whole idea is that everyone has a different preference about precisely what music is the best. I bet that most people have at least a semi-good reason for their own preferences, whether or not they’ve actually thought about it.

Most people don’t know that I didn’t start listening to the radio until I was about 12. It wasn’t that I couldn’t, but I never really had the desire to do so, and I wasn’t around others who did either—I was home-schooled through high school (and no, I’m not socially inept). Most of the music I heard during my younger years was either 60’s and 70’s hits that my dad had cassette tapes and records of, or else piano music which I had to learn during my six years of on-and-off piano lessons.

I developed a taste for classical music in general, piano music specifically, and a random selection of oldies. The earliest I can remember making use of these preferences is when I would pop the Scott Joplin Piano Rags CD by Joshua Rifkin in at 4pm every weekday and spend 45 minutes working on my algebra homework. I listened to that CD probably a hundred times at least during the course of one school year, and I still rank it among my favorites. I instantly recognize any of the songs, though I can’t actually name them even though I can hum them all.

I started listening to online streaming radio stations about the same time I started listening to the radio, and so I developed a very eclectic taste in music. While I can’t pin down a favorite style, I learned to enjoy at least some classical, classic rock, 80’s rock, contemporary rock, folk music, oldies, techno, country, and even some rap. I know each of those are comprised of dozens of subgenres, and I couldn’t begin to really differentiate between most of them. Basically, I listened to a lot of very different music.

More to the point, here is what I’ve discovered about myself and how I use music: (links take you to Grooveshark to listen free)

  • I prefer piano solos or concertos while I’m learning something new. (Examples: Celes (FF6) by Nobuo Uematsu, Eternal Harvest (FF9) by Nobuo Uematsu)
  • I prefer heavy, melodic, rhythmic, bass-infused rock music while I’m using knowledge I already have to build something. (Examples: Last of the Wilds by Nightwish, Amaranth by Nightwish, Prepare for Battle by Frank Klepacki
  • I prefer silence if I am working on something extremely complex. (No examples, ha!)
  • I prefer music that I know to music that I don’t know.
  • I prefer lyric-free music (though I can work with the alternative).

The second point is perhaps the most surprising. I don’t generally just listen to heavy rock music. Actually, other than that situation (programming, typically), I just about never do. But there’s something about the full sound, the solid beat, and the pounding, pushing rhythm and complex harmonies that make a huge difference in my concentration and enjoyment. It’s just so…motivating.

The first point is probably common to a lot of people, though I know some others who couldn’t possibly concentrate with classical music playing. Then, my need for silence illustrates that, at least for me, there is a limit to how music helps me think. If I need every analytical aspect of my brain available, I can’t be subconsciously distracted by anything. I can function at 90% efficiency with heavy rock music playing while I only need to use 50% of my analytical capabilities, but if I try to push that analytical throughput above 80% or so, my efficiency drops through the floor unless I remove all other activity. (Yes, I totally made those numbers up, but they are just supposed to illustrate the point.)

The last two points is where I see the most odd variation. Musical tastes are different enough that it’s easy to see how people work best with different genres. However, why would there be such variation on known vs. unknown music, and lyrics vs. no lyrics?

I like music that I know because I actually concentrate on it less. The many years of piano lessons I took included a lot music theory, and so I am constantly analyzing music. I hear a song and take it apart mathematically: time signature, accented beats, syncopation, chord progressions (oh I love chord progressions!), key changes, anomalies, patterns, similarities to other songs, anything I can hear. I can’t just listen to a song that I haven’t heard before; I have to discover it. But if I’ve heard it before and I know how it goes, then I’ve already done all that. I know what to expect, and therefore it demands less attention.

Some people like prefer music that they don’t really know because they take it in differently from the way I do. For those people, hearing music they know demands more of their attention because they want to sing or hum along, whether out loud or not. Music they don’t know becomes something more like background noise.

I like music that doesn’t have lyrics, whether or not I know it, because it’s one fewer element to distract me. If I don’t know the song, then in the discovery process, I’m not just analyzing the music, I’m also trying to take in the words and whole story (if the story is intelligible and/or not a boring load of repetition). If I do know the song, then the story separates itself from the music, and I can’t subconsciously take it in the same way. I repeat (or sing along with) the words in my head. It’s not a huge distraction if I already know the words, but I still prefer songs without words.

On the other hand, my wife likes music with words, because she loves to sing. Music without words becomes a glaring invitation for her to substitute her own words, or those of another song, and that is immensely distracting. Her mind is so in tune with singing that she can concentrate better if she has something to sing along to (again, whether out loud or not).

Music strikes everyone differently. Some people relax best while listening to speed metal. Some need the Nutcracker Suite. Some need silence. I don’t know if it has anything to do with personality type, since sometimes people have musical tastes that are completely not what you would expect. I think (though I don’t know) that tastes are probably defined more by your birth year than by your age—it will be very interesting to see if the 90-year-olds in 2080 are still listening to Eminem because it’s “their music.” I can’t imagine that it will still be “young people music” by then.

But musical tastes are also defined simply by what you listen to most. I have seen many people (including myself) learn to like something new, even something they never would have thought they could ever appreciate, just because they hung around places where that new something was played all the time. We become acclimated, and then hooked. It’s very much like a drug in that way.

How do you use music? Not just consume it, but actually use it?

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