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SXSW: The impact of music

April 1, 2007
The Mother Truckers Logo: The long-horn salute with a cowboy hat perched on the index finger

Two of my favourite moments of SXSW this year both involved music.

The first was a night that started out and ended fairly innocently, but involved a great non-6th Street event. I was very excited to see some of my Australian friends again (Lachlan, Lisa, Lisa, Cam, and Anson—who would later be mistaken for James Craig—and his girlfriend Irena), and somehow they convinced me that we should go see The Mother Truckers at The Continental Club. Sure, some whatever band. Yeah, yeah. Just go hang out with my friends really.

The show turned out to be one of my personal highlights of SXSW. There is nothing quite like live music and this band really poured everything they had into it. Everything. The Mother Truckers videos on YouTube do not convey nearly the right amount of passion and verve. They were nothing short of brilliant. I even bought a t-shirt to commemorate the evening. Too bad it is with my luggage that is somewhere between Washington, DC and Ottawa.

The second moment involving music was in the highly anticipated (at least for me): The Influence of Art on Design. I found the whole panel to be interesting, to be honest, because Art is not something in which I have a background or have studied. The most interesting part to me was the discussion surrounding music as it relates to designing. Almost everyone on the panel was what I consider to be primarily a creative. I’m not saying they don’t code, but design is definitely their strength (hence the appropriate title for the panel).

Here is where I found it got really interesting. They almost all discussed music and how it influences their design work: choosing the right tunes/mix to evoke emotions that fit with the tone of the piece in which they were immersing themselves. My friend Anton Peck said that he listens to trance type music without words. The lyrics, he said, would serve as a distraction, and not necessarily be appropriate to whatever it was he was creating. Brilliantly simple. Blindingly obvious.

All of the panelists that discussed music were speaking as designers and choosing the appropriate music for that task. While I’m not a visual designer, this got me to thinking about what might be appropriate for other tasks. So, with that:

What music might be appropriate for:

  • coding?
  • marketing/business-growth type activities?
  • writing?
  • for correspondence/emails?

I’m really curious to know if other people out there have specific types of music they listen to when they take on specific types of tasks. Not too long ago I was able to accomplish a lot of coding while listening to Thom Yorke’s Eraser. Coincidence? Maybe. Anyone have anything to share about music for specific tasks?

18 Responses

Comment by Gary Barber — Apr 01 2007 @ 11:56 pm

When I first read of this panel, I thought. But what’s new about that!

You know I have been listening to music a mood influencer for over a decade now. And just considered it not that unusual, I thought everyone did it (to some degree). As I where a designer and coder hate I listen to different music to enhance the mood for different things.

With anything that has words in it, reports, correspondence etc I use mellow instrumental for classics, low funky jazz to slow chillin trance. No lyrics, they too distract me. African (and any that matter) Chants work well for general marketing activities.

Coding, this is intense, high energy, brain very active, high energy trance, later classical music, the thumping stuff (sorry can’t recall what its called), anything with a high energy beat basically. Again No lyrics, they distract and alter the focus.

Design and general front end coding (not Javascript). Anything with lyrics, I want to capture the images and the imagination. To the point that I just can’t create with out some type of music. For me music is not an option of the creative process.

Now if I hit a wall or a bug and major problem, I have discover that changing the music immediately to something calming allows me to focus on the task at hand.

Comment by Lachlan Hardy — Apr 02 2007 @ 12:24 am

That was a great night and a great concert! I still remember you sitting behind me in the cab asking, “where *are* we going?” as we headed away from downtown and over the bridge

Lisa H and I had seen them the night before and we just wanted to share the love with everybody!

For me, music is such a fundamental part of my life, that I have real issues without it. I’m not in any way a muso, I’ve spent my life trying (and failing) at various instruments, but I must have music present

Creativity flows for me from the music I listen to, and I use it to control my mood and tempo of production. My Pandora stations give a pretty good indication of my uses

When I need to crank out a project or some tasks, I turn up the Angry Young Men to amp the adrenalin, but normally I’m more into the Melancholy Cowboys for an emotional connection to my work. When I’m just kicking it, having a great day and rolling along with whatever, then I’m all about the Old Skool OGs

I listen to music from many other sources for other different things, but I think those are the ones I associate with work the most. Not with specific tasks, per se, but with the way I need to relate to that work emotionally

Comment by pauldwaite — Apr 02 2007 @ 2:19 am

Aphex Twin for coding. Jazz for coding when stressed.

Comment by Matthew Pennell — Apr 02 2007 @ 4:10 am

I tend to go for anything fast and loud when coding, although that can cover hard dance through to thrash metal.

