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Why Bad Music Makes Good Work

Why Bad Music makes for Good Work

Why Bad Music makes for Good WorkIf you’re not listening to bad music when you work then you’re likely not working as well as you can.

At this point you’re one of two types of people: the ones who already tried what I’m about to tell you, so you’re all “of course” about it[note]Yepp, research backs you, like this study of music induced productivity during repetitive work.[/note], or you don’t like it and you think I’ve lost my mind. You may be right, but not in the way you think.

Humans have an amazing ability to dive deep into activities, and when we do, we become amazingly productive. You think writing 15 novels in a year while holding down a full time job is impossible? How bout just sitting down and writing, no outline, no safety net, and still producing great fiction?

Yeah, a lot of that is practice, but a lot more is mindset. So how do you get into a productive mindset?

The Trouble with Silence

I used to have a lot of trouble with finding the right focus. I used to work in silence, just the click-click-click of the keys. Except that there wasn’t very much clicking going on at all. I’d bog down before I even began.

So I read up and tried to listen to music while working. And I hated it.

The music was distracting me, causing me to follow along with it, and generally was a nuisance. To hell with being productive, obviously everyone who ever said or wrote that one should listen to music while working was a snake-oil peddler.

Except that I did listen to music, and it didn’t distract me from accomplishing things, in one situation: when I played games. Music in games helped me get into them.

The Key to Forgetting the World

Bad_Music_Makes_Good_Work2That’s when I stated looking at what I was doing wrong instead of discounting the whole thing, and I realized how silly I’d been. There was no silence for me to work in. The world didn’t stop just because I needed to write or cram. It kept going, and producing sounds all around me, except that I’d come to habituate to those sounds. I wasn’t conscious of them anymore.

I was listening to the world, but I was forgetting it, the same way I was listening to game music and forgetting it. And still, the game music influenced me, just as the world noise influenced me. So I started looking for ways to incorporate sound in my regular work schedule.

It took some doing, but when I was finished I’d come up with a set of soundtracks (I almost exclusively listen to music soundtracks when working) that could put me in almost any kind of mood that I needed, and make me productive to boot. It’s not difficult, and training yourself to habituate to it isn’t either, but you need to spend some time outside of your comfort zone.

Here’s a favorite of mine: the soundtrack from the Shadowrun video game trilogy, which I’m listening to right now.

Finding Your Tune

I’m guessing that you’ve already got a set of favorite tunes. Maybe it’s country. Maybe it’s speed metal. Maybe it’s birds tweeting and the sounds of nature. It doesn’t matter. Unless it’s working to add to your productivity I want you to put it aside for a moment.

I want you to experiment with music, with what might make you fired up. The goal here isn’t to listen to pleasurable noise, it’s to get going and become more effective. And you never know if you’ve reached your maximum efficiency unless you’ve tried, at least once, to shake things up.

For me, the search began with marches. And marches are great for getting me into a big ego thinking mood. If I need to cry or become angry, I go listen to military marches.

They were crap for productivity though. They’d crowd my senses, demand attention and make me so emotional that I would need to move. If I ever need to get fired up over walking long distances, I’ll definitely get back to marching bands.

But not for writing or designing. For writing I needed something else.

Why Diffusion Works

I was on the right track with the emotion part. The marches did get me fired up, but they went the wrong way. So I did a little experimenting. And I came up with the fact that I needed music that I didn’t understand in order to focus the best[note]One of the worst thing you can do is listen to speech, according to the Cambridge Sound Masking Studies[/note].

It didn’t really matter if there were lyrics or not: as long as I didn’t understand what the people were singing, and it was clear to me that I didn’t understand it, I could work through it.

That’s why I started listening to soundtracks from games (no lyrics) and Bollywood movies:

Sorry, couldn’t help it. I just love Lagaan[note]If you ever thought “oh, wouldn’t this be a nice time to watch cricket in 19th century India, cup-of-tea, cup-of-tea” then Lagaan is the movie for you. Hell, if you’ve never watched a sports movie in the world, Lagaan is the movie for you. Just watch it. It’s crazy amazing.[/note].

The Virtues of Mediocre Music

OK, back on topic: as I was doing the research for this article I realized that I was wrong. Not in actions but in the reasons: turns out that as long as you have no strong feelings about what you’re listening to, it will enhance your focus.

What the marches were doing was filling me with strong emotions, which made me care more about what I was listening to than what I was doing. But what the soundtracks do is heighten my mood and focus without distracting me because to me, they’re middle ground, muzak, a bit OK, a bit bleh, but nothing I have any strong feelings about[note]And it shows, when I started really liking certain tracks I had to remove them from the playlist or they’d pull me away from what I was doing.[/note].

So if you’re one of those who haven’t tried to use ambient noise to boost your focus and creativity, do so now. Check out a bunch of soundtracks (or just use Youtube’s self-generating list feature) or other music you haven’t tried before and have no strong emotions about.

Let us know what you’re listening to and how it works for you in the comments!

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  • Great article, I’ve never actually put much thought into how music really effects my productivity, I always imagined that the stronger you felt about a song or track, then the better off you’d be.

    Now, I had known for awhile I couldn’t write to anything with lyrics I understood.
    So I’ll check out Bollywood music, but the closest I’ve come to listening to it has been “Chaya Chaya” which I first heard watching the movie Inside Man.

    Currently I’ve been listening to the Witcher 3 soundtrack while writing my fantasy novel, but I’ve been wondering if it is effecting me negatively, or if I just don’t to listen to it because I have gotten used to it so much. Maybe I should stick with it if its no longer doing it for me?

    Thanks again for great piece!

    • Filip Wiltgren

      Glad you liked it. I’ve been listening to the Witcher 3 soundtrack as well, but there are some parts that yank me out of the flow, and I have no idea why.

  • Deaymon

    It seems an interesting idea. :0
    As soon as I had began to listen to that Shadowrun OST I felt like I had to work on something. Strange…
    I’ll give Youtube’s randomizer a try (after avoiding it like forever, hehe).

    • Filip Wiltgren

      Yeah, finding the right soundtrack can boost your energy levels quite a lot. If you’re going to experiment, try “coffee shop noise” – background as in a restaurant/cafe. Personally I don’t like it (I find it distracting) but some people swear by

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