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Staying focused in a noisy environment is not easy. Our brains are finely attuned to detect even the subtlest distractions because this skill kept us alive throughout our evolutionary history. In primal times, a faint rustling sound in a bush or a strange silhouette in peripheral vision could be a venomous snake or some other threat.
Even though most of us nowadays don’t have to worry about getting killed by wild animals at home or our workplace, this strong reactivity to distractions is still engrained in our brains. And thanks to inventions like cellphones and open workspaces, our modern lives provide more distractions than ever. Some of these distractions can easily be avoided, for example by muting your phone and putting it out of reach so it doesn’t alert you with new notifications all the time. Noises from your environment, however, like a busy street or talking coworkers, can’t just be turned off. And this can become a real problem for your concentration.
Luckily, we can combat this problem with a good pair of headphones and something to listen to. I prefer in-ear headphones because the earplugs themselves already do a great job at shielding out environmental noises. When you then also put on some music, you can drown out pretty much any other auditory distraction.
But music is not only helpful for removing distracting noises. It also has entertaining, motivating, relaxing, and/or uplifting effects on the psyche. Maybe you already live in a quiet environment, but you find the stillness too boring and unsettling. If that’s the case, some quiet music or ambient sound can help by making a tedious task a bit more pleasant. However, some types of music and sounds are better suited for concentration work than others. Obviously, it doesn’t make sense to block out background noises with hardcore heavy metal or some rap battle that is even more distracting.
In this post, we will take a look at some sounds and songs that I found particularly well suited for programming and other cognitive tasks. The sub-titles in this post are links to example tracks for each genre. More links are spread throughout the text. And of course you can find more examples by simply searching on YouTube.
Sounds & noises
I’ll start off this post not with music, but with different kinds of sound effects. These different sounds and noises are not as entertaining as music, but they are also less irritating. This makes them particularly useful when you need to focus very intensely.
So-called “Brownian noise” or short “Brown noise” is a form of electronic signal noise. It’s a steady, ongoing sound-effect with a very deep tone that kinda sounds like a huge waterfall.
While the human brain is very sensitive to changes in the environment and unexpected noises, it is also very efficient at filtering out everything that is consistent and unchanging. And this is the power of Brown noise: It drowns out other, more irritating environmental noises, and then it almost disappears from consciousness after a little while. What’s left is a feeling of silence, even in the middle of a noisy environment. It will let you focus even when your neighbor is operating a jackhammer in front of your window. You can make it very loud if you need to and it will still not become a distraction itself. It’s a lifesaver for me and I use it most of the time, especially when I need to focus very deeply, like when I try to read difficult source code.
Other so-called “colored” signal noises that you might have already heard of are “white noise” and “pink noise”, which are very similar to Brown noise but higher pitched and therefore less pleasant to listen to for most people. White noise sounds exactly like the “shhh” that you hear on old TVs when they are set to an unused frequency. Pink noise is a bit lower pitched and sounds like heavy, steady rain. Try them out for yourself and see which one you prefer.
If you want to know more about how these noises are generated or where their names originate from, they all have their own Wikipedia articles.
Sounds of mother nature, like calming sea waves, a flickering fire or heavy rain pelting on a window, are somewhere between signal noises and music when it comes to a balance between distraction and entertainment. They are a bit more irritating than Brown noise, but they still do a very good job at staying in the background of consciousness. They have one big advantage, however: they are incredibly relaxing. Here is a study that shows how nature sounds decrease muscle tension, pulse rate, and self-reported stress levels. This makes them especially well-suited for times when you feel stressed or agitated.
If you want some more variation and think that the sound of nature is kinda boring after a while, this website provides a great collection of customizable ambient sounds. These mixes are themed to different topics, like movies (Harry Potter, Star Wars..) or places (cafés, cities..), and they provide control sliders to change the sound effects to your preference and remove the ones that distract you.
The downside of music, in general, is that it is always at least a little bit distracting in comparison to absolute stillness or non-obtrusive sound effects. But what music does a great job at is evoking positive emotions. These positive emotions, in turn, lead to a better mood and increased motivation. In other words, music can make work more fun. Here is a study where participants finished their programming tasks faster, had better ideas and were in a happier mood while listening to music at their workplace. But this is a very fine line. If you pick tracks that are too distracting themselves, it destroys the whole point of getting a distraction-free environment.
Music with lyrics should generally be avoided because they’re too distracting unless they are very very subtle. If you switch back and forth between your train of thought and the text of the song, you’re basically multitasking. The same goes for any unexpected and disrupting changes in melody or volume and complex musical structures. Try to find tracks that are rather repetitive and have a low information load. If you have some favorite songs that you can hear over and over again without getting sick of them, prefer them over unfamiliar ones. Also, keep the volume low to minimize the level of distraction. Music doesn’t have to be loud to be enjoyable. However, it can help to listen to some pleasant, upbeat music right before you start working on a cognitive task to get a motivational boost, and then it doesn’t matter what kind of music that is or how loud you make it.
My advice is to use music sparingly and not for hours on end. I find that the positive effect on the mood wears off after a while and then it just becomes a distraction. Instead, I recommend using music only from time to time when you need some uplifting, preferably for light intellectual or repetitive tasks. I like to listen to songs when I write a blog post like this one because it’s not too demanding. But when I try to understand complex source code or read a particularly difficult article, music becomes too much of a distraction and I revert back to Brown noise.
There are lots of genres that work well as focus music. The following is not an exhaustive list and only represents my personal favorites:
Video games are not the first thing that comes to mind when we think about work and concentration. But their soundtracks are often very well suited for that.
Think about it: Video game soundtracks are designed to keep you focused. They’re usually meant as background “filler” that doesn’t distract you too much from playing the game, solving puzzles and being fully immersed into whatever is happening on the screen. They usually don’t have lyrics, they’re constant in volume, and they have a stimulating pace that keeps you motivated for hours on end. If you like gaming in general, you will find that they easily evoke strong positive emotions.
Of course, not all video game soundtracks make good concentration music. But you will find a lot of good compilations in the link above. Tracks like this one are great hybrids between video game soundtrack and natural sounds. Here is another example. Try to find similar ones.
As with most other music genres, not all jazz tracks are suited for focused work. But YouTube has a lot of mixes with calm and smooth pieces that make excellent concentration music. Some of them have a very “good morning” feel to them and are perfect to start your day off in a happy mood. Then there are mixes called “Night Jazz” which are more relaxing and perfect to get some work done at the end of the day. Just make sure you don’t get carried away by the relaxing visuals of cities and landscapes that often accompany these videos.
This is my new favorite. I would characterize this genre as a form of futuristic electronic music that sounds like it was made in the 80s. It makes me feel a bit melancholic, but in a good way, and some of these tracks also make for good concentration music. I find that the futuristic sound fits together quite well with programming tasks. It’s especially good at night with the lights turned off.
That’s it for my suggestions. Again, this is not meant to be a complete list. There are lots of other genres that make for great concentration music, like classical music, dubstep and even some types of hip-hop and heavy metal. This post just represents my personal taste and is meant to give you some new ideas on what to listen to. Also, there are great “coding mixes” on YouTube that contain tracks of different genres that all make great programming music.
Now it’s your turn. What music genres do you listen to when you’re writing code or otherwise try to focus? Let me know in the comments below!