Music tends to put me off if I’m trying to understand something I’m reading (or write something coherent) – with a classical music education, I pay too much attention to music for it to be entirely background noise.

Comment by feather — Apr 02 2007 @ 8:13 am

I agree – music is a big mood influencer, and always has been for me. I’m really interested in seeing what else people listen to. Anyone listen to mashups, for example, when they are getting creative? when they are coding a mashup?

I suspect each person is influenced by music in a different way but wonder if any patterns will emerge?

I was actually quite shocked when listening to Thom Yorke resulted in a really productive morning.

Comment by Jonathan Snook — Apr 02 2007 @ 8:21 am

When it comes to coding, drum’n’bass does it for me although I need something a smidge slower to get into the rhythm. If I had the time, I’d compile a coding session mix that started and stopped with the right pace. Most raves have this type of timing where they speed up and slow down at various points.

Comment by Anton — Apr 02 2007 @ 9:46 am

Although Massive Attack was mentioned during the panel as a group that I like (proving that I do have exceptions to my comment, since they do have lyrics), I thought it worth listing a few of the other creative groups I listen to:
Blue Stone
Goldfrapp (you might recognize the song Strict Machine from the LG Chocolate phone commercials, if they played outside the US)

Thanks for coming to the panel, Derek!

Comment by ralph — Apr 02 2007 @ 11:09 am

When I really have to focus on meaning, I have to avoid music. Even instrumental music impinges on my consciousness. But when I’m coding, often something loud and fast like Husker Du or Mission of Burma where I know the words by heart anyway and so don’t have to concentrate on them does wonders (I think once I listen to music that much and know it that well, I hear the words with a different, less intrusive part of my brain). Design tends to work better with a slightly mellower soundtrack, sometimes modern classical like Steve Reich or John Adams, or sometimes techno type music, something with a pulse. Surf music is another possibility. I also find music in languages I don’t understand to be helpful. That could be a very wide range, from German pop/rock like Wir sind Helden to Ukrainian thrash-folk like Haydamaky, Finnish folk like Värttina, or Congolese dance music by Franco or Tabu Ley Rochereau.

Comment by Nathanael — Apr 02 2007 @ 6:48 pm

As a general rule I can’t listen to anything with lyrics when I’m writing English (as opposed to Code) documents that require thinking – it just distracts me.

However Massive Attack is fairly light on in the lyrics department so that’s usually ok. Electronica is usually best suited for this – maybe some drum n bass if it’s not too intense.

As for coding – anything goes. Any lyrics are in English (well usually) and I’m coding in ASP, PHP, HTML, JS … whatever, so they don’t clash in my head.

Also have to take into consideration tendencies to break out into a massive air bass guitar solo or drum fill which besides taking you away from keyboard can also distract any co-workers. But it’s good for a bit of an adrenalin hit :-)

Comment by Nathanael — Apr 02 2007 @ 6:52 pm

Most of the stuff that makes it onto my Recently Played (which I started last week) is what I listen to at work. Some in the car on way to or from, but mostly at work. At home I usually listen to CDs so don’t get … scrobbled:

Faithless, Muse, Tool, Paul Mac (our one, not the UK DJ), De La Soul, Beautiful Girls, Lemon Jelly, Moloko, Groove Armada …

Comment by Ben Buchanan — Apr 02 2007 @ 10:58 pm

Well I’m already on record saying that punk rock and coffee make code work better ;)

I find I like loud/hard/stompy music for serious coding; slower stuff for bashing out emails/doco; and for high-end writing I might have to have quiet/silence. When I was a copywriter I found I needed a quiet environment… I’ve never been sure just how big a factor that was in my decision to follow the code path ;)

Friends consider my taste to be ecclectic… I like a bit of just about everything. I really like industrial and trance, though.

I do use music as a mood influence… hard stuff to get motivated, chilled to de-stress and so on. Random playlist when I’ve no real idea…. ;)

One thing I’ve got to say though… all workplaces should have a strict headphones rule. The *worst* thing is being subjected to someone else’s music, or worse still commercial radio with blathering adverts. Even if your coworkers share the same taste in music you may not be in the same mood.

Comment by Lori — Apr 03 2007 @ 3:16 pm

I agree with others who’ve said that when they’re writing words/English, music is a distraction. (Exception: It doesn’t usually bother me when I’m blogging.) I turn off my iPod when I’m trying to come up with presentation slides or writing a Wiki page for a new feature.

