Working with Background Music: A Reflection

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July 3, 2014

People often find it crazy that I tend to work in silence. If I’m just reading up on things online or researching, I’ll often put on a TV show in the background (I’m currently working my way through Archer) but if I’m working from home or programming, my default is to sit quietly and listen to the sounds of my environment. This isn’t normally an issue for me – it’s how I’ve worked my entire life and I associate music with fun, since I was heavily into music and singing throughout my entire childhood. My second-to-last semester of college, though, I found a work hack that I save for days where I really need to be productive.

I was buckling down for exams, counting down the hours to winter break, and I knew that I was good to go in my software design capstone class, regardless of how I did on my final, which was comprised of two 5-10 page questions that we were to do by the due date. I rarely worked in the library on campus, because even the “quiet” floors were often too distracting for me, but on a snowy day in December with two days to spare, I dedicated an entire Sunday to working on those papers. I found a cube, ensconced myself in a pair of good  decent headphones, set up my laptop, logged off of all distracting sites, and for the first time, found a combination of musical influences that kept me focused for 9 hours.

I’ve tried the classical music recommendation in the past, but it never stuck with me (perhaps as a result of my piano-playing and chorale days) and never really made me feel like I could focus better. What worked for me was a combination of rain sounds and trance/new age yoga background music –  the lack of vocals suppressed my desire to sing along, the gentler, unfamiliar instrumentals prevented my analytical side from mentally critiquing the melodies, and the rain brought back subconscious feelings of productivity from my summers in Redmond, WA.

I aced that paper, scoring the best in the class. To this day, I still tend to work in silence, but when I really need to get something done, I break out the rain (a needed break, now that I’m based in the SF Bay Area!) and calming meditative music to help me get through long days.

What have your experiences with working to music been like?

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1 thought on “Working with Background Music: A Reflection”

  1. Allen says:

    It really depends on my mood and the kind of work I’m doing. Classical music has been a go-to for me when studying or reading, but lately I’ve found that certain styles, namely opera and grand symphonic pieces, have been too energetic for that sort of work. Consequently, I now use that type of classical music for more energetic and/or less intellectual jobs, like cleaning my apartment or sorting through my inbox. I used to use rock/pop music for that, but since I also listen to that while driving, and variety in genre is important to me, I now reserve rock and pop ONLY for driving.

    Vocals are definitely a factor. When doing intellectual work, vocals are distracting, unless they’re in a language I don’t understand, or if they mesh with the instrumentals so they’re not in the foreground.

    Going back to driving; energetic music like rock, pop, and electronic are good for running around town, but for long road trips, it tends to make me want to drive fast. This will either a) get me a ticket or b) make me impatient if I get stuck behind a semi or something. For this reason I like listening to more low-key music. I’ve recently discovered ambient electronic music, and this and yoga-type music I’ve found are perfect for keeping my energy low and peaceful while at the same time filling the silence and keeping my mind occupied.

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