Do You Listen to Music While Working?

There is a meme popping on Twitter and the blogosphere where some Web professionals are wondering if it is a good thing to listen to music while working or not. I had been reflecting on that very thing recently so this comes at a timely moment for me.

Of course, to a point this comes down to personal preferences but it seems that, musicians like me respond to music in a different way than non-musicians which makes it harder for us to concentrate on the work at hand when listening to music. For example, look at the quote from Mark W. Shead in the “Should we listen to music while working?” post on Designer Daily. Thanks to Mirko Humbert on Twitter for the heads up on that article. He makes the point that if background noise is needed, the sound of waves or rain or something equally neutral is better than music as he states that he simply cannot perform tasks requiring high levels of concentration while listening to music.

I myself generally like to listen to music while working but whether I do or not depends directly on the kind of task I am working on at that moment and how I feel on that particular day. If I’m more tired for example I’ll have a harder time concentrating to begin with so I may prefer the silence. Furthermore, my music listening habits have evolved over time and as my circumstances changed. When I was still a student living with my parents, I used to need to put some music on at a reasonably low volume to “shield” myself from the noises in the rest of the house. That “wall of sound” effect permitted me to reach incredible levels of concentration. When I was in the “zone” like that, a train could have passed in my room and I would not have noticed. I’m not exaggerating. As a teenager I could reach levels of concentration that I simply cannot attain anymore which makes me very jealous of my teenage self…

Nowadays, I’m a full time freelancer working from home in a very quiet environment. I need no shielding from ambient noises but I still need the music a lot of the times for different reasons not the least of which is that it can get lonely working alone in complete silence. But what I listen to is directly related to what I’m doing. For example, when I’m doing simple administrative tasks or anything around the office not requiring great concentration I’ll listen to either my MP3 player on shuffle (very varied stuff in there) or to XM Radio (I particularly love XM Café and the alternative channels). But if I’m in developer mode writing HTML, CSS, JavaScript or ColdFusion code, I usually switch to mostly non-vocal music and for that I really love the XM Radio Chill channel. The fact that I do not know a lot of the music helps me “ignore” it better. Like I said before, I’ll often just turn off the music if I don’t feel it is helping at a particular moment.

When I’m in design mode, I usually like more upbeat or heavier music. I rarely design in silence. The musical stimulus really helps idea generation. The style here is very varied and depends a lot more on my own mood than the type of project I’m working on. Again here, I often turn to XM or to my MP3 player but with a more focused genre depending on the day.

So, what about you? Is music part of your work process too or do you need complete silence to be able to work?

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4 thoughts on “Do You Listen to Music While Working?”

  1. If not total silence, classical music FTW. Studies have been done that listening to classical improves concentration and retention.

    I also listen to other non-vocal stuff, like post-rock or smooth jazz – anything I can sit back and ignore.

    But, when it’s time to really focus, zero music is best.

  2. I almost constantly listen to music in order to shield myself from the noise of my fellow programmers. This really puts me into a different world and allows me to reach higher levels of concentration. Of course there are some songs I might listen to more actively and that might distract me for a minute or two, but I don’t think this happens more often than someone else is staring into space every once in a while.

  3. All that staring into space must be deep thinking right? 😉

    I have no noise to shield myself from here but sometimes, music acts like a stimulant to my thinking and productivity so, most of the time lately, I’ve been having it on while working.

    Thanks for the comment Lorenz!


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