When I’m coding, however, music can totally fuel me. I created a CD back in 2001 called “Moody” that I’ve been tweaking ever since (easier to do now that I have iTunes; I’m now on Moody V) and discovered right away that I could code to it for hours. It started as a mix of Radiohead, Moby, and Bob Mould, and it now includes tracks from Soul Coughing, Portishead, Zero 7, and Madonna as well, among others. The only limit to how many times I could listen to it on loop was imposed by my headphones, which eventually made my ears ache. Now that I work remotely and have no cubicle-mates to annoy, I can listen without headphones — but there’s still the interruption of phone meetings…

Comment by feather — Apr 03 2007 @ 7:17 pm

Wow, thanks, everyone. There are some great recommendations in there. Yes, I officially feel out of touch with what is happening in the music world, despite my ever-growing collection of music.

I’m pretty keen on Massive Attack from the clips I listened to on, so definitely thanks for that one…

Comment by Gavin Jacobi — Apr 04 2007 @ 2:39 am

I have found that there is a real difference in mood between headphones and loudspeakers. I can play Front Line Assembly (electronic/industrial, the heavier end of what I listen to) while coding — but only if I use headphones. If I play it through loudspeakers it is very distracting.

If anyone hasn’t discovered inner-ear headphones they are a godsend! They take a while to get used to but once you do you won’t go back. Also good for plane flights, bus trips, etc. The better brands (Etymotic, Sure, etc) are dearer but give much better fidelity.

Comment by pixeldiva — Apr 04 2007 @ 7:43 am

I actually find that I have difficulty working if I can’t listen to music, and when working, I prefer listening via headphones (big, comfy, over the ear ones – maybe it’s become a comfort thing, I don’t know).

Usually when I’m coding it has to be loud and fast, and I usually head in the direction of heavy metal for my fix. Three of my last four major redesigns were born while listening to (for reasons entirely passing understanding) Linkin Park (first album followed by second album, then repeat). There are lyrics there, but I don’t usually find lyrics a problem when it’s this kind of music. Somehow, the sound as a whole takes over and acts as a kind of filter for the outside world. It’s not the first time that I’ve suddenly realised that I’ve been sitting working for six or more hours straight without realising the time is passing (or being annoyed at hearing the same thing over and over).

If I’m at work, sometimes, the only thing that gets me through the day is loud angry music – especially if I’m on a deadline. My go to for that is usually Ministry’s album Rantology.

Then again, a while back I asked for music recommendations from twitterers and had Armin van Buuren’s 76 on heavy rotation.

Lately, I’ve been on a bit of a folk kick and today belongs to a bonkers band called Bellowhead and their album Burlesque, which is kind of folky but kind of not and well, it just makes me want to dance.

Comment by The Mother Truckers — Apr 05 2007 @ 7:44 am

Thanks for the kind words and we are glad you enjoyed the show!

Hope to see you in Austin again or somewhere else down the road.


Comment by dw — Apr 05 2007 @ 11:02 am

I like to listen to KEXP while I work (full disclosure: I’m a regular financial contributor), but I have trouble listening to the station while I’m in a big code/design project. It’s not that the music or lyrics themselves are distracting, it’s that I will hear a song and think “Who is this band and where I can get more,” and it’s off looking for that, which may spring to mind something else that I look up in Wikipedia, which means I’ll look at ten articles there, which will eventually get me back to my Amazon wishlist and hey, look at that book for sale on my wishlist… and then it’s 20 minutes later.

IOW, I can’t listen to music that new to me and distracts me into looking for more like it while I’m trying to find the groove.

In fact, I sometimes find it easier to listen to stuff that I’m really neutral about when I code. That is, music that I don’t especially love but at the same time can stand to listen to for long stretches. Ambient, for instance. Or that sort of Euro-dance stuff on Radio 1. Classical usually works best for me, though.

This last project I listened to classical music mainly, with some bluegrass mixed in. I also listened to Dustin O’Halloran, but I’ve been fighting a depression of late, and he’s probably not the right sort of solo piano guy to listen to while depressed.

All that said, I generally avoid country (by that I mean alt-country) for code/design for precisely the reason Anton gave — it’s a lyric-driven genre. Uncle Tupelo is the lone exception. March 16-20, 1992 got me through my first dotcom job back in the day.

Comment by GRAHAM — Apr 20 2007 @ 7:19 am

derek, as you well know, i don’t code, so that thrusts me most definately under the “creative” category. i HAVE to listen to music of some sort when creating things. whatever it is. i’m with anton in the view about elctronic music. i listen to loads of stuff, but i find fairly fast monotonous techno type stuff works well for me. its upbeat, and rarely has words, and can sort of settle in a part of my head that not only allows “the flow”, but sort of helps move it along i think. uhh, ya, so that’s my 2 cents worth. oh and for what its worth dj mixes on, and aren’t a bad place to start. GT